The Mexicans—thirty-two of them—wait for the pickup truck. They are dressed, almost to a man, in dirty jeans, boots, long sleeves, and baseball caps. Some wear bandannas to shield their necks and ears from legions of gnats. The rising late-summer sun is starting to cut through the morning mist that clings to the orchards and fallow pastures of Peach County like a thin coat of fuzz.
The Mexicans, who woke at 5:30 and ate a breakfast of Frosted Flakes or eggs, now stand between the two vans that brought them two miles from their bunkhouses. At their feet, their foreman has emptied a pile of peaches. In the distance they hear the pickup, which soon materializes through the fog. The white Silverado, caked with clay, comes to a stop across the road. Out of the cab climbs a man in his mid-thirties, wearing a blue polo and beige dungarees. “Hola,” he says. He walks over to the Mexicans and kneels over the pile of peaches and explains what he wants. Big fruit. Red with splashes of yellow. No green. Slight give—not hard, not soft.
The man’s Spanish is limited, but it doesn’t matter. Many of these men were here last summer, and the summer before, and the summer before. A few have made the thirty-six-hour bus ride from Mexico every year for a decade. All of them are part of the federal H-2A agricultural guest worker program. One hundred men on a six-and-a-half-month work visa, hand-picked through interviews and background checks, a costly bureaucratic headache for the farm owners to ensure their crops are picked.
The man stands, and their foreman, whose name is Israel Aguilar, says, “Vamos.” The Mexicans strap their plastic baskets around their shoulders and scatter into the orchard. Leaves rustle and stems snap. The man from the Silverado sighs and takes out a pocketknife. He slices a wedge of peach and chews, satisfied. His name is Lawton Pearson. He is thirty-six years old, the fifth generation of Pearsons to manage these fields. The farm has seen another good harvest this year, thanks largely to the men who are right now filling baskets with peaches. Tons of peaches. But next year is never certain. The climate may fail them—literally or politically. Congress is considering an immigration bill that could make it easier for Pearson to hire foreign workers. But this is Georgia, where in April the governor signed a bill prohibiting the use of foreign passports when applying for driver’s licenses, public housing, and retirement benefits—strengthening 2011 legislation that had already put our state alongside Arizona as harshest on illegals. This scared many immigrants, illegal and legal, to friendlier states, despite the protests of Georgia’s $13 billion farm industry, which includes $30 million from peaches.
Once it ripens, a fresh Pearson peach has two days to get from tree to truck to grocer before it starts to soften, before its sugars make it cloying, before the skin starts to shrivel. Lawton is old enough to remember years when the fruit died on the branch or on the ground, when these fields reeked of hot, vinegary rot because there weren’t enough hands to bring in the harvest. Peaches, the Pearsons like to say, wait for no man.