Growing keen on peach potential

05/01/2008 02:00:00 AM
Steve Heisler, contributing writer

What is that scent that has become so appealing, not only to Florida breeders and scientists but also to farmers and consumers heading to market? It's the smell of fresh, sweet and juicy yet firm peaches, whose genesis from Florida's panhandle to Immokalee is cause for genuine excitement among all of those involved in their production process.

That excitement grows as Florida's window of opportunity, which allows for market delivery in March and April, translates into what industry insiders are terming "a natural monopoly." With Chile's crop in the rear view mirror and peaches from Georgia and California not yet available, low-chill peaches from the Sunshine State proudly sit solo on the shelf.

At several dozen of Sweet Bay Supermarkets, 105 stores, produce bins are full of peaches from Florida Sweet, a company formed by neophyte-yet-learning peach farmers Ron Wilson, Donald Padgett and Ralph Chamberlain.

"We all out of different necessities started working toward the opportunity of commercial peaches," says Chamberlain, whose operation is 120 miles south of Wilson's Dade City acreage in central Florida. "I was looking for a crop that didn't have a lot of competition. It all comes down to supply and demand."

Chamberlain's 2004 entry into peaches came about after canker destroyed 75,000 of his citrus trees. He still plants 2,000 acres of citrus, but his 35 acres of peach trees 25 miles south of Arcadia requires more attention to detail.

A labor-intensive effort

The necessity of pruning, thinning and picking—all by hand—makes for a labor-intensive effort. Chamberlain's youngest tree is a year old and his oldest is 23 months. At 9 feet, it has required three prunings and is growing, as he says, "like a weed."

He admitted that understanding how to take it from field to market presented a challenge. He says he solicited advice from Georgia and California growers to find the right boxes and labeling. Avoiding frost via the use of micro-jets to induce steam for night warmth was an acquired skill as his UFSun, TropicBeauty, FloridaPrince and the white FloridaGlow matured.

"Even as you're excited because you're watching a new industry form, it's nerve wracking," he says. "There's not a whole lot of help out there. There's nobody to ask."

Dade City's Wilson has only 8 acres devoted to peaches but as one of only a handful of growers in the state, he makes the most of his land. He spaces trees closer than recommended but grows UFSun and TropicBeauty that measure 2.25- to 2.5-inches in diameter because of his frequent pruning.

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