Author Archive

Editor’s Note: Helping Growers Manage Troublesome Diseases

celeste-sig-tpnOVER THE SUMMER, a workshop was hosted by the Clemson University Musser Fruit Research Center. During the workshop, about 100 attendees were able to learn more about peach-growing practices and what techniques will aid them in management of troublesome diseases, such as bacterial spot and brown rot. Read More…


Growers Get Peaches In Front of Pupils


Farm to School Program Continues to Connect Orchardists with Florida Schools

IF YOU’RE IN ANY FIELD of agriculture in the Southeast, then you’ve probably heard of citrus greening and the way the disease is devastating the Florida citrus industry. If you’re in elementary school in Florida, however, then the fresh produce in your school-provided lunch is looking more sweet than ever. School children in 24 districts in The Sunshine State have been loving the peaches that have emerged over the years as a result of crop diversification, and it’s all thanks to the Florida Farm to School Program. Read More…


Bringing Blueberry Lovers into the Peach Fold

blueberries-peachesKeel and Curley Winery Serves Up Peach-Themed Products and Agritourism Event

THE KEEL AND CURLEY WINERY started in 2003, when blueberry farmer Joe Keel had an idea for what to do with his end-of-season berries. In the Plant City farmhouse kitchen, he prepared his first batch of blueberry wine. Some experimentation and refinement resulted in three distinct blueberry wines. Now, more than 20,000 cases of wine are produced each year at the Keel and Curley Winery — with peach wine and other beverages added to the mix.

Blueberries, blackberries, and peaches are the bread and butter of agriculture operation turned tourist attraction. The onsite winery, cidery, and brewery keep the Keels plenty busy brewing their flavorful products. They feature them seven days a week for customers through their tasting room and Railcar 91 food truck, as well as with several themed festivals, each held annually. They have hosted a blueberry festival for almost a decade, Biertoberfest since 2012, and the Third Annual Peach Festival will be taking place in May 2017.

Alicia Keel says that it only made sense that they would add a peach festival when they began growing peaches. “We’ve always had a tradition of holding festivals for our harvests, so as soon as we had our peaches available we added a peach festival,” she says. There will be u-picks available, and customers are urged to come early as that tends to be a very popular sale. Despite the warmer winter weather trends, the peach harvest is expected to go well. Whatever blueberries and blackberries are leftover from their respective harvests also will be available.

The diversification into these related ventures makes the Keel and Curley Winery an agritourism destination with many attractions. The tasting room makes it easy for guests to try the array of beverages offered by Keel and Curley, including several peach-flavored beverages:

WINES – The blueberry wines that started the company come in three varieties: dry, semi-dry, and sweet. In addition to these classics are seven fusion wines that combine fruit juice, including a peach chardonnay.

CIDERS – Keel and Curley offers eight different ciders. The hard apple cider is brewed at the Two Henrys Brewing and blended with fresh fruit grown on-site or locally. Strawberry, mango, and peach are just a few examples. These ciders are made with fresh juices, not from concentrate, which distinguishes them from competitors.

BEERS – Two Henrys Brewing is the cider and beer branch of the Keel and Curley tree. Five craft beers and a rotating selection of seasonal craft beers means there is always something new to try in the tasting room, including a peach beer.

Having fields full of berries, grapes, and peaches gives Keel and Curley plenty to work with, and they make the most of it. They have even expanded into serving food this year with their Railcar 91 food truck. This provides even more opportunity for cross-use of products, with the ability to feature custom pairings seasonally on the menu.

Are there plans to expand into any more ventures soon? “No!” says Mrs. Keel. “Between having the winery, the cidery, the brewery, and then our own food and tasting room that’s open seven days a week, I think we’ve got a full plate.” And with growing consumer interest and demand of Florida peaches, a full plate of fresh offerings is what a hungry market calls for.




Seeing the Orchard for the Trees: Florida Peach Growers Battling the Heat


PEACH GROWERS IN THE SUNSHINE STATE face a major hurdle: getting enough cold weather to produce a viable crop. But several commercially available peach varieties, bred for Florida, are giving the industry a fighting chance.

Just ask Ralph Chamberlain. He manages 40 acres of peach trees in Charlotte County, about 30 miles east of Punta Gorda. “I’m the southernmost peach orchard in Florida,” he says. “I haven’t given up on them as yet.”

Chamberlain has been growing peaches for nearly 12 years using varieties such as UFBest, UFSun, and Tropic Beauty. But being so far south, he’s learned to coax his trees to produce with even fewer chill hours. He uses a technique called pre-conditioning, which he learned through the Australians. “Right before we defoliate our trees in the winter, I load them up with a high rate of potassium,” Chamberlain says. “We do that every 10 days through November, then we defoliate on the first week of December.” Pre-conditioning enables the trees to manage with 15 to 20 percent fewer chill hours. “A lot of years that could make it or break it,” he says.

Of five commercially viable peach varieties bred for Florida, UFBest requires the fewest chill hours, 100, reports Dr. Jose Chaparro, associate professor in fruit tree breeding and genetics at the University of Florida in Gainsville. UFOne and UFSun require 150, UFGem requires 175, and Tropic Beauty requires 200 hours, significantly less than northern varieties, which may require 450 or more chill hours. Tropic Beauty was developed in conjunction with Texas A&M University.

Dr. Chaparro says they are working to develop a peach that grows with zero to 75 chill hours at the Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce. “We don’t know what the future holds,” he adds. “We need to select for extremely low chilling.”

Last winter, Chamberlain’s trees only had 35 of the required 100 hours. “Last year was our worst harvest,” he says. “We had a very poor crop.”

He removed 25 acres of his oldest trees and is reconsidering plans for the future. “At this moment we’re kind of watching, waiting,” he says. “I think the market is there. We do have an incredible peach.  We just have not had very good weather.”

The industry had been gaining momentum until a warm winter this past year resulted in a 65 percent decline in volume, says Steven Callaham, managing partner of Dundee Stone Fruit Growers Association, a subsidiary of Dundee Citrus Growers Association. “Consumers were becoming more familiar with the peaches coming out of Florida,” he observes. “The customers were anxious to get the product and, of course, we didn’t have it. Everybody understands weather can be a problem.”

The association does marketing, harvesting, packaging, and shipping, primarily for growers in Polk County. The peaches are shipped up to the eastern states and as far north as Canada in the spring, when Florida’s peaches are the only fresh ones available.

In recent years, citrus growers in Central Florida began looking for alternative crops as they battled Huanglongbing or HLB, a disease which misshapes fruit and kills the trees. Some growers were putting in peach trees as that alternative. A warm winter has left Chamberlain, and possibly others, questioning if the peach is their answer. “There doesn’t seem to be as much buzz out there,” observes Chris Oswalt, a citrus extension agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Polk and Hillsborough counties. “There have been significant obstacles to being able to move […] a lot of volume out there. They’re somewhat struggling for an identity.”

Phillip Rucks, founder of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery in Frostproof, which provides about 90 percent of the peach trees in Florida, calls it an “identity crisis.” He says the industry needs to educate consumers and retail markets about the Florida peach. “Grocery store retail chains are not really aware that Florida has peaches,” he explains.

Thirty to 40 growers account for the bulk of the state’s acreage, which was at about 3,000 “the last I heard,” Rucks says. Rucks sold about 20,000 peach trees in 2016, down from about 75,000 in 2015, and 150,000 in 2014. “It’s critical having the chill hours,” he points out. “We have got to have a good year this year.” The cold weather puts the trees in a dormant state until warmer temperatures awaken blooms and leaf flush.

A marketing order to generate industry revenues, that could have been used to grow the industry, failed to pass in January. It did not receive 65 percent of the vote, which was required for approval.

The state will be working to promote the peaches, despite obstacles like volume and consistency. “When you have a small crop like the Florida peach right now, it does make for some challenges,” says Chris Denmark, a development representative with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Marketing and Development.

Florida’s peaches are not the same as other peaches. They are a little bit smaller and, some say, tastier. “They’re a different variety of peaches […] They don’t have the long shelf life that the Georgia and the Chilean peaches have, but the quality and the experience you have is not the same,” he explains.

“To me they are a much, much better product. They taste like a peach should taste,” he states. “If we can get it into the consumer’s hands and onto their lips, we can definitely make an impact.”


photos by LEAH BEANE


Chill Hours Update: Watching the Weather and Tallying the Time


PEACH GROWERS from Florida, Georgia, and South and North Carolina are concerned. For a second fall/winter season, 2016-17, climatologists are saying there will be the same warm fall and early winter season the growers had last winter. Orchards need cold weather called chill hours to break dormancy and yield fruit.

“Climatologists are saying we are to have a warmer-than-normal fall and early winter,” says Jeff Cook, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Taylor/Peach County Ag and Natural Resources Agent. “Last year we were historically warm … too warm. October starts the chill hours counting and we didn’t have any chill hours to amount to anything until January … not a killing frost until January.”

Peaches need chill hours and most varieties in middle Georgia need between 700 and 1,000 hours, Cook points out. Lack of chill hours can cause erratic fruiting and blooming, which can make it hard for farmers to organize their harvest and contributes to decreased yields.

“It depends on where you are as to how the peach crop is,” Cook states. “In middle Georgia, if we get 800 hours, we will be in good shape. Normally, we have 1,100 hours by January 15. We didn’t make it last year, for temperatures were in the mid-70s. I think it definitely had an effect on the fruit quality this year.”

Flooding waters in orchards can be an issue for peaches, but the fields in Georgia have been dry. In fact, no rain was even received in mid- Georgia by recent Hurricane Matthew. “We got breezy days that made the dryness even worse,” Cook recalls. “I don’t know how much rain they received in South and North Carolina, but they were dry and in need of rain so it probably helped.”

“We are in reduction in the number of buds and maybe quality,” Cook observes of the peach crop this year. “Some spots have gone seven to eight weeks now without rain. I would say middle Georgia is part of that exceptional drought, it is so extremely dry.”

“Peach trees set flower buds in summer and normally set too many so we should be okay. Flower bud numbers are not as big a deal as getting the chill hours we need.”

From a growers’ standpoint, they usually don’t start worrying until December, Cook shares. “At this point, the growers are thinking about it, but trying not to worry too much about things we can’t do anything about.”

There is help in creating a manmade chill-hours effect for the peach tree with hydrogen cyanamide (known by brand names as Dormex or Kropmax) that is supposed to boost up to 300 hours of chill to let the tree start breaking dormancy, Cook notes.

The research arm of the extension has been working on ways to make peach trees produce around the chill hours, but haven’t show any effects from it, Cook cites, reminding that researchers like to have multiple years of data — not just one year to share. If this is another light winter, he says that they will at least have another year of research on the problem.

“Right now, we are looking at a warmer winter, but we are still hopeful,” Cook concludes. “If we normally get a couple hundred less chill hours, it would be fine. We just hope we have a winter this year.”