As Georgia shivers, Florida finds sweet spot with early peaches

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - The first peaches are ripe for harvest in Florida, bred to thrive where Mother Nature never intended the fruit to grow, alongside the state's signature rows of orange and grapefruit trees.


PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - The first peaches are ripe for harvest in Florida, bred to thrive where Mother Nature never intended the fruit to grow, alongside the state's signature rows of orange and grapefruit trees.

Peaches naturally belong in cooler climates such as Georgia, whose famous crop is just now poised to bloom, two months away from harvest.

Yet thanks to advances in fruit breeding techniques, Florida farmers have found a sweet spot with a subtropical peach that has seen the state's peach industry nearly double in size annually over the past four years.

Timed to fill a void in the market, Florida peaches debut in early spring, well ahead of the start of traditional peach picking in the rest of the United States.

"We are the first peach in America," said farmer Ralph Chamberlain, slicing with his pocketknife an early peach at Edentown Groves, one of the first to begin growing peaches in 2006.


"Little ball of sugar," he pronounced, admiring its deep coral blush.

Florida peaches highlight the potential of a U.S. research collaborative which applies DNA technology to breed fruit that tastes better, is more disease resistant, or flourishes in previously inhospitable climates.

The effort spans such diverse crops as cherries in Michigan, strawberries in New Hampshire and apples in Washington State.

New crops are critical in Florida, whose citrus industry, worth about $1 billion in sales, has been ravaged by a deadly greening disease in its groves.

To be sure, with only a few thousand acres in production, according to the state farm bureau, Florida's peach crop remains too small to make the annual U.S. peach tally. California remains king domestically, producing about three-fourths of U.S. peaches, followed by South Carolina and Georgia.

Yet the payoff for Florida farmers is an exclusive season.

"If you eat an American peach for the next five to six weeks, you're going to be eating a Florida peach," said farmer Donald Padgett, who shipped his first peaches late last week.

Labeled "Florida Sweet Peaches," he sells his crop along with the peaches from Edentown Groves to leading U.S. grocery chains, including Walmart and Whole Foods Market .


Florida farmers once grew peaches only in the northwestern state, near the Georgia state line, but the crop was wiped out by devastating freezes in the 1980s.

Over the past decade, the University of Florida's fruit tree expert, Jose Chaparro, studied the molecular basis of peaches to develop varieties that would thrive much further to the south, requiring fewer hours of winter temperatures to produce fruit.

Chaparro's laboratory also applied traditional breeding techniques, cross-pollinating the trees that yielded the rosiest peaches with the firmest flesh and just the right hint of acidity.

"You're a match maker," said Chaparro, adding that it can take eight years of breeding to release a new commercial variety.

That process may be speeded up as new fruit DNA testing centers gear up this year at Clemson University in South Carolina, Washington State University and a government facility in Oregon.

The effort is part of a national project called RosBREED, allotted $10 million over five years from the Department of Agriculture to improve quality and develop disease-resistance rosaceous fruit crops, including pears, apples, strawberries, cherries, blackberries and roses.

These specialty crops have fallen behind on advancements boosting corn and other leading farm crops, said Amy Iezzoni, the director of RosBREED and a horticulture professor at Michigan State University.

Finding the DNA markers for traits desirable to farmers, like making blackberries sweeter, could accelerate breeding efforts.


"It helps you find that needle in the haystack," Iezzoni said. "You don't waste all those years."

At Tree-O Groves in central Florida, the Shinn family opted to replant some of its lost citrus acreage with 90 acres of peaches, helping to offset losses on its 1,000 citrus acres.

"It's a band-aid to us," said Charles Shinn, part-owner in the farm.

As peaches are more labor intensive than citrus, he sees the crop as a niche unlikely to replace Florida's citrus industry.

"There's only one Peach State," said Duke Lane Jr., past president of the Georgia Peach Council. But Lane said his growers welcome their southern neighbors kicking off the season.

"It gets peaches on the minds of people," he said.

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