Not Georgia peaches, yet, but Florida peaches.
The Florida fruit helps fill the gap when Chile shipments end in March through Georgia’s usual mid-May start.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Florida grew 4,000 acres, mostly along the Georgia state line and marketed by Georgia packers.
Killer freezes during the 1980s ended that production, said Mercy Olmstead, a stone fruit extension specialist and assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Horticultural Sciences, Gainesville.
Today, 45 growers are estimated to grow nearly 1,200 acres, up from the 120 acres that went in the ground in 2006, Olmstead said.
Last season’s acreage produced 3 million pounds, she said.
Growers in the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, who supply one of the state’s largest citrus packinghouses, grow peaches on more than 300 acres as part of Dundee Stone Fruit LLC.
To fill demand, Dundee Stone Fruit expects its peach acreage to increase over the next few years, said Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Florida Classic Growers, the association’s marketing arm.
“This year, we’ve seen our volume triple from last season,” he said. “Demand for tree-ripened ready-to-eat peaches far exceeds supply. This year’s program has expanded to outside of the Southeastern U.S.”
Though the state typically produces small, 2- to 2.5-inch fruit, university breeding efforts are helping produce larger fruit.
In late April, Olmstead gained consumer feedback through some peach tastings at Sarasota, Fla., farm markets.
She said most people are impressed by the quality, but said the biggest challenge is getting the state’s retailers to promote it as Florida fruit.
Most of the state’s acreage is planted along the Interstate 4 corridor and south, including in Arcadia, Immokalee and Punta Gorda, with significant production in the Plant City area and Vero Beach, Olmstead said.
She said breeders are trying to develop varieties that produce well in warmer, low chill-hour areas closer to Miami.
Florida’s 3 million pounds isn’t listed in the most recent production tables published by the National Peach Council, Dillsburg, Pa.
Though a fraction of the fresh production in 2012 in California (688 million pounds), South Carolina (150 million pounds) and Georgia (66 million pounds), Florida production fills a short marketing window.
“From my brief visits there, I am very impressed by their growth and the way they’re addressing their growth,” said Kay Rentzel, the peach council’s managing director.
“They could provide a very valuable role offering domestic local and regionally grown fruit and let consumers know we have domestic peaches for a longer period of time.”
Georgia growers view the increasing production favorably.
“Florida has really done a good job at closing that gap when April has traditionally been a peach desert,” said Will McGehee, marketing director of the Georgia Peach Council in Byron and sales manager for the Genuine Georgia Group and Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Ga.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to get the engines going in our customers’ stores,” McGehee said.
“We like it because Florida gets people thinking about peaches before we come in.”