A retail display of Florida peaches. ( Courtesy Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association )

A fruit’s weakness can be a strength if you shift your perspective and strategy, Florida peach marketers are learning. The peninsula’s peaches may be small, but there’s that mighty tree-ripened flavor and winning availability window that’s ahead of other domestic peaches. 

“What got me passionate about these peaches is taste, believe it or not. This peach could make a puppy pull a freight train,” said Adrian Morales of Riverside Citrus Harvesting, Fort Pierce, Fla. He runs 360 acres of peach groves in Fort Pierce and Alturas, Fla., in partnership with Titan Farms, Ridge Spring, S.C.

Amazing flavor aside, Florida peach packers and marketers are learning to channel one of the crop’s main challenges — its small size — into an attribute by selling the fruit in 2-pound bags, which satisfies consumer preference for grab-and-go produce.

“Smaller is not worse in our case,” said Sonia Tighe, executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation. 

“Some retailers prefer it over having customers pick over loose peaches one piece at a time and putting it in a bag themselves. The 2-pound bags were tested last year, and more are going into bags this year.”

Comprising an estimated 1,800 acres statewide — compared with U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates of less than 500 acres in 2002 — Tighe said Florida peaches are being marketed as the perfect size for single-serving consumption, especially for children and packed lunches.

It’s just one aspect of the efforts the Florida peach industry is planning to continue ramping up with the help of the $235,000 specialty crop block grant that the Florida Department of Agriculture awarded the foundation for the 2019-20 funding period. 

The foundation is collaborating with Fresh from Florida’s marketing staff and an agency to use the grant money in several ways:

  • A retail advertising campaign in trade publications, letting produce buyers know Florida peaches are available in the second half of March through May, a market window that fills the gap after Chile’s imports dwindle before Georgia, South Carolina and California ramp up;
  • Coordinate with retailers to conduct sampling programs, circular advertising and other promotional events;
  • Promote through the Fresh from Florida social media account;
  • Conduct a consumer e-mail campaign;
  • Hire food bloggers to create recipes and reach out to their audiences;
  • Launch an Instagram account this spring while continuing the Facebook page;
  • Get into more county school district lunch programs; and
  • Whenever possible, use the official Florida peach logo, released in December.

A commercial crop for the state for barely a decade, many Florida citrus growers diversified into peaches because citrus greening disease has devasted their crops so badly, said Steven Callaham, CEO of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, which owns several subsidiaries including 40-member Dundee Stone Fruit Growers Association and Florida Classic Growers, the marketing arm.

Peaches are shipped to customers east of the Mississippi and up into Canada. The company’s flagship container is an 8-pound, single-layer tray pack, but for the first time this year, it’s rolling out a 2-pound pouch bag. Peachy

“Our customer base is very excited about that new packaging from a convenience standpoint, and it’s transparent,” Callaham said about the bags.

Just a few weeks before harvest, growers are thinning the fruit from the trees to encourage the remaining fruit to grow larger, Callaham said. 

It’s an expensive, yet vital, part of the process that can cost more than $1,000 an acre but makes the fruit large enough to be marketable to more retailers. Florida varieties are bred for the low-chill subtropical climate.

The 2019 crop of St. Cloud, Fla.-based grower Deer Park Peaches looks like it’ll make it to harvest relatively unscathed, said S. Alise Edison, the company’s vice president.

“We were fortunate that none of the hurricanes came close to us here in Central Florida. Some of the peach farmers further south (Lake Okeechobee area) were hit by Hurricane Irma and lost their peach trees due to large amounts of standing rain water,” Edison said. “We expect that this will be our largest harvest to date.”

Chalmers Carr, president and CEO of Titan Farms, Ridge Spring, S.C., moved from Florida in the 1990s, but his attention returned to the Sunshine State when he partnered with Morales to take over two Florida peach groves more than two years ago.

They also expect 2019’s harvest yield to be bigger than 2018’s yield, which was affected by Hurricane Irma’s rains in 2017.

Carr said the majority of the crop is sold in either 8-pound one layer flats or 20-pound volume fill boxes. With the significant cost and high risk of growing peaches, Carr said growers need to average around two dollars a pound f.o.b. to get a return on their investment.

Growing peaches in Florida takes a lot of money and strategy, so teaming up with Carr has been invaluable, Morales said, because Carr has contributed more than 25 years of peach-growing experience, introducing him to new technologies and harvesting techniques.

“We’re proud to be part of their team,” he said.