Apr 6, 2018Marketing, weather, rootstock improve for Georgia peach growers
Georgia growers are planting peach trees — a sign that the industry is headed toward better times.
The last two years have been difficult, with warm winters decreasing the likelihood of fruit set in the orchards, even before the growing season started.
“It’s hard to limp into a season,” said Lawton Pearson, a fifth-generation grower in Georgia’s Fort Valley. Pearson Farm, which he operates with his father Al, includes 1,500 acres of peaches and 3,000 acres of pecans. Although a pecan orchard needs 10-15 years of growth before it’s profitable, they provide a natural balance to the peach crop, require less labor, and aren’t affected by the same diseases, and are generally less risky.
This year, not only is the winter looking reasonably cold, the growers say they have an improved marketing strategy to grow sales, and a new rootstock that could solve problems with orchard replant disease.
All of these developments are good news for a younger generation of growers, like Pearson, who are determined to keep the family farm running for generations yet to come.
“Just like people, the trees need to sleep,” said Pearson.
The average number of chill hours for his farm in central Georgia is about 1,100, and the varieties they have planted need a minimum of about 600-900 chill hours in order for the fruit to set. On Feb. 8, Lawton Pearson said the trees were sitting pretty, with 950 chill hours so far and likely a few more to come.
“This year, everybody, including the trees, are happy.”
Peach rootstocks have been another sore spot for the industry. Peach growers like the Pearsons don’t have the same options as apple orchardists.
“Peaches are kind of lagging behind in terms or our ability to dwarf the tree,” Pearson said.
Peach trees are also susceptible to root-rot nematodes, armillaria fungus and short life orchard replant disease. Peach trees live only about 12 years, and losing an orchard after just eight or nine years makes the enterprise unprofitable, he said.
Guardian rootstock is resistant to short life orchard replant disease, but root-rot nematodes remain an issue. An experimental USDA rootstock, a plum-peach hybrid called MP-29, promises higher resistance to nematodes, and Pearson said its currently being used in trials.
Another encouragement to Georgia growers is a new marketing strategy of peaches.
“For us to survive, we can’t just grow it,” Pearson said. “We have to sell it.”
Lawton’s cousin, Will McGehee, is a partner in Genuine Georgia, a brand marketing the peaches and pecans as premium products rather than simple commodities.
“If I had all the money in the world, I couldn’t hire somebody to sell peaches like Will,” Pearson said. “He’s family; he’s invested in it. Peaches ooze from his pores.”
McGehee came back to the family farm in 2008 and over the next three or four seasons formed the Genuine Georgia group with other peach growers. Genuine Georgia now represents all five of Georgia’s commercial grower-shippers: Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Dickey Farms in Musella, Fitzgerald Fruit Farm in Woodbury, and the recently merged operations of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley and Taylor Orchards in Reynolds.
The commercial grower-shippers are a very tight-knit group. “It wouldn’t be much fun doing this by yourself,” Pearson said.
It’s even less competitive now that the five farms share a marketing and sales agency. McGehee – who received the annual “Mr. Peach” award at the Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference – said that they’ve been successful in raising prices and increasing demand for their product.
“We formed Genuine Georgia as basically for our families, to represent us on the market together, rather than each farm by themselves,” McGehee said. “There’s a lot of young trees being planted, which is probably the biggest complement a marketing group can be paid.”
The next generation
Because of peach trees’ short lifespan, there’s a danger in not planting peaches, but putting a crop in the ground is a sign of faith that the farm can continue. Both of the cousins seem committed to that vision – both returned to Pearson Farm after exploring other jobs. Lawton trained as a lawyer, and McGehee did marketing work for a California vineyard, where he learned some of the strategies that he’s now using at Genuine Georgia.
Now Pearson, 40, and McGehee, 42, are committed to continuing the farming tradition their great-great-grandfather Moses Winlock started in 1885.
“I always knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Pearson said. “I realize how fortunate I am to have this opportunity because it’s nothing I could have started. Will and I take it as a responsibility.”
Above: Lawton Pearson, left, and his father Al own and operate Pearson Farm, which has been in the family since 1885. Photo: Pearson Farm