Georgia decided that the peach would be its official state fruit in 1995, but the trajectory to that decision was a long and arduous one.
According to Today in Georgia History, Franciscan monks brought the fruit to St. Simons and Cumberland island in the 16th century, though historian William Thomas Okie places the introduction of the fruit in the 17th century, when Europeans brought them over from Asia.
In the mid 1800s, horticulturalists tried to grow the peach as an orchard crop. Raphael Moses of Columbus was one early success story of the peach industry, and is considered to be the first to sell his fruits outside the South.
In 1856, Louis and Prosper Berckmans, a Belgian father and son duo, bought what would become Fruitland, a plot of orchard land in Augusta, Ga. By the end of the Civil War, with the abolishment of slavery, new labor was suddenly available. Farmers were also looking to diversify their crops, as nonstop cotton-growing had harmed the soil. By the 1880s, the Berckmans were sending 25,000 catalogs of their Fruitland products to horticulturalists in and outside of the United States. The fruit industry had permanently settled in Georgia.
While cotton was still huge for Georgia’s economy, by the late 19th century, peaches were being marketed as a particularly southern industry. The famous Elberta Peach was established around this time as a Georgian fruit.
The peach farmers viewed their craft as a progressive, post-Civil War endeavor. The South was trying to get away from its past and rebuild its industries, and peaches carried none of the baggage that cotton did. Despite this reach toward progress, the peach was intensely racialized: where before Black slaves had been able to pick peaches off the branches of trees for free, white farmers could now set their prices at ridiculously high levels, making it difficult for Black laborers to be able to afford the very fruit they were tasked with growing. In addition, Black laborers were rarely given credit for their critical roles in the success of the peach industry: Okie writes in his book The Georgia Peach that Black southerners involved in the Georgia Peach Carnival were only mentioned as members of the “Watermelon Brigade.”
By 1928, with the introduction of refrigerated boxcars, Georgia was sending out 8 million bushels of peaches a year. Nowadays, though, the state produces only about 2.8 million bushels a year, according to Today in Georgia History.
Despite the fact that Georgia is not the world’s or even the country’s biggest peach producer – that national title goes to California – we hold on to the nickname as a reminder of the idealism of the New South.
Check out these sources for more on the complex history of the Georgia peach:
NPR’s article on Okie and the history of the peach