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.

"You have to hand-thin these peaches," he says. "You've got a certain distance you try to keep them on the branches and if you get too many, they're all small."

For growers considering planting peach trees to test the market, extension specialist Bob Rouse with the University of Florida's Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, Immokalee, advises understanding what's involved. Pruning, thinning and picking all have to be accomplished on a tight schedule, unlike citrus that may hang on trees for weeks.

"This is not an orange or a grapefruit, it's very labor intensive at certain times of the year," Rouse says. "The growers that want to venture into peaches need to be growers who have worked with or appreciate growing a perishable crop."

The result, if trees are carefully tended to, can be worth it, he adds.

"Once it sets the fruit, you have to make sure that no branch is carrying too many fruit or you end up with fruit the size of a golf ball that is worth nothing," he says. "If you thin it, you get peaches between 2 to 3 inches in diameter that are worth gold."

Wilson's JON Farms and Nursery gets calls each day about the peaches, he says, and along with selling them out of his peach shed, his greenhouse also offers low-chill peach trees wholesale to plant. He agreed with previously released estimates of costs: $1,250 per acre with harvesting and marketing costs at $3,700.

A Wacky Winter Brings Late Bloomers

Wilson recommends bare root trees that seem to grow faster when planted in January or February, compared with ones in a container that can be planted anytime. Trees traditionally bloom in February, but this year's unpredictable winter has lengthened the season.

"It was 80 in January one week and in the 30s (at night) the next," he says. "It was erratic and the peaches didn't know whether to wake up or go back to sleep. It screwed it up."

The result will be peaches picked every two to three days as they ripen into the end of May. That means an early variety like the FloridaPrince will be gone by then, but the TropicBeauty, a big red peach full of juice, may be on shelves when Georgia peaches start to come in.

At the SWFREC where many of the cultivars are developed, Rouse was acutely aware of what the varying temperatures could mean. One variety, the TropicSnow, didn't fare so well. Rouse uses expertise from three decades testing peaches that require fewer chill hours from Texas—Rio Grande Valley to Florida. He collaborated in the 1980s with Wayne Sherman who had succeeded Ralph Sharpe in the development of peach cultivars. Sherman developed the FloridaPrince and nurtured the research?s development as varieties were tested from Mexico to Egypt and Morrocco.

Florida's Great Potential

Florida has the potential for about 10,000 acres to be cultivated, according to Jose Chaparro, extension agent for UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Gainesville. His research on low-chill peach germplasms has helped develop trees with low chilling requirements but good fruit quality.

The fruit now being developed by Chaparro and other breeders through the university are "non-melters" such as the flagship UFSun and others like the UFBeauty. Non-melters retain their firmness and freshness longer than previously developed "melter" varieties from the 1980s. UFBeauty, grown south of Gainesville and Ocala, is an exceptionally beautiful fruit with 80 percent blush, or red coloring, Chaparro says.

"The problem with all of our early varieties before the late '80s was they were all melters," he says. "In order for you to ship these peaches, you had to harvest them when they're mature but not necessarily ripe so many times the peach that reached the consumer is not optimum. These new varieties are very firm. The grower can delay the picking and the amount of sugar is higher so the fruit is sweeter but at the same time firmer than a melting peach."

One challenge in cultivar development has been the broad range of chilling zones in the state, Chaparro says. Miami may have as few as 50 chill hours while the northwest panhandle may have more than 600.

To Jeff Williamson, who works with Chaparro at the university, peaches naturally present challenges that may be offset as growers realize a significant potential for a viable alternative crop. The peach program sponsors field days and educational grower meetings to increase awareness and develops cultivars that work with Florida?s subtropical climate that also are early to market, he says.

Understanding how to take advantage of that market is crucial, according to Rouse, who is aware that properly marketed peaches can quickly be on their way to Miami, Atlanta and points beyond.

"I always advise people who want to grow the peaches to think not only about how they're going to grow them but what they're going to do with them when you get them," he says. "That's the exciting thing, that they've found the marketing for this niche window. That's where the real payoff is. You can have a lot of fruit and make a lot of friends and not make a lot of money."

That's where Evelyn Harrison, a representative in marketing and development with the Florida Department of Agriculture, and her husband, Les, come in. Les, an extension agent for north Florida's Leon County, wrote a grant that was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June 2005.

The $49,000 grant allowed for a market research project to determine Florida's peach potential. An ongoing consumer interest survey and taste test in five cities around the country will be used to provide information to growers and scientists about the fruit's commercial viability.

A previous study of three control groups in Tallahassee, from high schools to a retirement community, resulted in a unanimous juice-dribbling-and lip-smacking thumbs up.

"It's a tremendous marketing opportunity," Les says. "Nobody else has peaches at that time in the hemisphere. The round peach is what the marketplace is demanding and the growers are there to satisfy that market demand."

FLORIDA VARIETIES

FloridaPrince

Standard for a low-chill, early-ripening peach; susceptible to bacterial spot.

FloridaGlo

Large fruit for its season; firm, nonbrowning white flesh; ripens about

1 week after Flordaprince.

UFSun

Low chilling requirement, early ripening with large fruit for its season. Suggested for trial in south-central Florida.

UFBeauty

Low chilling requirement, early-ripening, large fruit. Suggested for trial in central Florida.

UFBlaze

Moderately low chilling requirement, ripens early with good fruit size. Suggested for trial in north-central Florida.

UFGold

Large fruit for its season; non-melting flesh; excellent flavor and attractiveness; moderate flower bud set. Fruit set can be adversely affected by high night temperatures.

TropicBeauty

Excellent shape, color, and firmness; susceptible to bacterial spot.

UF2000

Large fruit with non-melting flesh; excellent shape and flavor; ripens in late May in north-central Florida.

UFO

Saucer-shaped fruit with yellow,

non-melting flesh and excellent flavor.

Flordadawn

One of the first commercially shipped peaches to ripen in North America (usually late April in north Florida); good color, shape, and flavor; heavy, prolonged bloom; blooms early; fruit are relatively small but acceptable for their season.

Flordaking

Industry standard for its season; early ripening (usually early May); large fruit; early bloom; light flower crop; poor color; high incidence of split pits.

Flordacrest

Excellent color; good shape; attractive; ripens about 1 week after Flordaking; fewer split pits but smaller fruit than Flordaking.

Gulfprince

Large fruit with non-melting flesh; excellent shape and flavor; ripens in late May-early June in north Florida. Currently, Gulfprince is suggested for trial for local markets only because of a possible storage disorder that may develop during packing and handling of fruit.



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