Posts Tagged ‘Polk County’

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


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