When I met Al Pearson for the first time, he already knew my name. This, admittedly, is a small kindness; but small kindnesses speak volumes about people and the businesses they run. In the case of Al Pearson, that business is the cultivation of two of the State of Georgia’s most recognizable crops: peaches and pecans.
The second time I met Mr. Al, as almost everyone around Pearson Farm in the next few days will refer to him, it was 6:45 in the morning and we were standing in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in Perry, Georgia. In the early-morning shadow of the Georgia National Fair, we chatted about family and heritage, gospel music and the Nashville songwriting scene, and the best way to ripen a peach (according to Mr. Al, a few days on the front seat of your pickup truck). A short while later we would be off down the road. I would be spending a day in the life of a peach farmer and learning a little more about how our Center of Innovation for Agribusiness has helped this business grow.
We arrived at that day’s orchard a little after 7am, and were late. The crew of pickers had already filled at least one eighteen-bushel crate to the brim with near-ripe August Prince peaches. Speaking with Mr. Al later, I would learn that this year between late May and early August, Pearson Farm would fill some 20,000 of these crates, each containing 900 pounds of Georgia peaches, roughly 20 million pounds of peaches for the season.
With that figure in mind, it cannot be overstated how completely mesmerizing it is to watch this crew work. The truly fascinating part of the picking process is not necessarily the massive scale on which it is accomplished, but the speed. According to Pearson Field Supervisor Israel Aguilar, an experienced peach picker can average just under one bag per minute.
Although arguably the most impressive job, picking isn’t the only work to be done in the orchard. While Peach Season is only about a twelve-week period during the summer, preparations for the harvest are made well in advance. Starting in March, workers begin pruning the trees in the orchards – making sure that each sweet Georgia peach can be reached without the aid of a ladder. After pruning, the peach blossoms must be thinned on the branch, allowing each individual fruit room to grow into the big, juicy stone fruits we expect to see in our markets and grocery stores.
As Mr. Al says, “You can’t do this with a machine. Without these guys, there would be no peach business.”
Most of the people that work at Pearson Farm are family, friends, or family of friends. You would need all your fingers and toes to count all the times that Mr. Al tells the story of a worker whose brother or sister needed a job and has ended up working at Pearson for a decade or more.
That’s as much an indicator of small-town southern living as anything else, but it also speaks to the nature of the business that the Pearsons are running. Even the seasonal workers, who show up in March to begin preparations for peach season and leave when the peaches have all been picked, return year after year at something close to a 90% rate.
There might not be any better example of the family attitude that permeates Pearson Farm than Israel, the farm’s field supervisor and crew leader. Israel’s father brought his family to Winter Garden, Florida in the mid-1970s and worked farming citrus in Florida until a frost in 1984 wiped out all the work for that season. Having spotted the big peach in Byron from the highway on their many trips to Michigan for seasonal work, Israel’s father took a chance by knocking on doors until he found Al Pearson. Only 16 and still in high school at the time, Israel would pick peaches in the summer and return back to Florida to finish school. After graduating, and a brief stint working at Disney World, Israel returned to Fort Valley to take the place of his father, who by then was in charge of Pearson Farms picking operations. Israel has remained in this role ever since, building a network of seasonal and full-time workers who, according to Mr. Al Pearson are as good or better than any you’re likely to find in the industry.
After the peaches are picked, the full eighteen-bushel crates are taken to a loading dock inside the orchard to be trucked back to the packing shed in Fort Valley for sorting and packing. Peaches are first run through a hydro-cooler (basically a cold water bath on a track) which chills the fruit and temporarily stops them from ripening, allowing for a fresher peach to be shipped to the consumer. From there they are either placed overnight in cold storage, or immediately sorted and shipped to restaurants, farmers markets, and grocery stores. The peaches are graded by hand and then washed, inspected, and sorted by size before being boxed, palletized, and ultimately shipped.
All of this takes place in a converted schoolhouse, built around 1900 on land donated by the Pearson family, that has functioned as the Pearson Farm packing shed since 1974. This kind of history permeates Pearson Farm. Mr. Al’s great-grandfather Moses Winlock Pearson arrived in Fort Valley in 1885 from Woodbury, Georgia and planted the first Pearson peaches. The original family peach orchards still stand just down the road from the packing shed, surrounding a home that Al Pearson’s great grandparents built circa 1900 and dubbed “Zenithland.” Mr. Al grew up in this house, and as we drove around the old Pearson properties, he recalled working in the orchards as a six-year-old. As the farm enters its fifth generation with a Pearson at the helm (Al’s son Lawton currently runs the farm with Mr. Al, and will soon take over full command), the family business looks a little different than it did in 1885, but by investing in the people involved, both those inside the company and the ones it does business with, Pearson Farm continues to grow.
While the actual farming has always relied on the human element, focus on the end user is a relatively recent direction for Pearson Farm. Until about 12 years ago, Pearson Farm functioned primarily as a wholesaler, which Al Pearson says created a disconnect between the farm and the consumer that could cause problems.
“It used to be that peaches would leave our loading dock, and we wouldn’t ever hear anything about them unless they were bad. Even then, we’d get a call two weeks later and there wouldn’t be much we could do about it.”
Seeing the need for more connection between customers, Pearson began to focus more on the business they didn’t see. In addition to selling to grocers, Pearson has become heavily involved in local farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer methods. And while grocery stores still account for 75 percent of the annual peach sales, a quarter of the business is now dedicated to direct-to-consumer sales – via farmers markets and restaurant deliveries, and their own bustling online business. This element of their business delivers fresh peaches to the doorsteps of people all around the country every week, and also ships Pearson’s various other food products – their peach cakes and preserves as well as their various flavored roasted pecans – one of which, a cinnamon-roasted pecan, was recently honored at the 2016 Flavor of Georgia competition.
The model has allowed Pearson Farm the space to innovate the way it does business in a manner that is proving beneficial. The most obvious example might be Pearson’s ever increasingly bustling retail operation. On any given day during peach season, the Fort Valley packing shed is now teeming with folks looking to experience Georgia agriculture at its base level. This is because Pearson Farm has become a marquee stop on the Georgia Grown Trail 41, a joint agritourism effort led by a partnership with Georgia Grown and the Georgia Center of Innovation for Agribusiness that runs from Barnesville, Georgia to the Florida state line along parts of historic Highway 41. In a perfect mixing of agriculture and the classic American road-trip, food-curious travelers can experience the state’s leading industry in a truly unique way.
In addition to bringing more people into the packing shed, Pearson Farm’s online and retail business is also able to thrive in part because of some more concrete assistance from the Georgia Center of Innovation for Agribusiness. When the decision was made to focus more on direct to customer sales, Pearson needed to make sure its value-added products were shelf-stable and retail ready. For that, they turned to Sarah Cook and the Center of Innovation, who provided Pearson Farm with a connection to researchers at the University of Georgia to assist with their products’ shelf-life. The Center also provided Pearson with a connection to the best jars for their peach products.
As I left Pearson Farm that afternoon after a mandatory sampling of both flavors of ice cream and with a basket full of ripe Elbertas and an arm full of cinnamon roasted pecans, I placed a peach that I had picked in the orchard that morning on the front seat of my truck to ripen, as per Mr. Al’s recommendation. Two days later, I bit into it while sitting on my front porch watching a late-summer thunderstorm roll through Atlanta. It was the best peach I’ve ever eaten.
To learn more about Pearson Farm, click here.
To learn more about how the Georgia Centers of Innovation can help your business grow, click here.