Florida's Peach Industry Grows Sweet And Sassy

A decade ago, the idea of growing peaches in Florida was essentially unheard of. But today the fuzzy stone fruit is rapidly becoming a major cash crop in the Sunshine State, thanks to years of experimenting and cross-breeding peach varieties by researchers at the University of Florida.

The UF Horticultural Sciences department has been able to create low-chill peaches that don't require the extended cold snap that traditional peaches do. The result? Peach trees that flourish in the subtropics.

"It was a well-kept secret for a few years, then the word spread,'' says Travis Tucker, division director of fruit and vegetables with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In other words, citrus no longer stands alone as Florida's signature crop. In fact, Tucker says that it is likely for peaches to grow into a $100 million industry in the coming years.

When compared to the state's $9 billion citrus industry, it's a safe bet that peaches won't become Florida's leading cash crop anytime soon. Even so, more and more growers are turning to peaches as a means of diversifying their offerings.

Especially for citrus growers whose land has been ravaged by greening disease (a fast-spreading bacteria that can wipe out entire groves), peaches represent a viable alternative crop. Sections of a grove that have been beat down by greening can now be repurposed with peach trees.

An additional upside is that when compared to citrus, growers can turn a profit relatively quickly – a newly planted tree will produce ready-to-sell peaches in about a year.

"One of the reasons why planting peaches has become so popular is you don't have to wait five years before you get any type of return on your investment,'' says Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers in Dundee.

Getting To Market Faster

The UF researchers behind the low-chill peaches say that's part of the draw.
"They're essentially ripe on the tree, and we're able to ship them while they're ripe but firm,'' says Jose Chaparro, an associate professor in the UF Horticultural Sciences Department and stone fruit breeder. "Not only are our varieties very low-chilling, they also have enhanced firmness. So we're able to harvest a high-quality product and get it to market.''

Cristi Johnson, who operates Florida Sweeties You-Pick Peaches in Dade City, says that the university holds tutorials where it shares new research with growers.

"We haven't had a year of bad peaches yet,'' says Johnson, who has been in the peach business for three years. "The peaches are amazing – they're sweet, they're juicy, they're better than Georgia peaches.''

According to Johnson, the relatively new industry comes with a learning curve. She currently grows three different varieties of UF peaches, which don't all bloom at the exact same time. When peaches are ripe, Johnson says she only has a few days to pick them. From there, her distributor aims to get her $1.25 per pound. (A decent tree produces between 50 and 60 pounds of fruit.) She also runs a you-pick operation. During the last season, which wrapped up in early June, she sold 7 to 8-pound buckets for $12 a piece. Organic buckets fetched $15 per bucket.

"People love them,'' says Johnson. "I've had people come in all the way from Ocala just to you-pick.''

Timing Is Big Advantage

Another perk for Florida growers is that they have a leg up on the competition. According to Finch, a real advantage is that Florida peaches hit the marketing window after Chile's season finishes, but before Georgia and South Carolina really start kicking in. (The typical production window in Florida runs from March to the end of May.)

"In a normal season, California starts their production at the end of May,'' says Finch, whose last peach shipment for the year went out the first week of June. "For later March and the month of April, there are no other peaches in the marketplace.''

Finch is president of Florida Classic Growers, which is part of Dundee Citrus Growers Association. When the citrus giant entered the peach game four years ago, they began with just 50 acres of peaches. Today, they have over 700 producing acres in the association.

"This past season, we shipped our peaches as far west as North Dakota and as north as Canada,'' says Finch, who anticipates expanding their peach program across the entire U.S. next season.

In the Bay area, their peaches are available at Wal-Mart and Winn Dixie.
"The initial hold up was the size of the peaches,'' says Tucker. "But then as the retailers came down and visited with the marketers and actually tasted the peaches that are growing down in Florida, they were surprised at how sweet they are.''

According to Tucker, more and more major retailers from the Midwest and up North are coming down to buy peaches from Florida marketers.

And, now, following the successes for Florida peaches, UF researchers are in the process of breeding low-chill apricots.

Marianne Hayes is a writer, wife, mother and bookworm in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. You can read about her adventures in motherhood on her blog, With Kids in Hand. Twitter: @HayesMarianne. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.