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Forgetting size troubles, Florida farmers' future tastes peachy

I saw the future of Hernando agriculture — or at least what has been touted as a promising part of it — and, frankly, it didn't look that impressive.

George Casey, 70, and his wife, Joan, run a well-known blueberry and strawberry farm on Wiscon Road southwest of Brooksville. Having heard a lot about new peach varieties developed for Florida's climate, he planted 10 trees two years ago as an experiment.

When I visited on Monday, the trees had grown to about 7 feet tall, nearly full-sized, and the fruit had ripened to the perfect-sunset color you'd expect from a good peach.

But there weren't that many of them, just a couple dozen per tree. If these were Christmas trees, you'd hang more ornaments.

Also, the fruit was closer to the size of a golf ball than a tennis ball, meaning the yield from each tree would be 4 or 5 pounds, Casey said. "I've got to learn to grow a bigger peach."

He and every other prospective peach farmer in the state will have a chance to do just that Tuesday when the University of Florida holds its Stone Fruit Field Day at a research station in the Marion County town of Citra.

The woman who will host that event, UF researcher Mercy Olmstead, said in a phone interview that the peach's potential as a crop shouldn't be judged by this year's harvest.

It is down for the same reason blueberry production is off about 30 percent: the combination of a freakishly warm January, which encouraged plants to put out loads of early blossoms, and hard freezes in early February that knocked them off the trees in clumps.

The size of the peaches? That's an ongoing challenge with Florida fruit because it has less time to grow than the summer-harvested varieties from big producing states, such as South Carolina, where, by the way, the harvest is about twice as large as in the so-called Peach State, Georgia.

The Florida fruit might be a little smaller than usual this year, Olmstead said, because the late freeze further shortened the time it had to develop. But growing larger peaches — applying the perfect mix of fertilizer and water — is certainly something that can be learned.

As to the overriding question — whether peaches can be a profitable crop in places such as Hernando, where most of the citrus was frozen out in the 1980s and where plans to put subdivisions on those old groves went into an even deeper freeze 20 years later — the answer is a definite yes, Olmstead said.

Because Florida peaches, like blueberries, are harvested early in the spring, they have the market to themselves for as long as six weeks.

That explains the high price — $3.99 per pound — Olmstead saw in a supermarket recently. That comes to more than $2 per pound for a grower, which compares to about 80 cents per pound received by South Carolina farmers and in California during the height of their season. That means Florida growers can potentially, she said, "make money hand over fist."

Not huge numbers of farmers, mind you. Currently, only about 1,000 acres in Florida, including a handful of orchards in Pasco County, are producing peaches.

A 2008 feasibility study concluded that, likely, no more than 10,000 acres would be planted in peaches, which, the study also found, consumers seemed to like very much.

Researchers took Florida peaches to cities including Atlanta and Indianapolis, where they received high grades for qualities such as sweetness, texture and tartness.

Maybe it seems obvious that this should be the focus of the study — how enjoyable these peaches are to eat. But remember, for a while that seemed to matter far less to big fruit and vegetable growers than how well their products held up after a thousand miles or so in a box car or semitrailer.

"You can produce a piece of fruit that looks beautiful and ships well and tastes like a softball," said Les Harrison, director of the Wakulla County Extension Service.

"The research we did indicated taste was the deciding factor," he said. "If people buy a peach and it tastes mediocre or horrible, they aren't going to buy it a second time."

On Monday, I got to sample two peaches. The first was slightly underripe and tart. The second was as sweet, firm and delicious as any I'd ever tasted.

In the way that really matters, in other words, it was very impressive.

Forgetting size troubles, Florida farmers' future tastes peachy 04/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 8:14pm]
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