FORT VALLEY — In the 1980s the sales team for Lane Southern Orchards worked in a plain, cinder block building on Ga. 96 near Fort Valley, but there was a big problem.
They kept getting interrupted by people knocking on the door wanting to buy peaches, so in 1988 they decided to hire a college student, said Wendy Barton, marketing director for Lane.
"They set her up with a folding table and boxes of peaches, so that would appease the visitors that wanted to stop by," she said.
In just three months the student sold $40,000 worth of peaches, and that was the beginning of what is now a major tourist draw. First, four rocking chairs were added so that people could sit a spell while enjoying a juicy peach. Then peach ice cream was made in old-fashioned churns, with 13 going at one time. They eventually bought a commercial ice cream maker.
In 1990, Lane built a new packing house at the location, with a catwalk for visitors to walk over and see the peaches getting sorted and boxed up. Through the years, more products and additions have come, including a full-scale restaurant, a strawberry picking patch, antique tractors and a wide range of products made with Lane peaches, including wine.
Barton said approximately 400,000 people visited the packing house last year, and she is expecting more this year, especially with the best crop in years and the packing house operating daily. Unfortunately, visitors can no longer go into the packing area due to federal food safety regulations, but they can still see it through the glass door.
Dickey Farms in Musella also has a similar operation for its peach packing house, on a road less traveled and with a more old timey feel. It drew more than 50,000 visitors last year, said Lee Dickey, vice president of Dickey Farms.
Pearson Farm near Fort Valley also has a packing house open to the public, and draws about 25,000 people each year. That means the three combined draw about as many tourists each year as either the Museum of Aviation or the Georgia National Fair.
Jessie Boyd was at Dickey Farms recently with a group of 23 from Atlanta Bible Baptist Church, who made the trip down specifically to visit the packing house. He enjoyed watching the peaches getting cleaned, sorted and packed.
"That's quite an impressive operation," he said. "We may make this an annual event."
Andrea Mason was driving Wednesday (July 24) from her former home in North Carolina to her new home in Alabama on the Gulf Coast. She wanted to avoid interstates so was driving through Peach County when she decided to stop at Lanes.
"Just riding down the road, it's lovely to see the peach trees and pecan orchards," she said as she picked up a few jars of pickled peaches. "It's a nice part of America that you don't get from the interstate."
Dickey credits his mom, Cynde Dickey, with turning the packing house into a tourist operation. Until about 10 years ago they only had a small stand to sell peaches. But they updated the packing machinery and moved it to the rear of the building, constructed in 1936 and the oldest continuously operating peach packing house in Georgia. They weren't sure what to do with all the space they now had up front, but Cynde Dickey had an idea.
She had learned about how agritourism was growing in the North, and she wanted to use the newly cleared space for that. They put out a row of rocking chairs, started making peach ice cream, and added a wide range of products, including locally grown produce.
"I think people have wanted more of a connection with the farm itself and where their food comes from," Lee Dickey said. "A lot of the growers have catered to that."
Will McGehee does marketing for all of the Middle Georgia peach growers. He said the state has put a lot of money into promoting agritourism and peaches are particularly good for it.
"Most of agriculture tourism is the peach business," he said. "People are willing to drive a couple hours south of Atlanta to tour the packing house."