In the mid-2000s, researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) were presented with a unique challenge: Take a fruit – peaches – that requires a lot of cold weather to produce and find some way to make it grow and prosper in Florida’s spring heat.
Not only were Florida growers looking for a peach of their own, they had a specific window in mind – a six-week season beginning as early as mid-March and ending as late as mid-May. That would perfectly position the Florida crop to be the first fresh domestic peach on the market each spring. The harvest would be done and gone by the time the mammoth Georgia and South Carolina peach crops came on in late spring.
The goal was two-fold. The first was to create a new Florida ag industry. The second was to provide an alternative crop for citrus growers who were losing groves by the thousands of acres to greening disease.
An earlier experiment with peaches in north Florida in the 1980s ended in disaster when a series of hard freezes wiped out the crop.
In the mid-2000s, IFAS crossbred varieties of North American and South American peaches to come up with a tree that needs just 100-200 hours in temperatures below 45 degrees to bear fruit. Better yet, peach trees produce viable fruit from year one – great for citrus growers looking to diversify.
In 2006, a 15-acre test drive of the new Florida peach proved successful. Now there are an estimated 1400 acres of Florida peaches in production and that number goes up every year.
Florida peaches are smaller than their cousins, averaging about two-and-a-quarter inches in diameter, but they ripen on the tree before picking. The result is a juicier, sweeter peach that consumers can enjoy as soon as they get home from the market.
With peach production devastated by late freezes in neighboring states, Florida peach growers should be able to harvest well into May, according to Sonia Tighe, who oversees the non-profit Florida Specialty Crop Foundation for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA).
Florida peaches are in year one of a two-year specialty crop grant to promote the crop. FFVA collaborated with the Fresh from Florida program to promote peaches this season with the grant money.
The Dundee Citrus Growers Association and its marketing arm Florida Classic Growers in Dundee, FL were early adopters of the Florida peach. The co-op controls 10,000 acres of citrus. It’s now in year eight of its peach program (and launched a new blueberry program just last year).
“There were a couple of guys in the industry who were earlier than us,” said Dundee CEO Steve Callaham. “We’ve learned a lot but it’s still in somewhat of an infancy stage and we’re feeling our way through the varieties and how they will perform. But I think we’re getting a better handle on it. It’s a superior product and I think it’s going to have a bright future. It’s never going to be bigger than Georgia or South Carolina. But it tastes better, it smells better. All the flavor and aromatics develop the last few days those peaches are on the tree. So being able to have a tree-ripened product is a huge advantage.”
The two-year marketing program has a two-pronged approach, Tighe said. Some money is earmarked for social media promotions and advertising in produce retailer publications, and some for in-store tastings.
Tighe said the program has had “a great response from retailers… the interest is not just Florida – I’ve gotten calls from Montreal, Toronto, Texas, Louisiana. North Carolina’s interested, it’s a very widespread interest and that’s very encouraging news.”
But Tighe believes the real push for Florida peaches will come when consumers get to taste them in their local supermarkets. “I feel very confident that will help move more product as well, it’s such a good experience for people when they try it.”
TIghe said the Fresh from Florida program, currently under budgetary assault in the Florida legislature, has been instrumental in helping spread the word about Florida peaches. “They’re doing a fabulous job and they don’t get credit.”
No matter what happens to the Fresh from Florida budget, Florida peaches are guaranteed at least one more year of promotion since the two-year grant is already funded. Tighe hopes that will be enough time to spread the word to more consumers and possibly even get Florida peaches in Florida school lunchrooms.
Regardless, production will continue to grow. Farmers are putting in more acreage annually. And as small trees mature, “You’re going to see an increase in volume just because of the bigger capacity of the trees,” Tighe said.