Don’t call Ross Williams’ peaches tree-ripened.
“Our fruit is harvested at the peak of maturity, not tree-ripened, so that it’s able to ripen on the shelf and maximize the flavor, the key to delivering the best eating experience,” said Williams, director of packing operations and food safety at Ridge Spring, S.C.-based Titan Farms, which grows peaches in Florida as well.
“There’s a very fine line between harvesting mature and harvesting after ripe.”
Peaches are a well-known crop in the Carolinas and Georgia, but Florida has been getting into the game the past several years with this kind of careful marketing of its more modest crop of snacking-sized peaches.
Titan grows 360 acres of UF Sun, UF Best, UF Gem and Tropic Beauty peaches in Fort Pierce and Alturas, Fla., in partnership with Adrian Morales of Riverside Citrus Harvesting.
University of Florida’s breeding program focuses on developing low-chill peaches with non-melting flesh that perform well in the state’s subtropical climate.
More consumer education is still necessary on how to pick a peach at the supermarket, how store it and for how long, Williams said. But even before satisfying consumers, these peach growers, packers and marketers are tweaking their tech to suit retailer’s requests.
A longtime veteran of growing this stone fruit, Titan uses several technologies to track and target the best maturation point for harvesting so that the fruit is at prime stage for retailers, Williams said — for shelf life, yes, but for optimal flavor, first and foremost.
“We’re developing more interest because of that,” Williams said.
Historically, Florida peaches have been a harder sell to retailers, who typically opt for larger sizes. But besides great flavor, one of the biggest selling points for Florida peaches is that they’re the season’s first domestic peach available.
“When a consumer gets the chance to taste them, they will be able to see for themselves how sweet, juicy, and delicious Florida peaches are,” said Melissa Hunt, marketing representative for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
2020 PEACH CROP
This season’s Florida harvest may be a week or so late due to cooler weather, but it’s not too far off the mark, said Sonia Tighe, executive director of the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation.
Typical harvest season for Florida peaches runs mid-March through mid-May. South Carolina’s peach season usually runs from May to September.
By having farms in Florida, Titan can offer its customers U.S.-grown peaches for a longer portion of the year.
Although Titan’s Florida growing acreage has remained the same as previous years, Williams expects those groves to produce a 20% to 30% better crop on the tree than in 2019, because pollination went well.
“Temperature and rainfall are the two biggest impacts of pollination, and the temps were right on the spot for pollination for us,” Williams said.
Florida Classic Growers, a grower-shipper based in Dundee, Fla., will also start its peach marketing season the last week of March and will run until mid-May with a similar volume as last year.
New for this season, Florida Classic Growers will offer more white-flesh peaches, which were introduced in 2019 in limited quantities.
“It is a very sweet peach and has a delicious flavor,” said Al Finch, president of Florida Classic Growers.
Florida Classic Growers sells its peaches to retailers, as well as wholesalers and foodservice groups throughout the Eastern U.S., shipping as far north as Canada and as far west as Kansas City.
Ridge Island Groves, a family farm helmed by Archie Ritch in Haines City, Fla., offers its peaches by direct shipping nationwide, except California, Alaska and Hawaii. There’s also a U-pick, a store and tours.
Now in its 11th season of marketing Florida peaches, Florida Classic Growers offers an 8-pound, single layer tray, a 20-pound volume-fill pack box and a 2-pound peach pouch that launched last season and will continue in 2020.
“One of the nice things about the 2-pound peach pouch is that it gives retailers more options. They can offer their customers loose and a bag,” Finch said.
Like it is for other kinds of fresh produce, demand is kicking up for peaches packed in bags, totes, clamshells, “something that’s easy grab and go, that you can pick it up and take it straight to the counter, instead of having to pick out each and every fruit,” Williams said.
Titan packs its peaches in 2-pound pouches, 8-pound, single layer trays, tote bags and also clamshells.
“We’re trying to cater to two different types of consumer: those who like to touch their peaches found loose in bulk peaches and those who want the value-added packaged peaches,” Williams said.
Some forms of plastics are more sustainable than some corrugated cardboard packaging, he said.
“But we’re working on some designs for our South Carolina peaches to make sure it’s economically feasible and in a more sustainable way,” Williams said.
“Any of our packages we work on for our South Carolina crop, we’d like to eventually do for our Florida crop.”