Orchard update: A growing alternative crop in the Sunshine State


MOTHER NATURE may hand Central Florida fruit growers plenty of problems and obstacles, but they are a tenacious group — difficult to discourage and impossible to stop.

Even though plenty of problems have haunted citrus growers in recent years — citrus greening, cold weather, and other pests and diseases — local growers have diligently worked through them to the best of their ability. One reaction to the most recent problem of citrus greening — also known as huanglongbing (HLB) — has been diversification. In the past several years, many growers have delved into the business of growing peaches — a trend that has really caught on.

This is an exciting time of year for the newly initiated Central Florida peach growers. “We are right in the middle of our first harvest and are so excited about producing and selling our Florida Best Peaches,” says Lynn Fulton Aaron, owner of Florida Best Peaches. The time frame for Florida peaches is mid-March through May. “We began harvesting the first part of April and will continue through the month of May,” Aaron adds. The timing is great for local business: Florida’s peaches are being harvested ahead of those grown in other areas.

From all appearances, consumers can expect to find more and more locally grown peaches in stores. “The peach industry in Florida is growing,” Aaron says. “This year, the state is expected to harvest more than four million pounds from 1,800 acres.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Census released in May of 2014 showed that there were 1,231 acres of peaches in the state in 2012. In 2007, there were just 234 acres.

With the industry’s challenges over greening that we as citrus growers have been experiencing, it has forced some to explore additional crops that can grow in the Central Florida area,” Aaron says. “The University of Florida has developed several low-chill peach varieties that do well without prolonged periods of cold winter temperatures.”

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA RESEARCH HAS BEEN KEY

“We work closely with the University of Florida, and they have gone above and beyond to provide peach varieties that require low-chill hours and can adapt to our soil,” she explains. “They have also been excellent about educating the new Florida peach farmers on growing peaches, from planting to pruning to harvesting.”

Making the decision to diversity from citrus and try peach-growing was not difficult, according to Aaron. “I come from a citrus family and am a proud fourth-generation Florida citrus grower,” she points out. “We continue to grow and support the citrus industry.”

“I personally wanted to venture into the new peach industry as well, and have enjoyed learning about farming and managing a peach orchard,” she continues. “Florida peaches enter the market earlier than most other production areas— Georgia and South Carolina— giving Florida growers a head start, which is another plus.”

It has been an adventure and a learning experience for growers, according to Brandon Rafool. The lawyer and part-time grower, along with his brothers, Chris and Ray, and their father, Gordon Rafool, together operate Winter Haven-based Rafool Farm & Land.

They began to grow peaches in 2012, and, like Aaron, have benefited from the University of Florida’s studies and guidance. It’s all new territory, after all, for local growers.

THERE’S NO MANUAL ON GROWING A FLORIDA PEACH

“There’s no manual on growing a Florida peach,” Rafool says. “Nobody comes into your grove and tells you this is right, or this is wrong. We are learning.” And as they learn, they are producing some delicious peaches as well, he reports. “They are very sweet, very tasty, and very juicy,” he adds.

Despite this year’s frost and cold weather problems, local crops have grown wonderful peaches, and growers have collaborated for the common good. “We are all kind of working together,” he says. “We are working toward the same goals.”

Growers are working on getting the size of their peaches just right as well. “The 2 3/8-inch peach is what we’re really shooting for. We have grown some high twos and low threes that were also very good.”

Aaron says size is also being perfected at her orchards. “We have been successful in finding a market for our peaches that range in size from two to three inches. We are very happy with that — our trees are only two years old. We feel each year will produce larger peaches.”

A MARKET FOR THE SMALLER PEACHES AS WELL

And the smaller peaches have their fans. “For the peaches that may come in smaller, we are focusing on the family market, schools, etcetera,” Aaron says. “We feel there is a market here. The children in our family adore them. They tend to be the perfect size for parents to purchase for their kids. They have found that they do not go to waste. They are also super juicy and sweet.”

Efforts are under way to set minimum standards for Florida peaches, Rafool says. “We need to set standards for the peaches so we are well represented,” he states. “I want my peaches to compete against your peaches on the same playing field.” If someone tastes a Florida peach and it’s not delicious, it reflects poorly on all growers, Rafool points out. So it’s in the best interest of all growers to strive for high standards all around. “In Central Florida, you are only as good as your neighbor.”

Another joint venture is that of marketing. Rafool and many other growers would like to see peaches sold and marked “locally grown.” There is pride in the outcome of their hard work, and he says consumers will be encouraged to buy if they realize their neighbors, friends, and local business owners are the ones growing those peaches.

No matter what curve ball Mother Nature throws their way, it seems unlikely that local growers will be too discouraged to keep trying. “Nature can be your best friend, or your worst enemy,” he says. “We’ve been beat down enough and we are still moving forward.”

And the goal is not to just get by — it is to excel. “We are aiming to give Florida and the Southeast some of the best peaches they have ever had.”

CREDITS

story by MARY TOOTHMAN
photos by PEZZIMENTI