Florida orange growers whose groves have been stung by disease and pests are turning to peaches to diversify, sowing seeds of what could become Florida's next big crop. "In three or four years, you could see growers plant hundreds or a thousand acres per year," said Dan Sleep, a state agriculture department senior market analyst. "We're at a juncture where we may very well see sustained growth."
Though only a toehold now, peaches are slowly gaining ground in the citrus belt. Starting with 15 acres in central Florida in 2006, growers now have 800 to 1,200 acres of peach trees in central, south and southwest Florida, including 40 to 50 acres in Pasco County--up from just 15 three years ago.
That pales in comparison to the $9 billion citrus industry, with its 532,000 acres of oranges, grapefruit and tangerines that still blanket the state. But more growers are embracing peaches in the face of threats like tristeza and a newer affliction called citrus greening.
A growing market is helping too. "It's succeeding, but it's still in its infancy," said Steve Callahan of the growers' cooperative Dundee Citrus Growers Association. Dundee supplies labor to prune and pick peaches and helps growers package and get the fruit to market. "Right now, demand in the marketplace exceeds supply. That's definitely promising."
The difference-maker for growers is a variety of peach developed six years ago by the University of Florida's Horticultural Sciences Department adapted to Florida's warm, fleeting winters. Stone fruit like peaches needs an extended period below 45 degrees (known as chill hours) to blossom and produce fruit. UF scientists used crossbreeding to produce varieties that thrive on 100 to 200 chill hours yearly--typical for Florida.
The upside, growers and industry experts say, is that Florida peaches fetch higher prices than oranges--about $3.99 a pound versus 99 cents at supermarkets. Another plus: Peach trees yield market-ready fruit within a year--orange trees can take up to seven--and Florida peaches typically hit the market between late March and early May, well ahead of rivals Georgia and South Carolina.