The invention of peaches and peppers

The peach as Americans know it was invented in 1875 in Georgia by Samuel Rumph. Before that, there was something called “peach”, but it was hardly a commercial product, because it could not be sold. But after years of fussing and crossing with fruits that no one wanted, Rumph bred the Elbert peach (named after his wife) in 1875. Cynthia R. Greenlee tells the story in Reinventing the Peach, Pepper, and Regional Identity. (Questions of science and technology, summer 2022). She writes:

It is not known exactly how Rumph started this new peach. It was juicy and bright yellow with red markings. Its pit came out easily and its fruits ripened early. This time and its firmness were a boon, and the trees bore their large, beautiful fruits in abundance. As historian Thomas Oakey wrote in his meticulous and compelling study of how the peach came to be a symbol of Georgia, Rumph produced an “industrial peach,” a reliable producer that was good enough to eat, relatively resistant to pests and disease, suitable for home cultivation. different climate and soil, and is easily transported.

As a pioneer of what would eventually become agribusiness, Rumph looked at the entire peach, from grafting to shipping, and intervened at various stages of the supply chain. First, he grew a peach that took the world by storm. Then, as a member of the Georgia Horticultural Society’s peach packing and shipping committee, Rumph devoted himself to learning how to ship peaches around the country. Although the first shipment of peaches to New York occurred around the time of Rumph’s birth in the 1850s, shipping continued to be a concern for the peach grower. Harvested too green, they lose their flavor when refrigerated. Too ripe, and they rotted almost immediately after being cold shipped.

Rumph soon reported on the successful shipment of peaches to New York, offering proof that Georgia peaches could be well transported by rail and sold dearly, even though it was a difficult journey for fruit: usually three days in total trains and transfer to ships. In an effort to make shipping an exact science rather than a gamble, Rumph created a crate that could be stacked and rolled and founded the Elberta Crate Company. His non-patented invention caused imitation throughout the industry, and he invented the refrigerated railroad car, also non-patented, which was subsequently widely used by gardeners. Rumph’s industry-changing inventions in the shipping industry established a strong and productive relationship between fruit growers, government, and industry. Railroads flourished in the south, aided by large investments from the north. And the income from growing peaches and the active participation of nursery farmers in politics determined where the railways would pass and where they would stop.

As Greenlee points out, the appearance of the peach changed the economic situation and public opinion in Georgia. It wasn’t long before the same agricultural development and processing infrastructure started by the peach led to the harvest of melons, berries, and other fruits and vegetables. Georgia boasted that it was a place where both apples and oranges could grow, a sharp blow to northern orchards. Crops and advanced cultivation technologies have been disseminated by agricultural extension services.

Greenlee tells the story of another Georgia farming family, Samuel Riegel and his sons, who were to the pepper what Rumph was to the peach. In 1905, the family became interested in growing peppers. They got their US Congressman to get seeds from Europe, which they bred and crossbred, and by 1911 they were distributing pepper seeds. Again, a chain of complementary innovations is important, and here one of Rigel’s sons took the lead:

Yet Perfection’s flawlessness was marred by a particularly annoying wrinkle common to all pimentos: thick, hard-to-work skin. It had to be softened with lye or burned on fire and then cleaned by hand. Rigel’s other son, Mark, who had worked at the experimental station for a while, thought there must be a better way. He invented the pepper roasting machine, which roasted the peppers in a continuous chain across a line of fire, turning the burning of the skin into a faster mass process. Like Rumph before him, he oversaw the supply chain from start to finish. Mark Riegel not only invented the process, but founded a number of canneries that encouraged growers to grow peppers on a contract basis. From seed to can, the Rigels have grown the “perfect” pepper, enlisted farmers to grow their miracle, developed the best processing method, and launched upbeat marketing campaigns with their Sunshine brand.

The overall lesson is that successful innovation is a multifaceted process. It often involves people who are willing to take the risk of experimentation and research, but these people often stand a better chance if supported by the invisible infrastructure of science and shared information. The ultimate success depends not only on the product itself, but also on additional innovations: processing, packaging, transportation. Success also depends on supporting demand for the new product, often through marketing and promotional efforts. Finally, when these common elements are met, one successful innovation can light the way for others.