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Future looks 'peachy' for some Florida citrus growers as new crop makes inroads into old groves

While all Florida citrus growers have had to battle greening disease over the past decade with shrinking annual production, some are finding a way to take a tough situation and turn it just peachy.

Greening (also known as Huanglongbing or HLB) affects production in bearing groves, and the only solution for a severely infected grove is destruction. Florida has lost thousands of acres of citrus groves over the past decade — prime agricultural land sitting fallow.

Florida-Peach-2Five years ago, there was no Florida peach industry. Now there are some 1,200 acres of trees in the ground and the industry could grow to $100 million in five years. (Photo courtesy of At The Table PR)Now, many central and south Florida citrus growers are replacing former citrus groves with peach orchards, while others are turning to the crop as a buffer against HLB.

Five years ago there was no commercial Florida peach crop. The Sunshine State got too few chill hours to produce the fruit. In fact, an earlier experiment in north Florida in the 1980s ended in disaster when a series of hard freezes wiped out the crop.

Enter the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Science. Six years ago IFAS crossbred varieties of North and South American peaches to come up with a tree that needs just 100-200 hours in temperatures below 45 degrees to bear fruit. Better yet, peaches produce viable fruit from year one (compared to seven for citrus) and the Florida harvest comes during a March-May window between the end of the Chilean deal and the start of the Georgia and South Carolina crop.

And while Florida peaches are smaller than their cousins, averaging about two-and-a-quarter inches in diameter, they can be allowed to ripen on the tree before picking, a practice that by all accounts raises Brix levels and produces a juicier, sweeter peach.

In 2006, a 15-acre test drive of the new Florida peach proved successful. Now there are as many as 1,200 acres of Florida peaches in production and the state department of agriculture projects that number will grow exponentially over the next five years to become a $100 million crop.

Florida still has 532,000 acres of citrus — worth $9 billion annually — in production and there is no immediate threat to its dominance in the juice orange category. But peaches are clearly an attractive alternative or complement, especially since they fetch up to four times the price of oranges.

Florida Classic Growers in Dundee, FL, was one of the first participants in Florida's peach program, planting its first acreage five years ago, according to Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing.

"This will be our fourth year of selling Florida peaches commercially," he said. "We started out the first year with very little volume but each year it has grown and this year we anticipate potentially having 1 million pounds of peaches to sell."

Even better, "There's been great demand for Florida peaches and the issue over the last two years has been that the demand far exceeds the supply," he said. "This year we'll have more and be able to reach out to other retail partners with this program. The retailers we've worked with over the past years have said they have seen tremendous success with the program."

Florida Classic alone has doubled its peach acreage since last year and Finch believes that kind of growth will continue.

"Many of our growers have looked for alternative crops to grow, and Florida peaches have really caught on. It's really gained huge acceptance already and we're excited about the upcoming season," Finch said. "It's a terrific program. The nice thing about peaches is you're able to get some fruit off of the tree and have a crop the first year — it's about three to four years to get full production — and we're seeing upwards of 80 pounds per tree."

Consumers are responding to the Florida peach as well.

"Since they are tree-ripened, Brix levels are higher than other peaches, they truly have an outstanding flavor and we're beginning to see building consumer demand with repeat sales," Finch said. "Now we're looking forward to expanding our Florida peach program outside the southeastern United States. We're excited about the future for Florida peaches."