Hot alternative crops for Florida growers


| Peach and pomegranate crops are gaining popularity in the Sunshine State |

CLINT UPDIKE GREW UP in the citrus industry. He’s a grower and caretaker. As president of Altura-based Updike Citrus Services, he caretakes some 2,300 acres of citrus. But an increasing number of growers are trying their hands at other crops.

For Updike, that crop is peaches. He has 40 acres of peaches and 40 acres of citrus. “I decided to take all my eggs out of the basket and spread them around,” he says. “It’s going pretty well. I can’t complain.” He is also caretaking some 400 acres of peaches in Polk and Hillsborough counties through Alturas-based Sunny Florida Peach Company.

For the Weinsteins, the crop is pomegranates. Cindy Weinstein, president of the newly formed Florida Pomegranate Association, says they were looking at a crop that would help them compete with larger growers. “We knew we couldn’t compete … with everything that’s big out there right now,” she explains. “So far it’s easy to grow. We’re treating them sort of like orange trees.” Her and her husband David own Green Sea Farms near Zolfo Springs in Hardee County, where they sell the pomegranate plants.

PEACH CROP PACKS POSITIVE RESULTS

In the last three or four years, there has been new interest in peaches as an alternative crop, says Chris Oswalt, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) citrus extension agent for Polk and Hillsborough counties. That has been made possible by the development of new varieties, like UFSun, with lower chill-hour requirements.

At Dundee Citrus Growers Association, a grower-owned cooperative, many of the growers have diversified into peaches, says Steven Callaham, executive vice-president and chief executive officer. “It’s definitely a growing industry,” he says. The Dundee association harvests, packs, markets and ships approximately 300 acres of peaches, growing a portion of it themselves. “It’s exciting because it is something new. It’s a great tasting peach … They’re absolutely delicious.”

Callaham says growers wanted to explore other types of crops and found peaches matured when they had labor and resources available, enabling them to offer a new product to existing customers. “It’s not to replace citrus by any means,” Callaham adds.

Florida’s low-chill peaches are expected to hit the market in March through May, offering fresh peaches to consumers when they wouldn’t ordinarily have any. The hope is that growers could then command higher prices, maybe double the 80 to 90 cents a pound Georgia growers receive. They would still have to cover production costs.

“We’re currently conducting research on that,” says Dr. Mercy Olmstead, a stone fruit extension specialist for UF/ IFAS in Gainesville. “There is demand from several packers and shippers throughout the state,” Dr. Olmstead says. “They continue to tell me there’s good demand throughout Florida and it’s starting to expand throughout the southeastern United States.”

Yet experts says it’s harder to grow peaches than oranges. Dr. Olmstead described it this way: Two growers see an insect in their orchard before their planned fishing trip. The citrus grower would go fishing and take care of it later; the peach grower would take care of the insect first. Because of the rinds, sucking insects can penetrate the thin skin of the peach more easily than citrus, so more sprays are required. “It’s high maintenance. You can’t let things lie in the peach orchard,” she says, adding growers can expect a learning curve. “There’s a lot more time and care that goes into a peach orchard.”

“It’s not something you’re going to get into and just turn the key on and produce the peaches,” Callaham adds. “I definitely think there’s room (for the Florida peach industry) to expand.” There are an estimated 1,000 acres planted in peaches statewide, most located between Interstate 4 and Immokolee, experts say. A five-city survey in 2008 study estimated the state would need between 7,700 to 10,400 acres in peaches to meet the expressed demand, the report shows.

Yet, extension agents advise caution. “You cannot dive into this blindly. Any individual who is considering the production of peaches needs to look at all the alternatives and determine whether peaches will fit in their operation,” says Les Harrison, the Wakulla County extension director who worked on the feasibility study.

“I wouldn’t get out of citrus to get into peaches,” advises Gary England, a multicounty IFAS fruit crops agent based in Lake County. “I’m still pretty bullish with the citrus industry.” Peaches need well-drained soil, much like citrus, England points out. “They require a very large amount of hand labor.” England estimates peaches cost about double the amount of citrus to grow – with the biggest cost being hand labor required to get large fruit. “Peaches tend to tremendously overfruit. Most growers go in by hand and just pick fruit off.” England adds of the potential future success for the crop, “Just like everything else, the marketing is going to be the key.”

POSITIVE OUTLOOK FOR POMEGRANATE CROP

Meanwhile, research is ongoing with pomegranates to see if it can be successfully grown as an alternative crop. Folks interested in pomegranates were able to see them, learn about how the plants have performed, and taste the fruit at a special field day on Wednesday, August 23, at the Mid Florida Citrus Foundation Deciduous Demonstration Area south of Winter Garden.

The Florida Pomegranate Association is having its first annual meeting from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, September 14, 2012, at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. Preregistration is required; admission is $25, but a discount is available with a paid one-year membership in the association. To preregister, e-mail Weinstein at flpomegranate@gmail.com or flpompres@gmail.com, or call her at (863) 604-3778.

“We’re really just getting started. My plants are the oldest – they’re just three years old,” says Dr. Bill Castle, professor emeritus at the UF’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. He’s distributed around 7,000 plants. “I’ve got 50 to 60 cooperators scattered throughout the state,” he explains. It may take two more years for a commercial crop, with flowering coming next year, he adds.

The biggest problem growers have encountered so far is fungus. “This fungal problem that we’ve identified is the No. 1 limiting factor to having a commercial industry in Florida, Dr. Castle observes. It has no common name, but is known by the scientific name botryosphaeria.

A fruit of antiquity, pomegranates have been around for thousands of years, along with the olive, fig, and date. Its native climate is hot and dry in the summer, instead of Florida’s wet and humid weather. Most people associate pomegranates with the pink fruit they see at grocery stores, but there are many varieties. The flavor can vary – from the sweetness of cotton candy to the tartness of lemonade and many flavors in between. The rinds can be yellow, pink, green, black, orange, and mottled.

Dr. Castle and Weinstein both are looking forward to the day when there may be a processing facility in Florida. “Processors are saying ‘Where’s my growers’ and growers are saying ‘Where’s my processing plant,’” Cindy Weinstein conveys. “If we get growers, the processors are there.”

In the meantime, one of the things that distinguishes Florida is the number of cultivars being studied here, says Dr. Castle, who has 90 to 100 plants. “Most places have one or a few cultivars.”

“Many companies are asking for Florida pomegranate,” Cindy Weinstein adds. “We have a market already going.”

CREDIT

story by CHERYL ROGERS