- The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South by William Thomas Okie
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We could have had the Georgia pear. If Prosper Berckmans, the European immigrant who operated the Fruitland Nursery near Augusta, Georgia, had gotten his way, the “soft, melting, buttery” (37) pear of Berckmans’ native Belgium might have become Georgia’s state fruit. According to William Thomas Okie, in the decades that followed the Civil War, Berckmans and his father Louis bred the fruit and developed orchards with great care. But, despite the Berckmans’ efforts, the southern pear did not catch on. The peach, on the other hand, thrived in the southern environment, needed less attention than the demanding pear, and complemented the cultivation of the Deep South’s main crop—cotton. As a result, the peach—and not the pear—came to feed Georgian appetites, markets, and myths.
In The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South, Okie provides a history of how the peach became important to the state as both an agricultural export and a cultural idea. In telling the story of the Georgia peach, Okie brings to life the people who developed, grew, and harvested the fruit; the environmental factors that encouraged its cultivation; and the myths that developed around the produce. He follows the story of the Georgia peach from the mid-nineteenth century, when the Berckmans began experimenting with produce in the state, to the twenty-first century as modern growers searched for new sources of labor to harvest the delicate fruit.
Okie’s history is comprehensive and compelling in the way he describes how the state’s people and environment conspired to create the Georgia peach and how that creation resulted in a multi-million-dollar industry within the evolving structures of southern agriculture and a multi-billion-dollar legend that spawned license plates, country-western songs, southern rock albums, and sports nicknames. It is the myth surrounding the Georgia peach that seems to animate Okie’s research. His introduction informs us, for example, that peaches composed less than two-fifths of a percent of the state’s agricultural production in 2014—significantly less than chickens, pecans, or blueberries—and yet there are no license plates celebrating the Georgia blueberry. [End Page 75]
Georgia “clung to” the peach, Okie writes with pun intended, as the result of horticultural science, rural development, white landowners, black farmers, and southern boosters, among other factors. Okie tells this story in seven chapters plus an introduction and a conclusion. In chapters one and two, he describes the European origins of the peach from the wild varieties brought to the region by Spanish conquistadors to the carefully selected grafts cultivated by the Berckmans and their fellow horticulturalists who helped to popularize southern fruit cultivation.
Chapter three describes the industry’s most important advancement when Samuel Rumph developed the Elberta variety that came to define the Georgia peach. Both Rumph and the Elberta were native to the state. According to Okie, Rumph was the rural counterpart to Atlanta Constitution editor and southern booster Henry Grady in his advocacy for investment in and development of the southern economy. Rumph envisioned a diversified economy in which fruit horticulture played a prominent role. Much of the infrastructure and festival that contributed to the rise of the Georgia peach came into being under Rumph’s stewardship, including a marketing system that exported southern peaches to New York, Philadelphia, and other northern markets. Harvesting and marketing the Georgia peach relied on many of the same systems and institutions, such as share-cropping and railroads, that drove southern agriculture generally in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Okie describes these factors in chapters four and five, along with discussing the local and state organizational endeavors to protect the industry from outside competition, market fluctuations, and damaging pests.
Although white growers profited from the peach industry, Okie emphasizes that black laborers made these profits possible. Peach growers did not...