Who: Lane Southern Orchards
What: Georgia Peaches
Where: Fort Valley, GA
It’s currently peach season in Georgia — the state that produces such an abundance of the iconic Southern treat, it has adopted the fuzzy fruit as it most recognizable symbol. In Fort Valley, Lane Southern Orchards has been planting, harvesting, packing, and selling 30 different varieties of peaches for more than 100 years. Here’s how they do it.
Along many of the county roads and highways crisscrossing rural mid-Georgia, fields are filled with rows of short, slightly squatty trees. Early spring’s pale-pink blossoms give way to soft, green leaves, and by mid- to late-May, the thick branches hang a bit lower, thanks to the extra weight of deep-yellow orbs that grow bigger and more intensely hued each day.
It all begins with fledging peach trees carefully placed in the ground during winter’s chill. Looking like nothing more than waist-high sticks, in just a couple of years, they’ll more than triple in size and start fulfilling their purpose.
“We can get peaches off them the third summer after planting, but we really start getting our money out of them during the fourth-year harvest,” says David Lane, a fourth-generation member of the company’s founding family, who has devoted 40 years of his life to the farm, working every job there is at some point, and now serving mainly as a consultant.
At four years, a peach tree has already reached the quarter mark of its prime peach-producing time. “You can really only get about 16 good years out of a peach tree,” says Lane. “Maybe up to 20.”
But during that seemingly short span, Lane Southern Orchards makes the most of what Mother Nature gives them. It currently works 2,500 acres (some of the land is owned and some leased) of peach orchards.
When Things Pick Up
There’s always plenty going on at Lane, but the activity kicks into high gear in mid-May/early June; then it’s time to pick peaches.
Workers are divided into crews of 16, and they hit the fields early each day, trying to beat the scorching Southern heat. They move from tree to tree, scanning the branches for ripe peaches. They’re looking for 80 to 90 percent “full color,” which means mostly dark peachy-orange and red with just a little yellow on top – no green. Then they gently twist and pull them, one by one, off the trees and drop them in buckets attached to shoulder straps that they wear like a vest. The buckets are affixed with a cloth bottom that opens and closes with a drawstring, and when the pickers’ buckets are full, they walk to a flatbed trailer stacked with massive white bins and open the bucket bottoms. Peaches tumble out and roll into the bins, while another worker picks up a few from each drop and measures them with a metal ring.
“He’s looking to make sure the pickers are getting the right size,” says Lane. “They can do it pretty well by sight, but this helps us make sure.” The right size is 2.5 inches or larger.
On a perfect day, pickers can fill one 1,000-pound bin in as little as 12 minutes. But it can take as long as an hour. According to Lane, “It just depends on how many right-sized peaches are on the trees.”
And that depends on several factors, including the weather. “March is an important month around here,” says Lane. “We need it to go ahead and warm up. The tender peach blooms are very vulnerable, and cold is bad. It won’t always kill them, but it can stunt the resulting peaches’ growth.”
Those that hit about half-grown and then stop have to be knocked off the trees. According to Lane, “If we just leave them there to rot, they can actually damage the trees.”
This past year, temperatures plunged to 25 degrees for one night during this critical time. “That’s all it took,” says Lane. “We lost a lot of peaches due to that.”
“Right-sized” is actually a relative term. According to Lane, the smaller peaches (but not the ones stunted by cold) often actually taste better, yet many consumers have it in their heads that bigger is always better, so that’s what they want, and what Lane sells more of.
While the practice of handpicking peaches hasn’t changed much in the last century, the way the workers are compensated for their efforts has.
“It is all electronic now,” said Abel Aguilar, Lane’s labor supervisor. Abel started at Lane as a token “tosser” 30 years ago; he was seven years old and his dad had the job he now has.
The pickers were – and are still – paid based on how many peaches they gather. “When they’d empty their buckets in the bin, we’d throw a token in their bucket; they’d exchange the token for cash later,” he said.
Today each picker has a clip-on badge with a bar code. Every time they bring a bucket full of fruit to the bins, their badge is scanned. And instead of giving them cash, their wages are direct-deposited into a bank account. “It’s just a lot easier and safer,” Abel said.
The next steps in Lane’s peach-to-plate process happen inside, and make even more impressive use of technology.
Quick Questions for David Lane
1. How long until a newly planted peach tree produces?
We can get peaches off them the third summer after planting, but we really start getting our money out of them during the fourth-year harvest.
2. How many acres of peach orchards does Lane operate?
Lane currently works 2,500 acres (some of the land is owned and some leased) of peach orchards
3. When are peaches harvested?
Starting in mid- to late May or early June.
4. What do pickers look for when selecting fruit?
They’re looking for 80 to 90 percent “full color,” which means mostly dark peachy-orange and red with just a little yellow on top – no green.
5. What is the "right-sized" peach?
We are usually looking for a 2.5-inch peach.