Feb 18, 2020Two generations of Georgia’s Dickey Farms honored by peers
Way off the interstate in central Georgia’s Musella lies a historic family farm, a fruit packing facility and agritourism operation that this year received respect from growers across the state.
Dickey Farms is best known for its peaches, which have been grown in the same area for more than 120 years and five generations. It also grows pecans and strawberries and lays claim to the title of Georgia’s oldest continuously-operating peach packinghouse, which was built in with rough-hewn timbers in 1936. It was built in downtown Musella, to be close to the railroad tracks.
He’s in his nineties, but today Robert Lee Dickey II – call him “Mr. Bob” – still comes to out the farm every day with a list of tasks for everyone to do. Robert Lee Dickey III – call him Robert – is a Georgia state legislator in addition to running much of the farm’s operations with his brother Stan and son. Robert Lee Dicky IV – call him Lee – recently returned to the family farm from Atlanta.
The farm’s commercial and retail operations have been honored by growers across the state in recent months.
Lee recently received the 2020 Mr. Peach award at a breakfast at the SE Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference.
He earned an accounting degree and was a vice president at an equity firm before coming back to work at Dickey Farms, said Will McGehee, a sales manager at Genuine Georgia marketing group that markets most of the farms’ peaches and pecans.
“He left a lucrative job in the finance world and he is continuing a pretty deep legacy at Dickey Farms,” McGehee said. “I know a lot of you with kids are looking at longevity from your farm. That’s something you pray for every day, is how is this going to sustain? And when one of your kids comes back and decides to take the reins, it’s a special moment.”
Lee said Robert always encouraged him to go to college and work elsewhere.
“He wanted me to get an education, which of course I was planning on doing anyway, you know, going to college, but he really wanted me to … work for somebody else, and I’m really glad I did it, it gave me a different perspective and a different skill set (than) if I just would have come back right away.”
Peach prices have also stabilized since he graduated from college.
“Peaches, when I had graduated college, had some real headwinds in terms of prices and just some difficult years, and he just wanted to make sure if it didn’t go well, that I would have a different career, or if I did come back eventually I’d have something else to fall back on,” Lee said. Consumers and grocery chains are demanding more local produce. “I think some things have improved and I think the timing was right in terms of my life and I think the trajectory of the business.”
Lee has quite a variety of responsibilities on the farm, but part of it is managing a storefront market in Musella that sells fresh strawberries, peaches, homemade ice cream and a variety of value-added products.
The storefront attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year through social media, its website, and advertising. Staff also lead tours of the packing facility.
“We’ve embraced Lee as a breath of fresh air in the industry. He has come back not only with a passion for peaches and his family legacy but also our industry. He’s bringing a spark back into the agritourism business,” McGehee said.
Robert was recently named the 2019 Georgia Grower of the Year by the Sunbelt Ag Expo.
The Expo credited Robert with the profitable idea of offering packing services to neighboring farmers, a decision that not only met their needs but utilized in a maximum way their packinghouse facility and generated additional income.
“We’ve since more than quadrupled our volume,” Robert said in a press release from Sunbelt Ag Expo. “Forty years ago we were packing about 75,000 packages a year and this year we expect to pack around 400,000 half-bushel boxes.”
He’s also overseen numerous other improvements to the farm, buying irrigation equipment and adding lakes, wells and piping that helped mitigate the effects of dry conditions. Dickey has purchased a new condenser, added cold room space, and remodeled the packing line with a new Autoline sizer. He plans to expand strawberry and fresh vegetable production for the farm’s retail operation and to provide Georgia Grown produce to area schools.
He’s also become an advocate for agriculture state-wide, after having been elected and returned to the state’s House of Representatives for District 140 four times Dickey said he ran for office because he thought they needed more agriculture and business people in the House with conservative philosophy. From the Capitol, Dickey has been successful in promoting the Georgia Grown movement.
“Fortunately, I’m blessed with a supportive family who’ve made sacrifices in time and energy so that I could be away at the capitol periodically. It’s worked out well, especially with the fortunate balance between me being the big-picture planner and (wife) Cynde being the absolute best implementer.”
How they grow
Thriving as a peach farmer includes remaining hopeful enough to plant new seedling trees.
Most of the company’s business is in peaches. Dickey Farms yields 218 bushels/acre of peaches on 890 acres; 10,000 pounds/acre of strawberries on two acres, and has 2,200 acres of varied timber as well as 100 pecan trees, according to Sunbelt Ag Expo. Their orchards are spread out over 1,000 acres of land in three counties with more than 100,000 peach trees.
Under Robert’s watch, the farm has also transitioned to low-volume drip irrigation without sacrificing quality or yield amounts. Areas between the peach tree rows are planted with sod, preventing soil erosion, giving improved traction for equipment, providing habitat for helpful insects, and adding soil moisture. He applies oil, rather than chemicals, to reduce scale on the peach trees. The farm uses H-2A labor, feeding and housing a group of workers who come each season from the same small town in Mexico.
The Dickey’s grow twenty different varieties of peaches – each one has a two-week harvest period to span the season.
Lee said tree mortality is a top concern for peach growers in the region.
“The peach is just a weak tree,” he said. “They don’t live a long time.” Pathogens also accumulate in the soil and can make replanting difficult.
But the family has a saying: Take care of the trees, and they will take care of you.”
“Seeing the big picture – incorporating the lessons of the past and present to prepare for the future – is important, even critical, in farming,” Robert said. “Planting seedling trees always gives me hope. It’s about discipline, patience, hard work, reinvestment, and long-term perspective. It’s been such a blessing to have my children be part of all this.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor