There’s no denying that it has been a tough season for peaches here in Florida this year. I can’t imagine there’s a corner of the state’s agriculture that hasn’t been affected. At Rafool Ranch and Land in Central Florida, we’re in our fourth year of growing, and our peach production for the year is down 80 percent over the last two years. While many were still picking in late April, I would estimate that peach yields are down 60 to 70 percent or more all across the state.
The first issue we all faced was the warm, wet weather in November and December; it affected many other crops—like blueberries—along with peaches. Not even taking the Dynamic Model into account for calculating chill hours—which has warm weather reversing chill hours ‘in the bank’—our trees basically received zero chill hours in November and December. With an El Nino weather pattern keeping cool air at bay, the warm winter wasn’t unexpected. However, no one could have predicted that the weather would be so warm for so long. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), December 2015 through February 2016 was the warmest winter on record in the contiguous United States.
The warm temperatures convinced the peach trees that it was time to grow, and they went into bloom early. Then, a return to colder-than-normal temperatures in January threw the trees for another loop. Ball bearing-sized fruit simply fell from the trees, ending a lot of early harvests. We weren’t picking at all in two out of our three blocks, and the production of the third block was only 10 to 20 percent of expected yields. We tried a spray called Dormex, a plant growth regulator, which helps blueberry farmers in increase fruit size and yields, but we didn’t really find it to be effective.
The next issue started with the cold weather sending the trees back into dormancy. When temperatures again began to rise—like they usually do as the year progresses—the trees put out a secondary bloom. While these peaches we’re harvesting now have kept this year’s season from being a total bust, the turn of events have pushed the season back considerably. Generally, Florida’s peach season is over by the first week of May, and harvest time usually coincides with a slim market lull that occurs after Chile’s harvest and before Georgia’s or California’s peaches flood the U.S. market. Obviously, a high supply does not make for premium prices for growers, and a late Florida season could overlap with Georgia and California peaches.
Furthermore, many growers also witnessed the destruction of peach trees at the hands of Peach Short Life. It’s an issue the peach industry will need to keep an eye on and develop a treatment or cure for.
Lastly, as if to add insult to injury, much of Central Florida suffered inclement weather and hail in the middle of April. Chunks of ice hurtling from the sky do not do nice things to soft peaches ripening on the branch. Many growers saw fruit knocked down or damaged beyond repair by the bad weather.
There are silver linings to the season, however! Firstly, the peaches that are being harvested are big, juicy and as sweet as sugar. That’s exactly what the consumer wants. Secondly, we’re also blessed here in Florida to have a large local market, thanks to the good work of the Fresh From Florida program and Florida residents who love Florida produce. Our market share is large enough to sustain the industry. Thirdly, reports from other parts of the country suggest that California and Georgia are having rough peach season as well, and that their peaches may also be late to hit the market.
Lastly, there’s pride to be had in being a part of Florida’s fledgling peach industry at the moment. We’re essentially pioneers and innovators cutting the trail for others to follow. The University of Florida is still working on low-chill varieties, and it’s not to an exact science yet. You can’t just pull out oranges, stick in peaches and expect a money printing press. Some years are good and some bad.
If being Sunshine State pioneers isn’t enough, peach growers can count their lucky stars they aren’t in Northeast states like Delaware and New Jersey. A similar warm-then-cold weather pattern—obviously much colder than Florida’s temperatures— caused buds to freeze on the branch. Some early reports maintain there might not be a single peach to be had.