A Peach Within Reach
I grew up in a small town in southwest Georgia, where leaving the city limits meant you were going to immediately drive through one of the state’s agricultural staples: sod to the south, peanuts to the west, pine trees to the north and peaches to the east.
While I have nothing against pine trees or grass and hold only a slight grudge against peanuts (anyone who’s inhaled the distinctive allergenic qualities of peanut dust as the legumes are pulled from the ground will understand), the peach orchards were always my favorite. That preference is not only because I love the sweet goodness of a fresh-picked peach, but because there’s nothing quite like driving a narrow country road in the springtime, blankets of pink blossoms spread out on either side, a honey-scented promise of what’s to come.
So, when I heard that, thanks to the growing Florida peach industry, I wouldn’t have to wait until a summer trip to the Peach State to get my fix, I was more than a little excited.
I probably should have known about this burgeoning agricultural business. While peaches are one of Florida’s newest crops, growers have planted more than 1,230 acres of peach trees that produce more than 2.8 million pounds of fruit each year.
The introduction and growth of this new agribusiness is thanks to the work of researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, who have developed peach hybrids that need fewer “chill hours” – or time when the temperature drops below a certain level – than traditional trees in order to produce peaches. Some citrus growers who have seen whole swaths of orange groves disappear due to the citrus greening epidemic have turned to these new peaches as a way to diversify their businesses. Other farmers just see opportunity: The fruit on Florida peach trees typically ripens between late April and early June, before the rest of the country’s producers have fruit for market, providing a window for Florida farmers to get their product on grocery store shelves when there’s little competition.
The commercial viability is starting to take off, thanks to a partnership between growers and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that put “Fresh from Florida” peaches in stores up and down the U.S. East Coast. Much of the fruit comes from right here in the Tampa Bay area: As of a 2012 census (the most recent available) Polk County had 459 acres planted in peaches, far more than any other Florida county, followed by Pasco with 109 acres.
I wasn’t really interested in (relatively) large-scale production though … I wanted fruit direct from the farm. And that’s what Cristi and David Johnson of Florida Sweeties offer: “u-pick” peaches from orchards near Dade City.
The couple started their peach farming adventure a little more than five years ago, when they converted a two-and-a-half-acre orange grove behind their home into a peach orchard. The orange trees weren’t suffering from disease, but after David’s father Daniel invested in a 20-acre peach operation, Cristi says the stone fruit seemed to be “a good opportunity … that was unique and fun.”
Today, they have the original “Curley House” orchard (though they’ve since moved to a larger home to accommodate their five – yes, five – boys aged 2 to 11) and have added two additional five-acre orchards – Rusty Creek and Peachy Keen. They focus not on commercial harvest, but on attracting people who want to get out to the farm and pick the fruit straight from the trees.
The peach season is short, typically only a month or so, with fruit ripening on each tree throughout those weeks, so the biggest job is figuring out where there’s enough fruit for potential pickers and then getting that information out. Thank goodness for social media, which allows Cristi to post real-time updates of what orchards will be open for picking.
The fruit folks come for is worth the drive, juicier and fleshier than the typical grocery store peach, though not quite as big. But that’s okay with the Johnsons. “Once they try them, they love them,” says Cristi, explaning that their growing approach focuses more on taste than size.
For peaches, the commercial harvest is all about preparation – trees are pruned in a way that every leaf on every branch will get sun, and as much as 80% of blossoms might be knocked off to focus on fewer larger peaches that will meet grocer standards. While pruning and thinning are still critical to the Johnsons, they aren’t as concerned about the overall size of each fruit, so they take a more measured approach.
That philosophy extends to overall maintenance: they manage the orchards to “do just what’s needed,” meaning organic pesticides as necessary, with no chemicals on the trees themselves. It’s farming that isn’t certified organic, but is heavily influenced by “how I want to feed my family” Cristi says. “Overdoing it with any kind of treatment isn’t good for the trees, for the ground, for the water.”
THE SWEET LIFE
You’d think Davey, as Cristi, calls her husband, would be the main driver behind the peach farming operation. After all, he has the rural roots. But once she met the “country boy who loves his tractor,” Cristi, who grew up in a typical suburban neighborhood, made an easy transition to farm life.
In fact, she’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education and communications at the University of Florida’s Plant City location (on the campus of Hillsborough Community College), inspired by the work she does to promote Florida Sweeties. “I’m on the 10-year plan,” she says, laughing. That only makes sense as the couple balances Davey’s full-time job as a surveyor, their five boys and their peach operation, which seems to be ripe for further expansion.
For example, demand has been so good during the season that Cristi has added a “clean up” component for other growers, working with them to facilitate u-pick after the commercial harvest. This not only helps to meet customer expectations by adding to availability of fruit for picking during the season, it helps reduce waste, as fruit that can’t otherwise be sold for a profit – once labor is factored in – would otherwise rot on the trees.
“We could probably do u-pick on all the orchards in the area,” Cristi says, and her Facebook page is proof, with posters lamenting the end of last season and already making plans for this one long before the season started. For now, Florida Sweeties is working with more commercial growers to have twice as much fruit as last year available, with hopes of a slightly longer season.
“It’s a fun job, Cristi says. “I love talking to people, seeing them having fun in the orchard, watching them try what they’ve picked.
“If I could do it all year, I would.”
Florida Sweeties You-Pick Peaches
Search Florida Sweeties on Facebook for picking availability.