DADE CITY — Florida orange growers whose groves have been stung by disease and pests are turning to peaches to diversify, sowing seeds of what could become Florida's next big crop.
"In three or four years you could see growers plant hundreds or a thousand acres per year," said Dan Sleep, a state Agriculture Department senior market analyst. "We're at a juncture where we may very well see sustained growth."
Though only a toe-hold now, peaches are slowly gaining ground in the citrus belt. Starting with 15 acres in Central Florida in 2006, growers now have 800 to 1,200 acres of peach trees in central, south and southwest Florida, including 40 to 50 acres in Pasco County — up from just 15 three years ago.
That pales compared to the $9 billion citrus industry with its 532,000 acres of oranges, grapefruit and tangerines that still blanket the state. But more growers are embracing peaches in the face of threats like tristeza and a newer affliction called citrus greening.
A growing market is helping, too.
"It's succeeding, but it's still in its infancy," said Steve Callahan of the growers' cooperative Dundee Citrus Growers Association. Dundee supplies labor to prune and pick peaches and helps growers package and get the fruit to market. "Right now, demand in the marketplace exceeds supply. That's definitely promising."
The difference-maker for growers is a variety of peach developed six years ago by the University of Florida's Horticultural Sciences Department adapted to Florida's warm, fleeting winters.
Stone fruit like peaches need an extended period below 45 degrees known as chill hours to blossom and produce fruit. UF scientists used cross-breeding to produce varieties that thrive on 100 to 200 chill hours yearly — typical for Florida.
From his orchard atop a hill on Jessamine Road in Dade City, Allen Altman oversees 10 acres of peaches in long, tidy rows. He still has 100 acres of citrus under his control or with partners, but diversifying made sense when he surveyed the problems vexing growers.
Though his heart remains with citrus, he said he couldn't ignore escalating production costs and lower yields driven by pests and disease, chief among them citrus greening.
Discovered six years ago in South Florida, citrus greening is a tree-ravaging bacteria spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. The scourge has since spread statewide, forcing growers to intensify their spraying to attack the insect.
"Our production costs now are about 400 percent of what they were historically 10 to 12 years ago," said Altman, who is also a Pasco County School Board member.
On the surface, the move to peaches makes sense because growers can make use of existing groves and irrigation. But the transition hasn't always been easy and comes with a learning curve.
Peaches are expensive to maintain — about $2,500 to $3,500 per acre compared to roughly $2,000 for oranges. Higher labor costs drive most of that difference. Peach trees need to be pruned and thinned to ensure the remaining fruit grow to plump, healthy sizes. Orange trees don't require that same hands-on attention, plus they typically live two to three times longer than peach trees.
"It's a double-edge sword," Altman said. "You don't want to produce too many small peaches, but you also don't want to prune too much and cut into your production. You have to know what you are doing."
The upside, growers and industry experts say, is that Florida peaches fetch higher prices than oranges — about $3.99 a pound versus 99 cents at supermarkets. Another plus: Peach trees yield market-ready fruit within a year — orange trees can take up to seven — and Florida peaches typically hit the market between late March and early May, well ahead of rivals Georgia and South Carolina.
Sleep, the state analyst, likens the industry to Florida's $20 million blueberry industry of the late 1990s before market demand and a push by growers fueled exponential growth. The key, again, was a UF-developed blueberry that shoppers wanted to buy.
The same possibility holds true for peaches, he said. With new emerging markets and a larger supply, Sleep sees potential in five to 10 years for a $100 million industry — small compared to citrus but "nothing to sneeze at."
Getting more growers on board is the challenge now. Florida's last peach experiment ended disastrously with successive freezes in the 1980s wiping out the state's only crop in North Florida. Now growers are taking on the warm-blooded UF peach and targeting more temperate Central and South Florida to avoid a repeat.
"We took peaches from North America and South America, from different parts of the world, and used them in breeding," said Mercy Olmstead, a UF stone fruit specialist. "The peaches bloom in January and ripen in 70 to 90 days. That's perfect for Florida."
Sunshine State peaches are showing up locally in Walmart, Publix and other grocers and have lured a following. Though smaller in size than out-of-state varieties, they're juicier and in many cases more flavorful than their rivals, Olmstead said.
Terry Schrader sees the potential. The longtime Dade City citrus grower planted 10 acres of peaches three years ago and hopes to add more trees for an eventual 20 acres.
"We were kind of forced to diversify," he said. "The citrus industry is fighting all these diseases, and we were just trying to find an alternative, something that hopefully will generate income off that land."
Schrader anticipates turning a profit this spring. The trees produce marketable fruit after a year but can take longer for profitable yields.
"Next season will be the real test," he said. "Hopefully we can double our money."