One thing about it, the Pearsons know peaches—and have for the past 130 years. When fifth-generation Lawton Pearson goes out of a morning to check his and his father’s orchard, he is treading the same ground and looking for the same signs of production as his great-great-grandfather Moses Winlock “Lockie” Pearson did when he moved to this area and planted the first Pearson peaches in 1885. Peaches are big business in Georgia now just as they were then, and over eighty percent of those juicy Georgia peaches are grown right here in the Crawford County area where the Pearsons first set down their peach tree roots.
When Lockie Pearson died suddenly at the age of forty-eight in 1908, he left his wife Emma with a productive farm growing peaches and pecans and corn and cotton—and twelve children to help work it and live from it. Despite the tragic loss, Emma and her oldest son, John, with grit, know-how, and bulldog determination made a really good thing that much better. More land was bought and more trees planted. When John married and took over production, the Georgia peach scene was heading into its golden years: in 1928 Georgia shipped out eight million bushels of their magic fruit. It was the best year the peach industry has ever known, and good timing—the Great Depression set in the very next year.
As with all farmers, however, there are bad years for peach-growers, too. Lawton’s grandfather and namesake went out one spring morning in 1955 and found only two peaches on his entire farm that had escaped the late frost. Between the frost and the drought and the hail and the tornadoes, harvesting peaches is a sort of miracle. At least that’s what Lawton’s grandfather thought: “You’ve got to have a lot of faith to be a peach farmer.” A lot of faith—combined with a lot of hard work, patience, persistence, and good old Southern savvy.
The Pearson family is heavy with these sorts of things. Lawton’s father and business partner, Al, remembers from his own childhood the makings of a successful farm life. In those days his family lived at the “big house” in Zenith, the house Great-Great-Grandmother Emma had called home. To hear Al talk, the place was a sort of Edenic paradise covered up with fig trees and walnut trees, pomegranates and scuppernong vines, early crabapple blossoms and late mimosa blooms. And then, of course, the rows and rows of peach trees and pecan trees. It is hard to believe Adam himself had it any better. But Al grew up knowing a Pearson was put in the garden not merely to enjoy it but to “tend it.”
For Al, in the summers, “tending it” meant long hours in the packing shed. Packing peaches is sticky business—literally. A boy’s working arms got sticky, itchy, attractive to bees, and tired. But no matter, the ripening peaches were on a close schedule and had to be packed in sturdy boxes and crates to be shipped out by truck and train for New York and other peach-hungry places to the north. What peaches didn’t go north were carefully placed beside the road in a stand Al and his sister tended, tempting the northerners headed south for vacation:
LITTLE REBEL STAND
In 1973 Al took over the family farm operations, and, after finishing law school, Lawton joined with his father in 2008 to carry Pearson peach-farming into the future. And the future looks good. Lawton is married now, and he and his wife Lanier have three of their own little peach-pickers—Adeline, Cort, and Sutton—to whom they are passing along the family traditions of faith, love, and hard work. Alongside the peaches are acres and acres of pecans as well—diversification is a lesson well-learned in farming. Georgia peach production is a far cry from the 1928 record of eight million bushels—two and a half million on average now. But since the best and sweetest peaches in the world are grown in Georgia—according to every Georgian at least—the demand for Pearson peaches looks to be about as good as it has been for the six generations of a family tree that has borne this good of a fruit.
You can visit Pearson Farm at 5575 Zenith Mill Road, Fort Valley, Georgia 31030.