Onward Journal: The Perfect Peach

Back in college, just a few months shy of four years, I got a job on a peach farm. I realized too late that I liked farming more than political theory, so in my final year I turned to crop science. The crown jewel of my short farming career was the pursuit of a peach that was nothing less than perfect.

I worked for a peach farmer breeding peaches for canning, which I learned on my first day were very different from peaches that are eaten fresh. Canned peaches need to be consistent in taste, color, and texture. They need to be a uniform size to run through the machine that slices them in half, and they have to have a dense pit so that fragments don’t end up in your canned fruit cocktail—which, by the way, is one of the crowning inventions of UC Davis, which happened to be my school. They have to ripen around the same time and they have to stay good in a can for as long as possible.

Arriving at that perfect peach was hard work. We’d start walking fields around 5:00 a.m. to collect data. Heat hot enough to melt pavement would arrive around nine. Back and forth, sometimes with a partner but usually solo, I’d walk up and down rows, surveying every tree, each of which produced a slightly different fruit from the one next to it. Some had good color, some had nice texture, some trees produced a lot of peaches, some very few. I preferred to go alone so there was no one to judge how many peaches I would bite once, then toss on the ground. You had to pace yourself.

Stuffing ourselves with fruit at dawn wasn’t all we did. Sometimes we’d have to prepare the seedlings for the next year’s crop of trees. Other times we’d inseminate trees. We would remove the petals from a bud, then with a fine paintbrush, we’d spread pollen over the bud’s ovary. Our boss joked we were tree sex therapists.

Our work wasn’t about genetic sequencing or modification in the modern way. Compared to the methods used now by large agribusiness firms—accellerating five or six generations in the time it used to take one—the way we pursued peaches was delightfully archaic. The same way you could take a blue-eyed person and a left-handed person and try to bring out both traits in their offspring, we’d do with peaches. Here’s one that tasted great mixed with one that grew quickly. Cross them together and then mix that peach with one that doesn’t bruise as easily. It sounds simple but the process, as with much in agriculture, takes years to play out.

There were a lot of peaches that year that turned out to be good ones, but no single peach was perfect. I eventually learned that perfect peaches don’t actually exist. Perfection of any food—strawberries, apricots, oranges—is elusive. With each new breeding cycle, you just make a variety slightly better.

A few years after I left, I happened to be in Northern California and went back one day to visit my former boss. He was in the field, standing next to his Jeep. He told me he had some nice new varieties, one in particular that would knock people’s socks off (I wondered if canned peaches, however perfect, can ever be that moving). I asked him if he thought people knew how many years of work goes into making fruit perfect, no matter how organic or local or pure it seems to be. He said it was his job to make sure no one ever had to think about it.