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Florida growers entering early peach market

Newly developed varieties of peaches that grow well in Florida's sub-tropical climate will enable consumers to enjoy fresh domestic peaches in the spring — nearly three months ahead of the traditional beginning of the U.S. summer peach crop.

With names like "Florida Prince," "Tropic Beauty," "UF Sun" and "Flordago" the Florida peach has finally entered the market. Florida peaches were over 45 years in the making. Developed by the University of Florida researchers with cooperation from Florida's growers, these peaches are specifically created to prosper in the warmer climates of Florida. The result is a delicious and juicy early-season peach.

These new peach varieties are good news for Florida growers who are seeking an alternative crop that reaches the market when other competitors are out of season. Early results show good market potential with positive feedback from consumers, according to research conducted by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in conjunction with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Consumer data from a two-year project is being used to help determine market entry strategies for peach production in Florida.

"This could offer Florida tree fruit producers a profitable, economically viable alternative to citrus fruit production," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said. "Expanding the crop options available to growers enables them to diversify, and that can help them maximize economic returns."

Sweetbay Supermarkets saw considerable consumer acceptance of this new Florida product when it featured a display of "Florida Sweet" peaches this past spring.

"We see the value of working with our local growers on this commodity," said Steve Williams, director of produce for Sweetbay Supermarkets. "There is a lot of potential in the coming years."

Currently there are about 70 acres of peaches being grown in the state, mostly in central Florida. Producers reported success with the first year's crop and expect to increase future production.

"We were happy with our first year of production and hope to double it next year," said Ron Wilson of JON Peach Farm in Dade City. "The developing relationships with our retailers present endless opportunities for this product."

Georgia and South Carolina are the Southeast's regional production centers. California is the dominant producer in the West, and accounts for about 75 percent of all U.S. peach production. Currently domestic peaches reach the market in early June with the imported peach deliveries ending in March. This leaves a three-month window when peaches are scarce. Florida peaches begin their season in April, just as Chile exits the market, and ends in June, just before California and Georgia enter.

Climate has been the main barrier to commercial success for Florida peach producers. Traditionally, peach production requires 600 or more "chill hours" for trees to produce a marketable product. A chill hour is time at or below 45 degrees F and is required for fruit propagation. The newly developed Florida varieties require only 150 to 300 chill hours.

"Commercial producers will now have the opportunity to employ sub-tropical cultivars with a market window favorable to higher net returns," said Florida Cooperative Extension Agent Les Harrison. "The improved revenue stream will economically strengthen growers and Florida agriculture over time."

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