Peaches of Florida


Industry update: Groves give way to orchards as growers look to spring markets.

In some sections of Central Florida, orange groves are giving way to peach orchards. As farmers wrestle with citrus greening, peaches developed for Florida’s mild winter climate offer new opportunity. “I see them popping up in different places in my travels,” says Chris Oswalt, a citrus agent for University of Florida (UF)/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Polk and Hillsborough counties. “My impression is that the demand [for peaches] is greater than the supply.”

Florida’s peach growers have a marketing window similar to the one blueberry growers of the state enjoy. From mid-March through April, they’re “the only peaches in town,” Oswalt says.

UF-developed varieties, described as sweet and juicy, enable growers to offer a tree-ripened fruit they can ship. To growers, that spells opportunity. There were 1,231 acres of peaches in Florida in 2012, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture Census released May 2. That’s up from 234 acres in 2007. Polk County had 459 acres planted in peaches, far more than any other Florida county. Pasco followed with 109 acres, then DeSoto County with 95 acres, and Hillsborough with 57 acres.

“While acreage has increased, the peach industry in Florida is still in its infancy,” says Robert Gitzen, a marketing specialist with Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), citing 85,572 acres of citrus in Polk County alone for 2012.

Steven Callaham, chief executive officer of Dundee Citrus Growers Association, estimates more than 1.5 million pounds of peaches are to be picked by its wholly owned subsidiary, Dundee Stone Fruit Growers Association this season. “It’s still a developing market,” he says. “I think there’s still market that we haven’t reached.”

Experts readily point out peaches are not poised to replace the $9 billion citrus industry, which has been grappling with citrus greening disease, or Huanglongbing (HLB). “It’s a finite market window,” Oswalt observees. “There’s only so much you can pick, market, pack, and move in a specific window.”

“It’s not going to replace citrus. It’s never going to be that big,” Gitzen says. “To replace the multibillion citrus crop you’re going to need more than peaches.”

“Peaches are falling into what we are calling an alternative crop,” says Bob Bogart, a manager of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery in Frostproof. “We do think that peaches offer something for people that are not interested in doing citrus anymore.”

Brandon Rafool, a Winter Haven criminal defense attorney, is growing peaches with his family at an abandoned orange grove. Together with his dad, Winter Haven family practice/geriatrician Dr. Gordon Rafool, and his brothers, investment broker Chris Rafool, and Miami attorney Ray Rafool, they are growing UF-developed peaches.

“We just had to get in there, roll our sleeves up and figure out what to do and what not to do,” says Brandon Rafool, whose family got out of the citrus business a decade ago. “We kind of took a leap of faith,” he says, when the family planted on property off of Winter Haven’s Country Club Road.

With help from a caretaker, they harvested their first crop last year. He says their biggest challenge is “limited information . . . it’s trial by error,” he explains.

In the San Antonio area of Pasco County, Christi and David Johnson began pulling up sickly looking citrus trees three years ago. Now they grow peaches on their farm Florida Sweeties, offering u-pick and already-picked peaches without pesticides. “We got the opportunity to start over with the peaches, and it just seemed like a good investment,” Christi says. “We’re really happy that we did make the switch.”

While raising peaches has been fun, she says, they are “high maintenance,” requiring pruning twice a year and thinning. “You actually pick off 70 percent of the fruit that the tree produces,” she says, to grow larger fruit.

The Johnsons are part of a group of peach growers in their area who share information. “It’s a fairly new market and we’re still learning. It’s still experimental. I have great faith that we’re going to do well,” Christi says.

Another group is sharing information in the Bartow area. Among them is Margie Adams, who was raised amidst the cotton, peanuts, and peaches in Georgia. Adams, who has embraced these new Florida varieties, owns Pampered Peach in Auburndale. “I had 40 acres sitting there growing hay,” she says. “I just felt like I could do it.”

She now has 74 acres in peaches. “I strive to make mine perfect,” says Adams, a trained chef. Her website, http://sunnyfloridapamperedpeaches.com, includes grower resources and peach recipes.

Growing peaches is different than growing oranges. Deciduous in nature, with thinner skins, the peach requires new growing practices. Dr. Mercy Olmstead, a stone fruit specialist with UF/IFAS, says it’s important for peach trees to receive the right number of chill hours. “It really helps if you do get those chill units so you’ll get leafing,” she says. “If they don’t put out leaves, you get poor quality and poor size.”

For Polk County, she recommends UFBest, UFSun, TropicBeauty, and depending where you are at, UFGem. More information is available at http://hos.ufl.edu/extension/stonefruit

In addition to choosing the proper variety for your site, she advises scouting for insects and disease, as well as considering fertigation, or fertilizer injected into the irrigation system instead of granular application.

In the Bartow area, Clear Springs Packing now packs and sells peaches in addition to berries. “The fruit quality is incredible. It’s a tree-ripened peach. It’s a rarity in the industry,” says Craig Underhill, sales director.

The problem is the peaches’ size. Florida is well known for a two-and-a-quarter inch peach. “We’re learning the retailers like a two-and-a-half inch peach,” he says, suggesting Florida fruit be sold as a snack-size peach for children. “My kids like the two inch,” he says. “They carry it outside. They don’t have to sit down like it’s a meal.”

Peaches are being grown primarily in a belt across Florida, from mid-Palm Beach County to north of Interstate 4, Bogart says. More information is available at http://www.ruckscitrusnursery.com

In northern parts of the state, the marketing window is narrower, making shipping to traditional wholesale markets iffy. Gary England, a multiple-county extension agent for IFAS in Lake County, says, “The Orlando area and south is where the majority of shippers are going to be.” With a narrower window, only a few folks in England’s area are growing for a u-pick local market.

Growers seem to be banking on their exclusivity in the spring marketing window—at a time when domestic consumption of peaches has diminished. A U.S. Peach Market and Crop Analysis Report released in April by Gitzen and Daniel Sleep, supervisor/senior analyst with FDACS’ Division of Marketing and Development, reports a decline in fresh peach consumption from 1980 to 2012, based on USDA and Economic Research Service data. Consumption stabilized since 2007 at 4.5 pounds per person, according to the report.

Promotions can stress exclusivity in the early spring and taste, the report notes, plus encourage fresh peaches in recipes. Although the industry is young and the fruit is smaller than average, the unique market window combined with the excellent flavor are spelling promise for the orchards of Florida.

story by CHERYL ROGERS