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Florida peaches are starting to shine

This spring is shaping up to be just peachy in the Sunshine State.

While its neighbor to the north may be known as “The Peach State,” Florida is coming into its own as a peach producer, and indications are that the 2019 crop is shaping up nicely.Peaches-Harvest 7

“This year’s peach crop is better than it has been the previous couple of seasons,” said Adrian Morales, farm manager for Riverside Citrus, based in Fort Pierce, FL. “We have had good weather that has attributed to good conditions on growing buds and fruit sets. It is looking very promising.”

Riverside Citrus farms about 350 acres of peaches and is in a marketing partnership with Ridge Spring, SC-based Titan Farms.

“While acreage devoted to peaches has been about the same for the last couple of years, some of the trees are coming into maturity so they are yielding more than they have in the past,” said Sonia Tighe, executive director, Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, based in Maitland, FL. “Last year we had a challenge with damage from the hurricane, so this year we are looking forward to a much better season.”

According to Ali Sarkhosh, Ph.D., assistant professor of Tree Fruit & Viticulture at the University of Florida IFAS Extension in Gainesville, the peach has a long history in Florida, and was once an important industry in the northern part of the state, farmed on some 5,000 acres. However, a series of cold snaps, coupled with increased production and marketing from Georgia and California, caused farmers to switch to crops more suited for a tropical environment.

About a decade ago, peaches were reintroduced into the Florida agriculture scene, with the modern industry now concentrated in the central and southern part of the state. Today, about 2,000 acres are devoted to peaches, centered around Fort Pierce, Polk County, Lakeland and Indian River, areas made famous for their citrus trees.

In Florida, Sarkhosh noted, there are two types of peach growers — small growers farming 10 or 20 acres for local consumption through farm stands and pick-your-own operations, and larger commercial growers farming several hundred acres. “A lot of those big growers are actually very big in citrus production. They have a couple of thousand acres of citrus and then a hundred or so acres of peaches. They generally want to plant something in addition to citrus to create extra income,” he said.

Growing peaches in Florida presents several major challenges. For starters, peach trees need what is known as chill hours — a temperature between 32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Any temperature within that range for one hour counts as one chill hour. Peaches in Georgia and the Carolinas need around 700 to 800 chilling hours, while the varieties grown farther north in New Jersey probably need around 900 hours, Sarkhosh noted.

To bear fruit in Florida’s tropical environment, the University of Florida has developed varieties unique to the Sunshine State that require as low as 150 chill hours. Those include UFSun, TropicBeauty, UFBest and UFGem.

“When the chilling unit is low, the fruit development is also low,” Sarkhosh said. “For instance, our peaches take around 80 days from fruit set to harvest, while peaches in New Jersey probably take about 120 to 130 days.”

As a result, Florida’s peaches mature earlier, and are available from mid-March through May, filling a gap in domestic production, but they are also smaller than peaches from regions with longer chilling hours.

“Our smaller size is an issue,” Sarkhosh admitted. “I’m working on a project with one of the students on my team on using different plant bio stimulators and other techniques to see how we can improve the size.” PGR (Plant Growth Stimulators) and pruning are among the things being looked at. “In New Jersey they may thin the fruit to one peach every four inches; here maybe we need six to eight inches. To increase size, we may need to do more thinning because our fruit has a shorter development period than the other states. If we leave it as is, out peaches will be smaller, but if we keep less fruit we can get the size that the market needs,” Sarkhosh said.

Because of a root-knot nematode that lives in Florida’s soil, the trees have to be grafted on to a specific Flordaguard rootstock.

Another issue facing Florida growers is that peach trees are deciduous.

“Any deciduous tree in a tropical environment can stay ever-green, but we need to defoliate them if we want to have a commercial crop with uniform flowering, fruit development and harvesting,” Sarkhosh said. “We do defoliation here at the end of November and early December. Zinc sulfate is sprayed on the leaves, which causes them to yellow and fall off, allowing the trees to go dormant.”

But the biggest challenge is educating consumers — and retailers — that a small peach can be sweet and juicy.

“The biggest problem I have is that unfortunately the supermarkets are just thinking about the size and looks,” Sarkhosh said. “Last year a lot of people came to my field and tried my peaches and said that they are beautiful and that they never saw these peaches in a supermarket. Supermarkets got centered around the peach size, but the flavor and sugar is gone. Over the last 15 years peach consumption has gone down significantly because they have eliminated the sugar and the flavor,” he said.

“Producing a peach locally in the U.S. during a time of year when no other domestic peach is available, I think they should sell very well, even with their small size. A cherry is a stone fruit that is very small, yet people love to eat them,” Sarkhosh said.