Pest-weary orange growers turn to peaches (yes, peaches, in Florida)

Another orange fruit is trying to squeeze its way into the Florida citrus belt.

We're talking the peach, the fuzz ball that made Georgia famous.

Thanks to decades of cross-breeding at the University of Florida, peach trees can now grow in the Florida subtropics. That has inspired Florida citrus farmers to start planting peaches to diversify their increasingly troublesome orange crops.

From his orchard on the edge of the Green Swamp east of Dade City, Ron Wilson is a firm believer in the power of the peach.

After the viral disease tristeza infected the roots of his orange grove several years ago, Wilson approached nurseries to provide him with Florida hardy peach varieties.

Two years ago his 1,000 peach trees produced 80,000 pounds of fruit. They sold at Sweetbay supermarkets for $2.99 a pound. Unlike the peaches harvested in places like California that get picked too early, producing a sometimes grainy interior, local peaches can be picked at the peak of ripeness.

"They're juicy. They have an aroma. They taste like a peach should," Wilson said.

The key to growing peaches successfully in the previously hostile Florida climate is "chill hours." A certain number of hours below 45 degrees trigger a peach tree to start blossoming. In Georgia and South Carolina, 300 chill hours is normal.

Florida gets only 200 chill hours, with South Florida closer to 100.

Enter the University of Florida. For 50 years, horticulturists have tinkered with breeding a warm-weather peach. Growers in Australia and Morocco have adopted varieties such as Florida Prince, UF Sun and Tropic Beauty.

"We used to target North Florida. There used to be a peach industry in Madison County on the Georgia border. But a series of freezes in the '80s knocked it back," said Mercy Olmstead, a stone fruit specialist at UF. "Now we're targeting South and Central Florida. Peaches will grow as far south as Immokalee."

Historically, Florida fruit growers profiting from the state's $9 billion citrus industry didn't feel like messing with a delicate fruit known for easy bruising.

At the start of this year's late fall harvest, citrus is selling for $1.35 a pound, producing plenty of profits for farmers. The break-even price is about 75 cents a pound. But crop disease is making farmers miserable.

After battling pests like citrus canker and tristeza for years, growers are wrestling with a new disease called citrus greening. It's a tree-destroying bacteria spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid.

Controlling the bugs requires costly extra spraying. An orange crop that once cost $700 an acre to produce now costs $1,200 to $1,500 an acre.

The idea of using peaches as a supplement — and sometimes replacement — for citrus is spreading to Wilson's Pasco County neighbors.

Terry Schrader, who manages his family's groves in Pasco's San Antonio community, was attracted to what peach proponents call an "early marketing window." Subtropical peaches are ready to eat from about late March to mid May. That lets Florida charge premium prices while fruit is still immature in Georgia and South Carolina.

"Peaches are more costly to maintain, probably $3,500 per acre. But tree for tree you can make more off peaches than you can off citrus," Schrader said. "We'll plant a couple of acres and see what happens."

So far peach cultivation appears to occupy fewer than 500 acres in Florida, including orchards in Dade City, Punta Gorda and Lakeland. Both Sweetbay and Publix carry the subtropical varieties.

With more than 35,000 acres under cultivation, California is by far the top peach-growing region. South Carolina is second and Georgia is third.

Wilson is at the center of a marketing drive to sell the consumer on a fruit long associated with our neighboring state to the north. One trial marketing slogan: Feel the Fuzz.

Sweetbay filmed a commercial in his orchard in June. Since crews arrived after trees had already been stripped of fruit, the producers dangled California peaches by wires off Wilson's trees. Once back at the studio, they even superimposed fake mountains in the background.

"We pick them by hand every other day. Within 24 hours they're in the store," Wilson said. "No more dry peaches. When you eat them the juice runs down your arm."

Jostling juicy fruits

Peach cultivation remains just a speck in the eye (500 acres) compared to Florida's massive citrus industry (485,000 acres). But

the fuzzy fruit is making a Florida comeback, thanks to the introduction of hardier varieties that resist the pests that are afflicting citrus.

Florida Nation's top citrus producer

California Nation's top peach producer

$1.35 Wholesale price per pound of Florida citrus this month.

$2+ Wholesale price per pound of Florida peaches.

Pest-weary orange growers turn to peaches (yes, peaches, in Florida) 12/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 10:06pm]

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