Why is Georgia known for its peaches? While simple on the surface, this turns out to be a complicated question. Peaches are not native to Georgia. Most commercial orchards are located within a few counties and account for a very small fraction of the state’s agricultural production. Nor is Georgia the leading peach-producing state in the nation or the South: those distinctions belong to California and South Carolina, respectively. In exploring why Georgia became synonymous with peaches, William Thomas Okie uncovers a complex history that intersects race, environment, labor, marketing, and myth. Okie traces the story of how peaches were transformed from wild fruits that provided refreshment for slaves and their owners to an industrial product. The shift started with the agricultural promotion of the New South in the era following Reconstruction. Georgians were desperate to remake their region and attract northern capital. As Okie states, the story of the peach in Georgia is “a story about the power of environmental beauty” (p. 7). Rather than the negative image of antebellum cotton plantations, boosters conjured a new romantic image of peach plantations full of beautiful trees laden with rosy-cheeked peaches. While factories and cotton were important for the New South, peaches allowed Georgian promoters to differentiate themselves from other states and provided a vehicle for reimagining the region’s past. Boosters embraced the history of the fruit and told a story of the peach tree immigrating to a new and prosperous land where it flourished unlike anywhere else. But the flourishing of Georgia peaches was anything but natural. Peaches required intensive labor, outside capital, sophisticated marketing and transportation schemes, pesticides, and scientifically engineered rootstock. Even with all of the human manipulations, nature still intervened. Trees succumbed to pests, frosts, and diseases. Increasingly, larger scale growers with access to experts in horticulture and marketing came to dominate not only the market but also local politics through the creation of a new county. Unlike other books on agricultural commodities, one of Okie’s great strengths is his focus on the stories of the people who made the peach industry possible. Each chapter features key figures who shaped the industry, such as Prosper Berckmans, a Belgian immigrant who brought his deep horticultural knowledge to the region, and Samuel Rumph who discovered the Elberta variety. The strong narrative thread supports Okie’s argument that we cannot understand agriculture without understanding the cultural context in which it developed. Also striking are the connections Okie makes between labor, race, and environment. Because of the availability of cheap labor and the need to keep black labor in its place, the calculus of industrial efficiency was different for the Georgia peach than for other agricultural products. Rather than mechanizing processes like pest control, growers chose to use manual labor as a means of control. Blacks and whites viewed the peach industry through a different lens. For white growers, peaches represented the possibility of profits and progress. Black workers, excluded from the peach-growing class, embraced ham and eggs as a symbol of the need for practical education, employment, and sustenance. As the son of a Georgia peach breeder, Okie grew up around orchards and is open about his biases. While Okie clearly loves peaches and his home state, he delves into the region’s complicated history and does not shy away from difficult topics. His intimate knowledge of the region contributes to his fine scholarship. Ultimately, the industry declined as a result of disease and changes in the labor supply. Peach growers relied on tenant cotton farmers for seasonal labor until the mechanization of cotton production forced tenants off the land. At the same time, the civil rights movement brought political voice to black workers who pushed back against the hegemony of white growers. Despite changes, many of the underlying cultural problems remain to this day. Labor is still racialized, and growers still attempt to exercise political power. Okie shows how the history of the peach industry continues to impact people and the environment. A simple ripe, juicy peach is a thing of beauty, but it is also a representation of racial suppression, questionable labor practices, scientific manipulation, and clever marketing. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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