By Jerry Jackson

Peaches and other stone fruit crops offer a sweet alternative for Florida citrus growers who have battled foes such as canker and greening in recent years.

At least, that’s the trend industry experts say is helping fuel the growth of peach orchards in the Sunshine State.

Researchers and veteran agriculture specialists say there is no question that Florida’s ability to produce a peach during a key marketing window when there is less competition from other states and nations is spurring interest and plantings.

Rainbow Star Nursery owner Paul Miller, who has been growing peach tree seedlings in Gainesville for wholesale buyers for about 30 years, says demand for trees is surging.

Much of the demand is coming from growers in warmer areas of the state south of Orlando where citrus has dominated.

“Our business is selling four times as many [peach-tree seedlings] as we did about three years ago,” Miller says. “And we have a lot of contract orders directly to growers, whereas we used to sell mainly to other nurseries.”

Plums and nectarines, which really are a “peach without the fuzz,” Miller says, are the other stone fruit crops with potential in Florida. But so far, those are mainly grown by backyard producers rather than commercial growers. Plums and nectarines are harder to grow for commercial markets than peaches and don’t have as much consumer demand, either.

Florida growers who can produce a nice peach that’s at least 2.5 inches in diameter and get it to market in late March and April can harvest decent profits because peaches from Georgia and other states are not yet ripe. And the “winter” crop from the Southern Hemisphere is off store shelves, Miller and other industry experts say.

But they quickly add that the stakes are high, and the potential for crop failures and marketing mistakes are huge.

Pros and cons

Growing peaches is much trickier and more demanding than citrus in many ways, says Nicole Adams, manager of operations, sales and marketing for Florida Sweet, a subtropical peach grower now in its fourth production season.

“Peaches are very finicky,” says Adams, whose father, Donald Padgett, a lifelong citrus grower, partnered with fellow grower Ralph Chamberlain after canker, greening and other problems severely damaged the economics of raising citrus.

While citrus and peaches are both “tree crops,” cultural and production techniques are totally different. Growing a stone fruit crop, such as peaches, is more like a row crop than citrus because of narrow windows for harvest, she says.

“A single acre of peaches is like 20 acres of citrus, in every way, in terms of labor, cost of production and revenue,” Adams says.

Peaches can be more profitable than citrus for growers who can get to market early enough in the season, Adams says. But “you have to do a lot of things just right, and at certain times, plus get some help from Mother Nature.”

Florida Sweet, with orchards in Arcadia and Edentown in south Central Florida, had 40 acres of peaches in production for 2010 and has boosted that to 73 for this coming 2011 season.

The farm’s trees during December and January are in their “hibernating” stage, she says, after dropping their leaves in November. Once the trees bloom, typically in February, the crop must be meticulously “thinned” to ensure that the surviving peaches are large enough to market.

“Thinning is a skill that I have yet to see Florida growers master,” says Miller, who sells a dozen different types of bareroot peach tree seedlings, including the top selling UFSun early maturing peach. “You’ve really got to thin about 90 percent of your fruit to get the best 10 percent. Otherwise, it’s just too small.”