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News Story
Updated: 08/06/2014 02:52:10PM

A peach of an idea

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PHOTOS BY KRISTEN SCARBOROUGH

Ryan Scarboroug, left, and Deeley Hunt take a short break from tending their peach orchard on the northeast corner of Clinch Lake.

If left unpruned, peach trees become very bushy, making the tree produces less fruit. Trimming them helps open the crown and bring more sunlight to the peaches.

By PHIL ATTINGER

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Take a look at the peaches sold in your local market and you may see them marked as “grown in Florida.” It’s not a typo; it’s a new type of peaches.

They’ve been around for more than 25 years, and in development more than 50 years, said Mercy Olmstead, assistant professor and extension fruit specialist with the University of Florida.

UF has developed trees that need fewer cold nights to make peaches, and some citrus growers are trying them out as a means of diversifying against the ravages of citrus canker and greening, Olmstead said.

Two young local growers are giving it a try.

Ryan Scarborough, 23, can attest to the labor. He and friend Deeley Hunt — both recent college graduates — have planted an acre of “UFBest” on the northeast banks of Clinch Lake in Frostproof. They only need 100 “chill hours,” Scarborough said, and Frostproof only gets 50-100 cold hours each year.

Wheeler, Scarborough and Olmstead all said sandy soil works well for peaches, as it does for citrus, but peaches can’t tolerate any flooding, so the high lands of the Lake Wales Ridge are a great place for them.

Citrus growers can even space peach trees in the same rows and use much of their same equipment.

Also like citrus, getting the fruit out requires a lot of work. Scarborough said that most growers use foreign migrant workers who are brought in each year to pick then sent home at the end of each season.

“There’s a lot of pre-planning,” Scarborough said. “The labor situation is getting thinner and thinner every day.”

But if they can get the fruit to market, when wholesale prices are still 90 cents to $1 per pound, they can make a profit.

“We (in Florida) have a market window we can take advantage of,” Olmstead said.

The state had peaches in North Florida in the 1980s, she said, but freezes took out the trees. Now, it’s making a comeback.

“Everything came to fruition 15 years ago,” Olmstead said: From 100 acres in 2009 to 1,200 acres today.

It’s a $5 million industry, and she said it’s growing steadily. So much so that consumers have started to notice.

“Most of them say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know Florida had peaches. Now that I know, I’m going to look for them,’” Olmstead said.

When asked how they compare to Georgia or California peaches, she couldn’t say. They both ripen at different times of the year from Florida varieties, so side-by-side taste tests aren’t possible.

David Wheeler, citrus grower from Lake Placid, knows of some peach orchards as old as 10 years. He actually has 55 acres planted, including north of Lake Wales off State Road 17. He grows “UFSun” and “UFBest,” two UF-created varieties.

His oldest trees are three years old, and most trees take 12-18 months to bring fruit.

Growing peaches in Florida was a challenge, Wheeler said, because most of the state didn’t get cold enough. UF’s low-chill peaches can ripen with as little as 100 cumulative hours of 45-55 degree weather, he said.

The harvest is a four- to six-week window from mid-March to May, well ahead of other states’ peaches, so a Florida farmer can make a profit getting fresh fruit to market first, he said.

The only downside, Wheeler said, is labor cost. Every tree has to be trimmed to six feet and pruned into a bowl to provide light to the fruit. The fruit have to be culled early in the growing season to limit the fruit and ensure quality.


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