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."