It’s in the Bag

Peach bagging has potential to bring the organic peach market to the Southeast

Credit: Juan Carlos Melgar, assistant professor of pomology – Clemson University, and Guido Schnabel, professor & plant pathologist – Clemson University

Peach growers in the southeastern United States must control many pests and diseases to be able to produce high-quality peaches. From brown rot, peach scab, bacterial spot, and anthracnose to plum curculio, thrips, scale, and mites, the extensive list of problems make peaches one of the most sprayed fruit. Frequent pesticide application creates residue issues, hastens resistance development, and causes environmental concerns. Many conventional growers are trying to counter these problems by reducing the amount of pesticides applied to their crop, but pest and disease control remain a major challenge in the humidity of the southeast.

Consumer demand for high-quality and pesticide-free fruit is growing, and the alternative to conventional production is organic production. However, production of organic peaches is almost impossible in the conditions of the Southeast, and very few growers are taking this chance. For this reason, reports the USDA Economic Research Service, southeastern states are not benefiting from the market opportunities of organic peach production, which underwent explosive production growth in states like California, Washington, and Oregon.

At Clemson University, Extension specialists Juan Carlos Melgar and Guido Schnabel are trying to solve the dilemma that the southeast US growers are facing. They bag peaches as they grow on trees, an unconventional method of protecting them from insects and diseases while reducing reliance on pesticides. Field bagging of fruits has been practiced in Japan, China, Australia, and Spain, but has never been studied in the conditions of the southeastern United States. The two have a hypothesis that this technique has potential to drastically reduce pesticide application for both conventional and organic fruit production.

“For conventional growers, I could imagine people bagging some fruit and selling them as priority peaches or low-residue peaches for a premium,” Schnabel says. “I believe this could also be a key component for organic producers, who currently don’t really have the tools to produce quality fruits. It is very tough to keep the insects and the disease off the peaches—these bags might be the answer.

Melgar and Schnabel bag peaches when the fruits are very small, at the time trees are thinned, and the paper (is it really paper? I saw pictures and I think they’re plastic. Or is this a paper bag over the plastic bag? – LB) bags protect the fruit during the rest of the season.

Last year, they bagged at two farms in the Ridge, South Carolina’s predominant peach-growing region in the western counties of Edgefield, Saluda and Lexington. Tests showed sugar content, acidity, and the ratio between them to be the same in both bagged peaches and conventionally-grown peaches—that meant flavor was not affected. Fruit size and weight were also the same, Melgar said.

While bagged peaches were not as blush red as conventional peaches due to the decreased sunlight they received while in the bag, they did acquire a nice “peachy” color, and their blush percentage was comparable to non-bagged peaches. In fact, surveyed at Upstate (is this a term that people know? Is it upstate south carolina? Or a proper noun? – LB) farmers markets, potential consumers overwhelmingly preferred the less red peaches when they knew that they were grown in bags.

“People were excited to know these peaches had not received pesticide applications and many people were willing to pay a premium of up to 80% more than peaches grown with pesticides,” Melgar said. While bagging peaches may not displace pesticide applications in large-scale operations, Melgar and Schnabel envision a niche market serving healthy-minded consumers willing to pay a premium for chemical-free produce.

Growing peaches in bags adds cost in form of increased supplies and labor, although growers would save money on pesticides while still combating fungicide resistance. Also, the ratio of cull fruit in the packout may be reduced. Based on last year results, they calculated that growers might have to sell the bagged peaches at $0.10-$0.15 more per pound to make up for the increased costs.

While Melgar and Schnabel explore ways to benefit conventional growers with this technique, especially using it in varieties that easily develop skin blemishes, they know that this method is most easily marketable to organic farmers. Since consumers of organic produce are already willing to pay a premium, the bagging method might finally open opportunities for an organic peach market in the southeastern United States.
Potential pulled-out box:

Bagging peaches could also enable homeowners to grow peaches in the backyard. Many people, from multiple states, have shown interest in these bags, so Schnabel and Melgar prepared a homeowner instruction fact sheet available by scanning this QR code with your smart device:

Funding for this project came from a 2015 Southern IPM Center IPM Enhancement Grant (maybe small at bottom… because I’m unsure about what all the “project” entails, (just the initial research? Bagging in SC?) I don’t know exactly where is accurate to work into the body text.) LB