'BEAUTIFUL! Beautiful!'' declares Lonnie Wainwright as he eases the pickup through the rows of lush trees. Peach-laden limbs slap the hood and windshield, and the luscious fruit tumbles onto the ground and into the bed of the truck.
''These are the prettiest peaches I've seen in 40 years,'' says Mr. Wainwright, orchard supervisor for Lane Packing House in Ft. Valley, Ga.
While this succulent member of the rose family has inspired poets and philosophers since it was first grown in ancient China, Wainwright can't stop to admire the crimson bounty. Time is precious, and he has other orchards to inspect before noon.
Even though the 1995 crop has good size and color, business is still risky for growers in the heart of Georgia. Many trees died in last summer's floods, the market price is down, and concern about rainfall and labor never ends.
Back in the packing shed, ''Big Duke'' Lane, grandson of the founder of the packing operation, hurries toward the main office and says, ''This is do or die time. We've got to pick peaches and pack 'em fast. We're working seven days a week and putting in 15- to 18-hour days.''
Big Duke's son, ''Middle Duke'' quickly adds, ''The chain stores want picture-perfect peaches with lots of red color.''
Most of Georgia's crop are freestone varieties for eating rather than canning. So workers must pick the fruit when the peaches are mature or slightly ''givey'' (to the touch), but not yet ripe.
As soon as the sun comes up, close to 350 pickers are out in Lane's fields, and another 150 workers are sorting and grading peaches in the packing shed. The O'Henry and the Faye Elberta, two of the most popular varieties, picked this morning, must be packed, transported, and on the shelf within 48 hours.
This dawn-to-dusk rush of activity begins in mid-May and continues through mid-to-late August. The largest state east of the Mississippi produces an average of 150,000 million pounds of peaches a year and close to 60 different varieties. Growers stagger the varieties throughout the season to consistently supply their customers and markets.
Lane's Packing House, the second-largest in the country and the largest in Georgia, ships peaches to grocery chains and terminal markets all over the United States and Canada.
Like most of the other packers in central Georgia, the Lanes run a family operation. They own nearly 4,000 acres and have been in the business for four generations. They grow more than 30 varieties and have one of the most modern packing facilities on the East Coast.
Though peaches have been grown in Georgia since colonial times, Georgia ranks third in peach production in the US, right behind South Carolina, and far behind California, where more than 75 percent of the country's peaches are grown.
While Georgia has not been the leading producer since the 1930s, thanks to Samuel H. Rumph, the former Confederate state is still hailed as the home of the modern peach industry. And the fuzzy foodstuff is Georgia's signature crop.
In the 1870s, Rumph, a Macon County farmer, bred a sweet-tasting yellow peach named Elberta. He then developed a wooden packing crate with an ice compartment and shipped fruit to New York by rail. And the peach named in honor of his wife became a sensation in the Northern market because of its size and beauty.
Long before the 1995 state legislature designated the peach as Georgia's official fruit, the state's tourism industry claimed it for logos, slogans, and license tags. The Department of Transportation urges travelers to ''Keep Georgia Peachy Clean.'' And downtown Atlanta brings in the new year with the drop of a huge peach.
Even so, peaches play a relatively minor agricultural role. (According to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service, cotton was the state's leading cash crop in 1994. Peanuts slipped to second place, although Georgia is still the leading peanut supplier in the country.)
With increasing costs, competition, and insect problems, the numbers of both trees and growers have steadily declined. In the early 1930s, Georgia had about 16 million peach trees. Now there are about 2.2 million trees and only eight growers in the Fort Valley area. And new growers are few.
Despite high cost and risks, longtime growers say there will always be peaches in Fort Valley. Big Duke Lane hopes his grandchildren will take over the family business someday. ''The few of us left are here to stay,'' Lane says.