(June 27) FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Peaches packed by Lane Packing LLC remain a summer highlight loved by consumers and produce buyers throughout the country as the family-run company enters its second century of operations.

The fourth-generation peach and pecan grower and packer — the only remaining peach packinghouse in central Georgia’s Peach County — has begun its 101st season with a new name and a focus on shipping premium tree-ripened fruit.

Lane, which does business as Lane Southern Orchards, is increasing the tree-ripe program it started last season. The peaches, which hang on the tree longer for picking at higher maturities, are shipped to customers the next day, allowing Lane to supply fresher peaches.

“Tree-ripe has been a loosely-used term in the peach industry for years,” said Duke Lane III, vice president of sales. “By picking them riper and fresher and shooting for more color and better size, we feel like we’re doing a true tree-ripened peach.”

Lane, which used to be called Lane Packing LLC, last year shipped less than a tenth of its crop as ripened. This season, the company expects to ship up to a quarter of its production through the program, which, inside the packinghouse, requires different handling and packing techniques to accommodate the softer fruit.

Lane grows and packs 2,700 acres of peaches and 2,100 acres of pecans. Because of early spring cold snaps, Lane this season expects to pack 300,000 25-pound half-bushel boxes — almost half a normal crop, Lane said.

Lane began doing business as Lane Southern Orchards this spring to more clearly define its new operating entity that changed in 2006 when Lane’s owners partnered with a Florida citrus grower-shipper for selling citrus to consumers in Lane’s retail store. B&H Georgia Orchard LLC, Vero Beach, Fla., which also owns Countryside Citrus of Vero Beach, bought an interest in Lane in 2006.

On July 4, Lane plans to celebrate its centennial during a yearly community Independence Day celebration it has sponsored since the late 1990s.

Big supporters of the military, Lane has many service people from nearby Robins Air Force base frequently visiting for lunch and peach cobbler at Lane’s popular retail operation. Lane plans to serve 1,000 pounds of barbecue ribs to up to 3,000 people expected to attend the celebration. Air Force F-15 fighter planes are scheduled to fly over the event, to be held on the grounds of Lane’s headquarters, which will also honor soldiers who died in the Persian Gulf and Iraqi wars.

Much has changed since the Lane family’s ancestors began growing and packing peaches in the summer of 1908. Then, Georgia had only a June and July deal, not today’s mid-May to mid-August shipping window.

Summertime during the 1960s and 1970s used to be filled with the sounds of up to 30 packing sheds busily packing Georgia peaches within a 30-mile radius of Fort Valley. Today, four sheds pack the peaches, said Bobby Lane, vice president.

Boxes were unheard of years ago as shippers packed peaches in 25-pound half-bushel baskets, Bobby Lane said. Most of the company’s packinghouse labor was supplied by area high school students who often worked until the wee morning hours, after harvesters picked the crop.

Without modern hydrocooling systems, whatever a grower picked had to be packed that same day when peaches were shipped mostly in yellow refrigerated boxcars. Trucks transported ice from local icehouses to the packinghouse.

Bobby Lane, 58, began his peach packing career 49 years ago, along with his brother, Duke Lane Jr., 60, in the upstairs area of the packinghouse, unloading baskets.

“We have had a lot of luck,” Bobby Lane said. “In farming, we work hard. We play hard. And we know when to work. We believe in treating those who have worked for us for all the years fairly.”

Duke Lane Jr. attributed the company’s success to a strong customer base and Lane’s support of its workers.

“We have supported them (the workers) as they have supported us, and depended on them like they depend on us,” he said. “We have been very fortunate to have this kind of situation where people stay around. While we didn’t necessarily enjoy all of those good years that we would have liked to have had, our workers still had to eat. We did everything we could to make it work for both of us. No one has taken anyone for granted.”

Lane Packing recalls its history, plans for future