History Professor Explores Georgia’s Powerful Peach
KENNESAW, Ga. (Jun 15, 2020) — Growing up in middle Georgia, William “Tom” Okie ate his fair share of peaches. Now as associate professor of history at Kennesaw State, he has taken on a bigger bite, researching and writing about the fruit’s agricultural and cultural history in Georgia.
Okie set out to better understand how this sweet summer fruit, with its deep historical roots in Georgia, became a major crop and a central symbol in the state’s redevelopment after the Civil War. His book, The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South, peels back the layers of how this non-native fruit helped the state break from the rocky reputation of its agricultural past, and now stands as a cultural icon.
The deciduous fruit first emerged as a commercial crop at a time in southern history when cotton was the economic engine, around the middle of the 20th century, Okie said. But that agricultural powerhouse also had a very strong tie to poverty and racial conflict, he contended.
“Georgia was looking to boost its own reputation at that time,” said the historian. And the delicate peach was the answer to the state’s slavery-riddled past.
With a market glut for peaches, the Georgia-grown fruit was transported to large cities like New York and Philadelphia by refrigerated railway cars during the first 40-50 years of the state’s peach production, according to Okie.
Relative to other states, however, the peach industry in Georgia is small – a fact that originally surprised Okie. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, South Carolina has about 40 percent more acreage in peaches than Georgia, and California leads the U.S. in peach production.
To grow well, the fruit needs cold weather, so Georgia’s milder winters can still provide the modest chill needed to grow the delicate fruit. Georgia peaches mature earlier than many other states, making their debut in May and hitting peak season in July.
For this reason, Georgia was the earliest in the northern markets because of its early harvest season, and quickly gained a name for itself for producing high-quality fruit, Okie said. Georgia quickly laid claim to the “peach state” and, along with the iconic symbol, gained a newfound reputation.
“The Georgia peach was frequently associated with affluence and European orchards and vineyards, especially among northern consumers,” Okie said. “Unlike cotton, the peach had no negative reputation in the state’s cultural and agricultural history.”
As Okie studied Georgia’s agricultural labor and the fruits’ origins, he asserted that the peach has a strong and positive cultural identity tied to the fruit growers.
“Tree to market time is only a few days for this fruit and it takes hundreds of workers involved to prune and tend the trees and harvest the crop, and they are critical to farm production,” said Okie, whose father was a peach breeder for the UDSA. “It takes real skill to judge a ripe piece of fruit or prune a tree for maximum production.”
At Kennesaw State, the associate professor of history in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences has been teaching American history, food history and history education courses since he joined in 2013. He earned one of the state’s top honors, the Bell Award from the Georgia Historical Society. It is the highest publication award given by the organization and recognizes the best book on Georgia history published in the previous year.
The book is his first scholarly attempt at taking an everyday object and showing the layers of historical time that have shaped that object and how it is viewed, explained Okie.
“The peach is a historical artifact. It has changed over time due to both human and non-human factors: consumer tastes, labor markets, cross-pollination efforts, agricultural policy, weather patterns, insects, fungi, hogs,” Okie said.
His interest stirred in graduate school, where he studied agriculture and the environment as a historian. He earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Georgia in 2012.
“We really knew very little about the history of Georgia’s peach industry, and I decided to study the low-hanging fruit,” Okie said with a laugh. “But I do consider myself a Georgia Peach partisan.”
While the popularity of the peach as Georgia’s cultural icon may have waned in recent years, Okie hopes the state will continue to use it as a symbol and identifier.
“This association is definitely getting weaker, partly because so few have had a good peach in season,” he said. “The peach may be a symbol, but it is real – grown in real soil, with real pests and real challenges.”
Georgia’s peach production is still profitable, according to Okie, and it’s been the state’s official fruit for nearly 25 years.
– Tiffany Capuano
Photos by David Caselli
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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its approximately 41,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status, and one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.