By Leila Dycus
Georgia may be known for its peaches, but in Morgan County, there is only one place to find the state’s offical fruit– that’s at CJ Orchards in Rutledge.
“Morgan County used to be a big peach county back in the day, but it’s moved down a bit further south and that’s probably due to the weather,” said Jim Markley, the owner of CJ Orchards.
Jim Markley, a grain seller who studied agriculture at Clemson, came to Rutledge in 1983 in hopes of starting a pecan farm.
“I originally wanted pecans, but they take so long to mature, so we put peaches in between the pecans, so that’s how it started and then it kind of caught on,” said Markley.
What started as a small pecan and peach orchard is now home to over 1,200 peach trees and three generations of Markleys. Recently, the family purchased a 13.5-acre plot of land across the street from the original orchard, which they plan to plant with more varieties of peaches.
“Well, there are about 100 varieties of peaches. They all have different maturities and the big orchards can start in May and go all the way almost to October. I’m not big so I go for about six weeks,” said Markley.
Peach season may have come to the state in May but the weeks that peaches come to CJ Orchards are the ones that fall in mid-June through mid-July. Growing peaches is a lot like any other crop; they take fertilization, watering, and harvesting. Jim and his granddaughter Hayden Markley described a few key points in the process of raising peaches. Peach trees are planted in the late winter months.
“Every peach tree is grafted… they start from a seed but they have to be grafted to a true variety, and it takes about three to four years to get it up and get production out of it,” said Jim.
The true varieties that CJ Orchard has this year are: harvesters, red havens, red globes, contenders, and fire princes. Since peaches are planted in the winter, these months can be the most crucial to the trees and stressful for the farmers.
“The process goes you plant them in the winter time, you cut back on them, you irrigate them, and then you pray when it’s really cold that they don’t freeze,” said Hayden.
If the peaches freeze in the winter then the orchard could lose their entire crop for the year. When peach season finally arrives, the fruits are ready to harvest. At CJ Orchard Hayden described the three times that they pick the peaches.
“The first time we pick them is just getting the ripe ones and most of them aren’t ripe yet, so it’s very difficult because you have to pick which ones you want because you don’t want the unripe ones yet. The second time is when you’re just going to be able to hit the tree and they’re going to be able to fall off into the bucket. The third time is kind of cleaning up getting them off the floor of the orchard. Those we don’t use for selling; we use those for preserves and other stuff like our pies and stuff like that,” said Hayden.
Jim spoke of how during picking times they woke up at 5 a.m. and were picking by 6 in the morning. They pick during the early hours of the day because of the heat.
“We try to pick each day for what we’re going to sell. That’s a guessing game, sometimes we’re over some times we’re under,” said Jim Markley.
Today, CJ Orchards offers not only a variety of types of peaches but also many other fruits and vegetables. Currently tomatoes are coming in.
“We try to get tomatoes in concurrently with the peaches,” said Hayden.
While the orchard still produces pecans those are not sold to the public. However, they do have blueberries and depending on the day may have an assortment of other produce.
The upcoming expansion of CJ Orchards will play a big role in the types of produce that they carry. The lifetime of a peach tree is said to be around 15 years.
“When they die they poison the soil they’re in and no more peach trees can be planted there,” said Hayden.
The current orchard may have trees that are 25 years old but these trees have exhausted their production of fruit. The new land will allow CJ Orchards to plant more trees since much of the soil on the current land will not allow for new trees to be planted.
Peach season only comes one time of year so be sure to check out CJ Orchards before it’s too late.