Florida peaches overcome nature’s challenges

Sweet, juicy peaches are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Florida, but they are becoming a bigger part of the state’s agricultural scene.

According to the most recent 2017 USDA Census/Survey data, there are 337 operations (farms) producing peaches in Florida, with 1,025 acres of land designated for peaches, with 904 of those bearing and 121 non-bearing acres. They are primarily grown in Central and South Florida, often alongside the state’s famed citrus groves. Acreage has been holding steady, but production and yield has been increasing as the trees mature and produce more fruit.

 DSC0955 “In Florida, with our warm climate we always struggle to get the needed chill hours, but aside from that, we had a good bloom, we had a good fruit set, the trees are in good health, and we’re excited about the crop this year,” Steven Callaham, chief executive officer of Dundee Citrus Growers Association based in Dundee, FL, told The Produce News. The Dundee cooperative’s peaches are marketed under the Florida Classic label.

Peaches are a relatively new crop in Florida. The state’s stone fruit breeding program began in 1952 under the direction of Dr. Ralph Sharpe, who sought to take advantage of the climate in Florida to provide early, high-quality fruit to the market, but peaches did not become a commercial success until recently.

“About 12 years ago, our citrus growers were starting to be exposed to and battling Citrus Greening Disease, so they wanted to find an alternative crop they could plant and that the Dundee Citrus Growers Association could handle for them,” Callaham said. “They were looking for something that could be planted in a similar infrastructure as a citrus grove, with similar tree spacing and irrigation systems.”

One of the biggest challenges facing Florida peach growers is the lack of chilling units, often defined as one hour below 45 degrees but above 32 degrees. The University of Florida has worked diligently to develop varieties of peaches requiring as little as 100 chilling units. As a comparison, peaches growing in New Jersey require 1,000 to 1,200 chilling units.

“Our breeding program is probably the most famous breeding program in the world. We have the most low chill peaches,” said Ali Sarkhosh, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension specialist, at the University of Florida IFAS Extension in Gainesville.

Nonetheless, even maintaining 100 chilling units has become a problem.

“The weather is getting warmer and warmer, and this year was the warmest in the last three years,” Sarkhosh said. “That has become a challenge. In the last few years climate change has had a negative impact on farmers looking to plant 100 acres or more. We have a small grower who has planted a few acres for a you-pick, but we haven’t had anyone who has started a new large scale commercial orchard in a few years.”

Sarkhosh said this year’s peach harvest will begin around March 20. “We expect to harvest our peaches this year maybe around two weeks earlier because the peaches went to flowering earlier,” he said.

A special workshop is on tap for farmers to address the climate change issue at the University of Florida Citra Campus.

“We are going to have a 2020 Peach Field Day on April 28 where we will talk a lot about the climate change effect on peach and fruit production. Then in the afternoon we will have a workshop about insect identification in peach production,” Sarkhosh said.

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