"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.