October 2, 2013
WORK WHITE PEOPLE WON'T DO:
Fruit of Labor : The Pearson family has been growing Georgia peaches pretty much the same way for 128 years. The only thing that's changed is who's picking them. (Tony Rehagen, 10/01/13, Atlanta)
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2013 4:41 AMPearson Farm is a patchwork of orchards spread over two square miles of Peach, Crawford, and Macon counties, a half hour south of Macon. This is the cradle of peach country. Perched 530 feet above sea level atop the Fort Valley Plateau, this land sees winters cool enough to allow the trees to blossom yet is high enough to avoid late snaps that bring killing cold to the lowlands in early spring. In summer this orange earth soaks up the Georgia heat, day and night, upon which peaches thrive. And it was in a corner of this clay that Moses Winlock Pearson planted the first Pearson peach trees in 1885--the start of what would become one of the oldest peach farms in Georgia.Moses had twelve children. Back then, most agriculture outside of cotton was for subsistence and local markets. The family workforce, along with a few hired hands, was sufficient. But with the expansion of the railroads and the advancement of cold storage, grocers in New York and Philadelphia began stocking this exotic Southern fruit. Demand exploded. Farmers like the Pearsons bought up adjacent land and planted peach trees. New families moved in to do the same. By 1928 Georgia was producing 8 million bushels a year--18,000 iced railcars of fruit went through Fort Valley, the Peach County seat, that year.Mass production required labor on a large scale. Fortunately, there were ample reinforcements in neighboring cotton fields. The seasons alternated perfectly: Plant cotton in spring, thin peaches, chop cotton, pick peaches, pick cotton in the fall. Both crops provided hard, hot, low-wage jobs taken typically by local residents, mostly black, who could barely make a living doing both. On their backs, the Georgia peach industry thrived.Competition between farms was fierce. In the late spring of 1941, while rambling through the orchard in his beat-up Cadillac, John Pearson, Moses's oldest son, spotted a branch carrying peaches as big as a fist ten days before any other peaches had ripened. He marked the branch with a ribbon and found it the following year, again bearing early fruit. He cut a bud and grew a tree of gun-jumper peaches. Then he planted an orchard. John patented the Pearson Hiley in 1947.This Hiley was big, beautiful, red--and barely edible. Have received six loads of Pearson Hiley peaches, read the cable from a New York grocer. When will you send sugar? Tart or not, by beating the other farms by a whole week, the new peach gave the Pearsons a huge advantage in the marketplace, and the family emerged as an industry leader. John Pearson's protectiveness of his patent helped earn him the nickname "The Hammer."The Pearsons would need the advantage. As the Great Depression set in, central Georgia's peach market became saturated. By 1950, the amount of Georgia acreage used for peaches had dropped by more than 40 percent. A freeze in March 1955 wiped out that summer's crop--John Pearson found a total of two peaches, ate one, and gave the other to his wife. There had been around eighty farms at the region's peak, but by the end of the century, only a handful remained.With fewer jobs, local pickers migrated to better climes--like California, where peaches grow year-round--or left the industry altogether for factories in Macon, Atlanta, and elsewhere. What labor was left dwindled through the 1960s and 1970s as cotton production declined and finally mechanized, rendering cotton pickers obsolete.But peaches were too delicate for machines to pick. For Pearson and the remaining growers, finding manpower to bring in the crop became a yearly struggle against the prospect of total ruin.There are 1,400 acres of peaches at Pearson Farm. On this late-July morning, the thirty-two Mexicans are picking one block--3,250 peach trees, no taller than ten feet, lined up in twenty-five uniform rows.Aguilar divides the Mexicans into two crews, each covering four rows on either side of a tractor tugging plastic bins into which the peaches are emptied. Two men start on a tree, determining size, color, and feel in a fraction of a second as they rapidly fill their baskets--these men can pick a tree clean, leaving undesirables, in twenty seconds. Once a basket holds about fifty peaches, the worker dashes to the bins and gently dumps his fruit while the driver uses a wand to scan a button the size of a nickel that's pinned to the worker's hat. Each high-pitched beep records one load for that worker. Right now, the height of the season, one man can dump between twenty and thirty baskets per hour. Beep. Beep. Beep. By the time the two crews are finished, 3,250 trees have been stripped in less than three hours.Aguilar, a short man with salt-and-pepper hair, wedding band slightly askew to reveal a white stripe on his sun-soaked skin, crouches to see if the workers' feet are lined up across the rows. He checks the ground for good fruit knocked down by a hasty worker, scans picked-over branches for missed ripes and bins for greens. "They'll put green ones at the bottom of their buckets," he says. "I know that trick."Aguilar is forty-eight and has been picking since he was nine, piling into his father's truck with seven siblings to drive north from Cotija, Mexico. Every year they would start with Florida oranges in January, then move to Ohio tomatoes in summer, then Michigan apples in fall before returning home for Christmas. If they didn't already have work lined up, the family would park in supermarket lots, suffering stares from locals, while the men scouted farms. In 1981, on their way up I-75, they spotted the Giant Peach in Byron, Peach County, Georgia. They eventually found their way to Pearson Farm.By then, most area growers had started employing migrants to replace the evaporating local labor pool. But each new season was a frenzy to find enough hands. Aguilar says crews were a mix of migrants and a few locals, black and white, who often treated the task like a part-time job, showing up late, if they showed up at all. "It was like they wanted to work only for their next bottle of liquor," says Aguilar. Conversely, most migrants were professionals, diligent and hardworking. The Aguilars became perennials at Pearson Farm and settled in Fort Valley in 1984, where they eventually gained citizenship. Aguilar's father, Alberto, became foreman for Al Pearson, John's grandson, who had taken over in 1979. And while Lawton was away at college in the 1990s and then law school, deciding whether he wanted to follow in the family business, Israel succeeded Alberto as foreman and emerged as a sort of number two in charge of the workers in the field.Of course, not all migrants were here legally. In 1991 the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided nearby Lane Packing Company, capturing and deporting 130 Mexican illegals and fining Lane $1.1 million. The Vidalia onion fields were raided in 1998. That same year, Al Pearson was looking at a massive crop without workers. Panicked, he called in a migrant crew. But he sensed something was amiss. He called the Department of Labor, and sure enough, the agency informed Al that he was about to be raided, that he should get rid of the workers immediately.