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.

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.

Forget that Georgia now ranks third behind California and South Carolina in peaches. Forget that it is no longer even our biggest fruit crop. The peach is the symbol on our license plates, the inspiration for our streets and cities, our state’s very identity. Who talks about sweet Georgia blueberries?

Pearson 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.

That scare drove the Pearsons to the federal H-2A agricultural guest worker program, part of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Growers file requests for as many workers as needed, and they get them—prescreened by the U.S. government for criminal records and immigration status violations. They are then brought straight to the farm, the only place they can legally work for the duration of their visas, which covers pruning in February through picking in August. If there’s hail or freeze, as in 2007, an Act of God clause kicks in and the workers are transferred to another contract or sent home, the farm fully reimbursed for application fees. If not, those workers show up every day because they’ve sacrificed half a year away from their families to be here to make as much money as possible. And it’s legal. This year there were almost 77,000 H-2As in the U.S.—7,600 in Georgia.

The H-2A program is expensive: Al Pearson says application and consultant fees alone are $335 per worker. Busing them thousands of miles is about $650 apiece. Throw in another $100 per worker for housing, and Pearson spends around $108,000 on labor before signing a paycheck. Also, dealing with the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor is a labyrinth of red tape. In 2011 a bureaucratic hang-up delayed Pearson’s crew for two weeks.

Further, there aren’t always enough workers to fill all the requests. Growers try to ensure that their workers will come back each year. Some of Pearson’s H-2As have been coming for a decade or more. Many are recruited from the same town, the same family, so there’s a built-in familiarity. The farm provides vans to take workers into Fort Valley for groceries or to shoot pool. The Pearsons also pay $9.78 an hour—almost 35 percent above minimum wage. Workers have the option to take sixty cents a basket, netting closer to $15 an hour when the season peaks. Working six days a week, pruning, thinning, and picking through the ups and downs of the season, a picker can earn around $12,000.

All of the workers stay in white farmhouses that once lodged local laborers. Sitting on their beds in the bunkhouse one evening, Emigdio Lamas and his nephew, Alfredo, enjoy the air-conditioning from a window unit. Pork chop grease and beans are left on the foil-wrapped skillets in the back kitchen, which the Lamases share with the men who sleep in the adjacent room. Univision is on TV (workers pay for satellite channels), but neither man is watching. Fifty-one-year-old Emigdio weaves spools of fishing line into nets that he’ll sell back in Hacienda de Guadalupe. Emigdio says there are ninety-one houses in the town, but during peach season, only fifty-three are occupied. He has been coming here for twelve years. With only a sixth-grade education, Emigdio has worked on farms all his life. With the cash he has earned here, he has put four kids through school in hopes they will never have to make this long trip. A faded photo of them hangs in a pocket of netting on the wall above his bed.

Meanwhile, Alfredo, nineteen, uses the house’s Wi-Fi to thumb through Facebook on his phone. This is Alfredo’s first year in H-2A. And now that he has made enough for a wedding and the down payment on a house back in Mexico, he says it will probably be his last. The work is too hard, he says. And he misses his family.

Emigdio is not disappointed. He’d rather not have to watch his grandsons’ rodeos on a phone. He misses his hometown, with its beautiful church, the fish-filled rivers, the mountains in the distance. “The best place to live in the world,” he says in broken English. “There is only one problem: no money.”

All of these dollars sent back to Mexico. None of them subject to withholding for Social Security or Medicare. Jobs filled by foreigners in a state where the unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, more than a full point above the national average. What’s wrong with this math? Aren’t there any local, taxpaying citizens who would gladly take these traditional American jobs?

Well, no, says Al Pearson. A stipulation of H-2A is that growers must advertise and offer these positions to local workers, and each year, he says, a handful apply. How do those few hold up under this demanding labor? “I’ll just say they elected not to continue employment,” says Al. The fact is that this work is long, hot, and aching. Still, in 2011 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought a lawsuit against Hamilton Growers, a fruit and vegetable company in Norman Park, Georgia, on behalf of a group of American workers who claimed they were fired in favor of Mexican H-2A workers or assigned less favorable tasks. (The suit was settled for $500,000 in 2012.) Al Pearson can speak only from his experience, and though he can’t be sure of the underlying reasons, he cites tardiness, absenteeism, and a general “lack of interest” in many of the domestic workers he’s seen.

It may be unfair to put H-2A employers on the defensive. After all, they are abiding by the law while struggling to compete with others who are not. That’s why this legislative session is such a crucial time for growers. The immigration bill that sits before the House of Representatives would replace H-2A, making it easier to get more workers into the U.S.; it would extend visas to three years, reducing by two-thirds the growers’ paperwork and cost of application and transportation. The bill would also make it less complicated for workers to bring their families, giving them more stability for that lengthier stay.

Even with these improvements to H-2A, the Pearsons would much rather do away with the hassle and expense and employ only domestic workers. But since Americans seem at best uninterested, the only way that might happen is by providing an avenue to citizenship for immigrants who are willing and able. However, even if that measure makes it into law as proposed, it would offer a path to legalization only for undocumented workers who’ve been in the U.S. since 2011 and have put in a minimum number of hours in agriculture. Most of those were scared out of Georgia and are only now returning. The legal H-2As, meanwhile, would not be eligible because they haven’t lived here year-round. “It doesn’t seem fair to me,” says Lawton Pearson. “Some of my guys who’ve been coming here for ten years won’t have that option.”

The summer storms have held off long enough for the Pearsons to pull in another harvest. And as long as that success holds, the hassle of the H-2A program will be worth it. But no one who makes his living from the land takes anything for granted. A freeze, hail storm, or worse—good years that saturate the market, leaving boxes of unsold fruit in the packinghouse—could change things in a hurry. Once planted, it takes about two years for a peach tree to yield fruit, and it will do so steadily for around fifteen years. Peaches are not a business one can get out of quickly.

The workday is done. Drawn by the front’s cool breeze, the Mexicans step out of the stuffy farmhouses, carrying prepaid phones and long-distance calling cards. Some drift into the yards and orchards for privacy while they call home; others lounge on the porch, ignoring a bucket of fresh peaches in the corner, sipping cans of Modelo and bottles of Bud Light. The beers are a rarity even for a Friday night, because these crews will be at it again first thing Saturday morning. But tonight is a special occasion: A motor coach is on the way to take the first twenty-three men home. For some, it will be only days or weeks before they are reunited in their hometowns, some of which will honor their returning heroes with a festival and parade. For others, it’s goodbye until next year or . . . who knows?

As the young men call “Salud” to their departing brethren, the wind whips through a fledgling orchard across the road. Some of these workers planted the seedlings in February, and the trees are already chest-high. By summer of 2015, they should be ready to produce, though no one can be sure who will be here to see the young branches bear fruit.

This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.