If you build it, they will come, so the movie saying goes.
But for the Lane family, customers came first, then the family decided it was time to build.
Lane Southern Orchards, a fifth-generation, 3,000-acre peach farm near Fort Valley, expanded into a tourist destination for peach lovers.
Today, peaches abound here – from a catwalk, with a bird’s-eye view of peaches to fresh peach cobbler. Even their phone message drips with a Southern drawl as sweet as the peaches themselves.
“The family was looking to a state-of-the-art packing facility,” says Duke Lane III, who works with his father, Duke Jr., and uncle Bobby in the operation. “Travel on the highway was moderate at that time. We’d have farm visitors stopping by, enamored with the idea of buying fresh from the farm. We didn’t start out to have this tremendous presence – it just evolved.”
It began with his great-grandfather, who planted peach trees in the early 1900s.
“He was a pioneer,” Lane says. “Maybe not the very first peach grower in Georgia, but one of the first. He planted a couple of peach varieties that later made Georgia a great peach state, and grew into the industry in the 1950s.”
Despite ups and downs in the industry, the Lane family survived by emphasizing Georgia peaches’ sweet taste and educating consumers about it.
Harvest starts in mid-May and goes through the end of August. Peaches are hand-picked, placed in containers and taken to the packing house. They’re immediately rinsed in cold water to stop further ripening, and are cleaned, graded and defuzzed, ready to be sold or shipped.
In Tifton, family-owned Rutland Farms is also offers farm-fresh peaches – and much more.
“We mostly grow row crops,” says Ryan Rutland, who runs the farm with his father, Greg. “But we grow almost every fruit and vegetable you can think of for our market, like strawberries, peas and pumpkins.”
The farm opened their on-site market in 2011 after Ryan developed the business plan for a college class.
“Dad had been growing strawberries for 12 years, and the interstate runs right through the center of the farm, so we decided to take advantage of that,” Rutland says. They sell everything from fresh produce to honey to fresh baked goods.
More than just the market, Rutland Farms is ahead of the game in agritourism efforts. They offer U-pick berries, peaches and pumpkins, corn mazes in the fall, school field trips and more. Rutland says they’re constantly looking for ways to grow. Future plans include a new structure for a petting zoo and planned events for holidays.
Back at Lane Southern Orchards, visitors can take a self-guided catwalk tour to watch the process, or pay a minimal fee for a guided farm tour into the orchard.
The real draw is the peach itself – made into ice cream, jam and more – sold in the gift shop. Acafé serves sandwiches and fresh fruit desserts. Annually, the facility draws 300,000 visitors.
“We wanted to make this an experience,” Lane says. “I’m a peach eater. I still look forward to it after all these peaches. I’m not a peach expert by any means, but I’ve learned a lot from my family – my father and his siblings.”
“They’ve helped us tie shopping in with the agricultural experience,” Lane says. “People want to know the farmer who raised their food. We’re all about farm-to-table.”