Jul 10, 2024
Pearson Farm’s six generations find orchard happiness 

Run by fifth- and sixth- generation family members, Pearson Farms planted its first peach trees in 1885. Pecan trees were added in the 1930s.

Lanier and Lawton Pearson. Because peaches are difficult to mechanize, Lawton Pearson believes peaches will be one of the last fruits to be harvested by machine.
Lanier and Lawton Pearson. Photos courtesy Pearson Farm.

Lawton Pearson, the fifth generation owner of Pearson Farm in the Fort Valley, Georgia, peach and pecan growing belt, loves walking inside any fruit orchard.

For Pearson, there is no better place he would like to be than in the middle of an orchard.

“To me, it’s awe-inspiring,” he said. “When you see a loaded orchard of fruit, and it’s not just loaded with fruit when you pick it; it’s all year. To see those trees and what God has given us, the complexity of it, and yet the simplicity of it — trees planted in rows, square formed, pruned by hand. They’re like little pieces of art, every one of them. You see order, not chaos. You get out in an orchard, any orchard, and you’re away from all of it. It gives you a special feeling to be in and live in an orchard. It’s something you don’t get out of a bean or corn field.”

While technology has altered peach shipping and handling, particularly in the packinghouse, the manual thinning, pruning and picking hasn’t changed much since the 19th century, Pearson said. 

As peaches are difficult to mechanize, Pearson believes they will be one of the last fruits to be harvested by machine.

Mechanization challenge

Peach harvesting can become more mechanized than is today, but Pearson believes picking peaches with machines will require much machine learning and will be unable to detect what the human eye can see because individual peaches vary and are in large numbers. 

While technology has changed in the packinghouse, thinning, pruning and picking hasn’t changed much since the 1800s when Pearson Farm’s peaches were first planted.
While technology has changed in the packinghouse, thinning, pruning and picking hasn’t changed much since the 1800s when Pearson Farm’s peaches were first planted.

Pearson believes the industry erred by breeding mostly red peaches, which makes it difficult for tech and humans to detect peach ripeness.

Drones’ aerial views aid scouting and aid tree counts and density, but don’t save much labor, he said. Though Pearson believes drone tech is the future of peach orchard tech, he doesn’t see how drone spraying capacities can adequately cover peach groves. 

“I’m not sure what the future is in (drone) spraying, but for scouting, it’s useful and gives me perspective,” Pearson said. “Tech that can map your orchard to try to give you yield projections, based on a drone flying up and down, is awesome, but peaches are so unpredictable. There’s a lot of data that is not actionable and is kind of worthless.”

Owners of Pearson Farms
Because peaches are difficult to mechanize, Lawton Pearson believes peaches will be one of the last fruits to be harvested by machine.

Trying to shape peach mapping and projections into a science to more accurately predict harvest start dates, Pearson last year tracked factors including variety bloom and degree dates, temperatures, heat accumulation and post-bloom. He compared the information to his 20 years of manual data. 

With all the calculations and numbers, Pearson missed projecting the harvest date by five days. 

As peaches are highly variable in performance, growers do much by the “seat of their pants” in predicting and modeling, with a lot based on what happened the last year or year before, Pearson said.

 

Pearson Farm traces its roots to 1835.
Pearson Farm traces its roots to 1835.

Freeze factor

One out of 10 years, Georgia experiences a killing freeze, like one that happened in 2023. Luckily, 2024 did not produce any disastrous events. 

On average, a freeze strikes in the last two weeks of March, with the last frost typically hitting a week after the full bloom date, which is usually in late March or early April.  

“Throw a variable of a freeze or one night at 28º F into the mix of science and it kills some peaches,” Pearson said. “You can basically put an asterisk beside everything that happens after that freeze.”

Because peaches are difficult to mechanize, Lawton Pearson believes peaches will be one of the last fruits to be harvested by machine.
Because peaches are difficult to mechanize, Lawton Pearson believes peaches will be one of the last fruits to be harvested by machine.

Pearson has been using wind machines for a decade. The tech can provide an additional two to six degrees warmth, critical for saving fruit during cold evenings.

 

Pearson Farms grows 40 varieties of peaches, and the lineup often changes. The Prince-named varieties lead the pack, including the Ruby Prince, though there are some others that Pearson said perform well.

Breeding, crossing and variety selection are conducted at USDA’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory 15 miles from Pearson’s groves. “It’s constant renovation of genetic material, which makes them better, bigger and with more disease resistance,” Pearson said.

While improved herbicides have helped growers better control thracknose, brown rot and bacterial spot are major diseases threatening peaches. Omitting spraying can produce rots that can ruin crops. Bacterial spot is in abundance. O’Henry, one of the oldest varieties, is a great variety but is highly susceptible to bacterial spot. 

Disease, pests battles

In the off-season, oil sprays can control scale, considered a peach tree’s biggest nemesis, and researchers are working on mating disruption solutions.

Major pests include plum curculio, oriental fruit moth, stink bugs and borers. With plum curculio, worms burrow and aren’t susceptible to mating disruption. Mating disruption helps, however, with the peachtree borer, lesser peachtree borer and oriental fruit moths. Lawton Pearson quote about Pearson Farms

Only chemically controlled, stink bugs aren’t always a big issue. However, when conditions are right, they can become troublesome, Pearson said.

Growers can only discourage insects from entering orchards. During dry favorable conditions, insects enter seeking moisture. When there’s abundant moisture, insects are satisfied being somewhere else in the woods, Pearson said. 

By Doug Ohlemeier, Assistant Editor 




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