It’s a beautiful morning in peaceful Dundee, Florida, and the Dundee Citrus Growers Association is packaging tree-ripe fruit. But it’s not citrus. Those are peaches gently rolling along the packing line.
The association has been harvesting, packaging and marketing citrus since the 1920s, and for the past seven years it also has been handling peaches. Starting this season, it will do so for blueberries as well.
“We have a peach packing line, a blueberry packing line and a gift citrus packing line all located under the same roof at our Dundee location. Our Lake Hamilton location is being utilized as our main commercial citrus packing house,” said Steven Callaham, the association’s executive vice president and CEO. “Our customers like the convenience of being able to source and load multiple products from the same company. That’s a benefit we have.
“Several of our citrus growers were interested in diversifying their operations, and they wanted to know what we could handle internally as far as harvesting, packing and marketing were concerned,” Callaham said. “Most of them wanted to utilize land that was already designed and laid out for citrus. They wanted something they could use the same equipment they use for their citrus operations – mowers and sprayers and so forth. So after researching possibilities, we decided on peaches,” he said.
Citrus greening was not affecting growers as severely back then as it is today, but it was definitely a concern. “Growers were just being smart and looking at diversifying their operations,” he said.
The peach operation has grown over the years. The association started with just a few growers and now has 45 who grow on about 750 acres. University of Florida researchers estimate there may be about 1,300 acres of peaches planted in the state. USDA currently does not publish Florida peach statistics.
“We’re trying to grow our peach business in a methodical manner. We want to make sure we have a solid plan in place with harvesting, packaging and marketing that meets our growers and customers’ expectations. We have orchards in six different counties from the east to west coast of Florida,” Callaham said.
Peach season usually begins in mid-March. This year, the crop is running two to four weeks behind, primarily because warm winter temperatures delayed fruit development.
The best market window for the Florida crop is when imported peaches from Chile are finishing up and before California, Georgia and South Carolina’s crops come into the market mid-May.
Florida peaches require fewer chill hours than most. A team from the University of Florida has developed several varieties that grow in a very low-chill environment, which was especially helpful this year.
Growing peaches in Florida has its challenges. “First of all, [there’s] figuring out how to grow peaches in a very low-chill environment or almost no-chill like we had this year,” said Callaham. “Achieving better fruit size also is a challenge. Consumers tend to prefer the larger peaches from California, Georgia and South Carolina because that’s what they’re accustomed to seeing on the store shelves. Even with Florida peaches being a little bit smaller, once you can make consumers aware of them and how good they taste, size isn’t that much of a factor.”
Florida’s is a tree-ripe program. Fruit stays on the tree until it develops optimal flavor and sugar content. “Most other growing regions harvest their peaches when they’re hard and less mature so they can handle them more like we handle our commercial citrus. They have large packing lines and bins similar to what we use for citrus. For ours, we harvest in small 20-pound tote containers and we handle them delicately through the entire packing process. What we’re harvesting today will be on a truck heading to the customer the next day,” Callaham said.
The association sells its fruit under the Florida Classic brand.
“It’s always exciting to learn something new and to take on a new challenge. The Florida peach industry is still developing, but we have made some real progress,” Callaham said.