When you’ve got something great, you want to shout it from the mountaintop. That’s just what Florida peach growers have been doing since the alternative crop began stirring interest in the mid- to late-2000s. After a few false starts, growers are fine-tuning production programs, and retailers as well as consumers are beginning to take notice.
After coming off a good season, there is room for growth and, more importantly, a wide-open market window free of U.S. or foreign competition from mid-March to the end of April when Florida peaches are harvested. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there are 337 peach farms in Florida covering 1,025 acres. The fruit’s market footprint extends west to Texas and up the Eastern Seaboard into Canada.
Steven Callaham, CEO of Dundee Citrus Growers Association, says his best guess (since official statistics are not recorded) at the state’s peach production is about 2.5 million pounds being harvested each year for the commercial market and perhaps another 500,000 pounds for U-Pick operations. He adds growers strive to produce 5,000 pounds per acre with 10,000 pounds per acre being stellar but rarely achieved. He estimates average production would fall in the 4,000 pounds per-acre range.
The cooperative established Dundee Stone Fruit Growers Association, LLC in 2010 as its citrus-grower members continued to struggle with the ravages of citrus greening. Currently, there are 25 growers covering 500 acres in the LLC. The fruit is marketed under the Florida Classic brand.
“Growers were not looking to replace citrus, but rather to diversify their operations. The key was peaches could go on land that had been in citrus without completely changing the architecture of the groves,” Callaham explains. “We could use the same irrigation systems and spacing in the fields. So, Dundee now offers peach harvesting, packing, and marketing for our growers.
“Our volume was relatively flat this season, but our fruit had excellent eating quality,” he says.
“Florida peaches have better sugar content and better flavor than peaches from other growing regions. We have the flavor, and consumers absolutely love it.”
Marketing Moves the Needle
One of the challenges of the fledgling Florida peach industry is growing consumer awareness that peaches are actually grown in the state. A step in the right direction has been a marketing and promotion campaign funded by the Specialty Crop Block Grant program administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
Two grants have been awarded to increase the sales and awareness of Florida peaches. Each grant covers two years and totals $398,322.
“This past season was our third year promoting Florida peaches,” says Sonia Tighe, Executive Director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation and administrator of the peach promotion. “We had a great season and had some terrific engagement from retailers who are showing interest in our peaches.”
According to Tighe, the promotion has three main objectives:
No. 1: To increase sales and awareness of Florida peaches to retailers. “There are still a number of retailers that don’t know there is a Florida peach industry to buy from,” she says.
No. 2: Work with the FDACS Fresh From Florida program to develop sampling programs and advertising with retail chains to promote peaches. “We had one major retailer that provided in-store samples in 50 of its Florida stores,” Tighe says. “Those displays looked wonderful.”
No. 3: To increase social media presence that will create consumer awareness and demand. An advertising agency has been retained to manage Facebook and Instagram campaigns.
“It has been a very positive year,” she says. “We added something new this past season using food bloggers through our social media platforms. We used five different bloggers over five weeks during the season to create recipes using Florida peaches. That generated interest as well.”
Tighe says there is still an education process needed for retail buyers because Florida peaches are smaller than other peaches that come to market. But the smaller fruit can be promoted as the perfect size for snacking.
“We developed and rolled out a 2-pound pouch bag this season to utilize smaller sizes,” Callaham says. “We feel this package will gain traction in future seasons. But at the moment, the majority of the demand is for the larger size fruit packed in single-layer trays.”
Growers who planted peaches learned quickly they are a challenge to grow and are very labor intensive. As Tighe notes, “They are still writing the rules on production practices.”
Ali Sarkhosh, Florida’s peach Extension Specialist with UF/IFAS, has been working with growers to optimize production and fruit size. The quest for larger fruit was one of the first challenges he took on when he started his job in 2017.
“We got funding for a research project to see how fertilizers, plant growth regulators (PGRs), and different thinning agents can improve fruit size and also reduce costs,” Sarkhosh says. “We also published an EDIS paper (‘Thinning Florida Peaches for Larger Fruit’) on the subject.”
Sarkhosh notifies growers via email when the time is right for thinning fruit. He says hand thinning must be completed before pit hardening, which is about 30 to 35 days after fruit set.
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“Growers have been good about following techniques to enhance fruit size,” he says. “If they thin before pit hardening, they will get better size with 6 inches to 8 inches between fruits on the branch.”
Callaham says fruit thinning was the biggest mental leap for citrus growers managing the alternative crop.
“You spend all year growing this beautiful tree and have a pretty bloom and set a nice crop,” he says. “Then you have to spend money to remove more than half the crop from the tree. That is a painful thing to do because we don’t do that in citrus, but it’s necessary to get size on the fruit.”
Adrian Morales, Manager with Riverside Citrus Harvesting, has partnered with Titan Farms, the largest peach grower/marketer east of the Mississippi to grow Florida peaches. He is currently managing several orchards across the state. He says pruning also plays an important role in fruit size.
“We really concentrate winter pruning on a set amount of fruiting woods per tree to acquire better size,” Morales says. “We shoot for 340 fruiting woods per tree.
“Then again, so much depends on the weather. If we have cooler weather during the fruiting period, we will get decent size. But if it is a little hotter, the fruit size will be smaller.”
According to Sarkhosh, climate change is the biggest challenge facing Florida peach production. While the varieties developed by UF/IFAS were bred for a subtropical environment, they still need chilling hours.
“The chilling hours the past two seasons in Florida are really different than the historic average,” Sarkhosh says.
“For example, Polk County historically averages around 200 chilling hours a year. The last few years, it has been in the 100 to 120 hours range.”
This can lead to smaller fruit and extended flowering that will result in a less uniform crop. This adds to labor costs because it requires multiple harvests of the fruit.
“We have been working on the lack of chilling hours problem by researching impacts of fertilizer-based products and PGRs,” he says. “We have been running trials on one product that shows some promise, but we still need to test it in more locations and on more varieties.”
The Future Looks Bright
With retailers and consumers discovering Florida peaches and a secure market window, there is a renewed sense of optimism in the future. The peach promotion grant will run for another season to spread the word on the great-tasting fruit.
“Having the Fresh From Florida program and the marketing skills of growers like Titan Farms and Dundee is like a triple whammy to get our peaches in front of the right retail buyers and establish a loyal following,” Tighe says.
“It has taken us time — and still is — to develop the market, establish the best production practices, and to find the best varieties to plant in the right locations,” Callaham says. “But we have definitely made progress. So I believe the future is bright for Florida peaches.”
Sarkhosh also is researching high-density production models that would allow growers to mechanize some of the labor-insensitive and high-cost jobs like hand pruning twice a year.
“We need to look at what growers are doing in Europe and California when it comes to pruning and thinning,” he says. “If we could adopt some of these practices, we could cut back on some of these labor costs.”
Morales and Sarkhosh did their part in ensuring future Florida peach consumers by hosting a group of elementary students during a field trip to a Ft. Pierce orchard this season.
“It is very important to show the children how peaches are really grown and that they don’t just come from the grocery store,” Morales says. “At the same time, we are hopefully creating future Florida peach consumers and also have the kids go home and educate their parents about our fruit. The students loved picking the fruit off the trees and eating it.”