Chilling out in the Sunshine State

Wayne Sherman, a fruit breeding specialist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, shows off a UFO peach in an orchard on the UF campus. The UFO peach is a new firm-flesh variety of a saucer-shaped peach developed by UF breeders in the hope it will become commercially viable. Sherman said previous varieties of saucer-shaped peaches were too soft to withstand the rigors of mechanical packing.

Peaches have long been in short supply during the months of April, May and June. At last, a half-century of research is changing that. Central Florida growers successfully harvested varieties such as FloridaPrince, TropicBeauty, UFSun and Flordago, developed by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IAFS), for the first time this spring. The new Sunshine State peach industry brings diversification for growers and a supply source between early Chilean harvests and later ones in California and Georgia.

Bringing peaches to the sunshine state

Along with California and Georgia, top peach producers in the United States include the Carolinas and Texas. As most varieties require mild climates, Florida has been shut out of the market. Generally, at least 600 chill hours are needed to produce marketable peaches; a chill hour is one hour at or below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, something in short supply in Florida’s subtropical climate.

Until recently, the state’s production was limited to areas near the Georgia border. Up to 2,000 acres of peaches grew in the Panhandle region until those trees fell victim to freezes in the 1980s, along with competition from other areas. In addition, north Floridians were unable to beat the Georgia harvest, drying up any potential economic edge. About 500 acres remain in production today.

Florida peaches have been bred for harvest during the early spring between other regions’ crops.

Decades of research were devoted to breeding peaches that are viable for early harvesting in central and south Florida. Developing varieties with low-enough cold requirements was a tedious process, as thousands of seedlings were planted only to be discarded as poor performers during trials. Scientists often find that only one tree among 200 seedlings has genetic traits attractive enough to warrant its preservation. Today, molecular markers are being developed to assist in the selection process.

Subtropical-friendly varieties

Since 2005, UF/IFAS has released UFSharp, Flordabest and UFRoyal varieties. Great interest in these varieties, as well as FloridaPrince, has been generated through UF’s international students, leading to planting in low-chill regions such as Morocco, Sicily, Egypt, Australia, India and South Africa. Florida growers are favoring FloridaPrince, Tropic Beauty, UFSun and Flordago, some of which saw their initial harvests this year.

For north Florida and south Georgia, several varieties in a Gulf series were released last year. These cultivars are resistant to bacterial spot and ripen from early May to mid-June. Their firm, non-melting flesh allows tree ripening and a longer shelf life. UF’s Dr. Jose Chaparro has reported that this also results in a sweeter fruit.

Similar to Floridaking, Gulfking requires 350 chill hours and is a large fruit with a sweet flavor. Gulfcrest’s 500 chill-hour requirement is easily attained in the target production region, replacing Floridacrest. This is a medium-sized, red peach. Gulfcrimson may be a good replacement for Junegold, which requires 650 chill-hours; the new cultivar’s 400-hour need is more compatible with typical north Florida conditions. Gulfcrimson is large and very firm. Juneprince can be replaced with Gulfprince (400 chill hours), which is large, firm and sweet. Premature internal breakdown has been observed, limiting shipping distance.

Even in Florida, researchers have had to cope with frozen peach trees and fruit.

Other UF/IFAS releases include the UFO, which was introduced in 2001. Developer Dr. Wayne Sherman’s peach was created by adding a gene that creates extra-firm flesh to an existing saucer-shaped peach that has been popular in Asia for hundreds of years. It’s an especially sweet variety, but its shape can be problematic on mechanical packing equipment. Soft UFOs may be damaged through the process.

To market

Growers who give the peaches a try aren’t going into the venture blind. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and UF/IFAS formed a Sub-Tropical Peach Market Improvement Project to investigate market viability. The Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program funded a year of study on U.S. consumer demand.

Investigators conducted taste and acceptance testing in five cities: 73.7 percent of the participants had purchased peaches from a supermarket in the past year; price and origin ranked high in the decision-making process; 76.6 percent said they would be willing to pay more for tree-ripened peaches; 45.3 percent stated they preferred traditional bins of loose fruit for personal selection when purchasing them.

Those surveyed sought peaches with superior flavor as one of the most important traits. In taste tests, peaches were rated on a scale of one to five, with five being best. The Florida peach sample was rated best by 47 percent of the respondents. When rated against other peaches they’ve eaten, 43.3 percent found the sample to be the tastiest. When compared to their favorite fruit, the sample was rated a four by 36.7 percent. Flavor (47.8 percent) and juiciness (36 percent) were the outstanding qualities cited by test subjects. Some elementary school students who served as samplers indicated it was their first experience consuming fresh peaches.

The team concluded that more than half of the respondents would purchase Florida peaches several times weekly, and an additional 16 percent were interested in having them once or twice monthly. Extending the data obtained to represent the entire population east of the Mississippi River indicates that consumers could ultimately support between 7,700 and 10,400 acres of Florida peaches. Investigators caution, however, that growing demand to that level would take several years; in addition, market conditions and potential are subject to change; but the Sunshine State’s ability to deliver peaches at a time when the shelves typically are bare gives growers a distinct economic and marketing advantage.

The Marketing Improvement Project also created an identity program to provide logos for signage and other visibility tools. Because Florida cultivars differ from others in that they are tree-ripened, the group prepared a public awareness campaign to aid consumers in understanding how to identify ready-to-eat fruit.

Low-chill peaches can be treeripened, yielding a tastier fruit.

Business models

Peaches have potential for development in one of several business models. For citrus growers who wish to transition due to disease, tree age or other issues, the stone fruits represent a viable replacement crop. Major citrus operations and land companies can enter the business without incurring real estate costs; however, funds for startup expenses, marketing guidance and distribution are required.

Growers of other fruits and vegetables may consider peaches to complement other crops and to keep laborers busy during traditionally slow times. Existing growers can reassign packinghouses and equipment to this use without additional investment, but it’s important to consider the labor requirements for peach production. The high-maintenance trees have intense preharvest tending needs, which can add to labor costs. To maintain a 6-foot height, trees must be pruned three times a year. To produce fruit that meets supermarket standards, hand-thinning is necessary.

According to the Market Improvement Project report, Neat and Sweet Farms in Lakeland has followed the second model for several years. Wes Borders and his late father Dudley were interested in expanding their 225-acre family farm beyond strawberries, squash, cantaloupes and oranges. Working with UF/IFAS and the cultivars it was developing, Neat and Sweet planted 3 acres of peaches in 2000. It has since expanded to 40 acres and harvests from late April to late May. One of the largest commercial peach producers in the state, Wes Borders sells to several supermarket chains, including Publix, based right in his hometown. Despite his early success, he is cautious about forecasting long-term outcomes. Other central Florida peach pioneers are pleased with early crops and marketing efforts. In 2008, a group of growers in the Lake Placid region marketed their peaches and plums under the Florida Sweet brand name. The fruit was well-accepted by Sweetbay Supermarkets.

Low-chill peaches can be treeripened, yielding a tastier fruit.

Lastly, subtropical peaches are suited for direct marketing, such as community farmers’ markets. Smaller-scale farmers can produce fruit for local consumers without investing heavily in land and other resources. Cultivars such as UFO (also called Peento) that don’t respond well for shipping may be excellent for this business model.

Like everything in agriculture, subtropical peaches aren’t perfect, but they represent new opportunities for both growers and consumers. After decades of development, it’s about time to reap the rewards.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.