Peaches used to be grown in colder climates only, such as Georgia and South Carolina, because they required a certain number of chill hours (45 degrees), also known as cold weather hours, in order for the peach tree to break dormancy.
Some peach trees required 800 to 1,000 chill hours in order to bear fruit.
However, that has changed.
Thanks to the University of Florida, there are a variety of "low to moderate chill" peach trees that grow well in many parts of Florida, from the Panhandle to Immokalee to Miami.
There are many varieties of peaches, and some, in particular, do well in Central Florida, such as Flordacrest and Tropicbeauty.
These trees require only 200 to 400 chill hours, while other types, such as Flordaglo and Flordaprince, require even less. Peach season in Florida is from March 15 to May 31, so the season is not a long one, but it's one that peach lovers wait for.
Fred and Tracey Estok of Valley View Vineyards, in Lake County's Howey-in-the-Hills, grow Florida peaches for their U-Pick, along with grapes, figs, persimmons and chestnuts, on their 10 acres.
"Peaches are our busiest crop season," said Fred Estok.
Because peach trees can grow up to 15 to 20 feet, he keeps his trees trimmed in a bush style, so they don't get too tall for customers to pick.
"Growers are looking for alternatives to citrus," said Jose X. Chaparro, associate professor, UF Horticultural Sciences Department. He said there are currently 1,000 acres of peaches grown in Florida, and most of the fruit is sold in-state.
That, however, may change as more farmers plant peaches and more acreage is added.
As far as the total number of peach growers in Florida, there are "approximately 40 commercial growers in the state, with a number of other growers focusing on farmer's market distribution or U-pick operations," said Mercy A. Olmstead, Stone Fruit Research and Extension program specialist at UF.
However, when it comes to cash receipts, this exact total is currently unknown. "As the acreage grows, we hope to get on USDA's radar so that the National Agriculture Statistics Service will start tracking annual numbers," added Olmstead.
Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Alachua, near Gainesville, sells Florida peach trees, commercially and to homeowners, such as Flordaking, Tropic Snow, Flordabelle and Zorrito Peach. The trees are grafted exclusively on nematode-resistant rootstock adapted to soils of the Deep South.
"What's great about Florida peach trees is that the trees bear fruit in a year or two, they're capable of self-pollination and they don't have big issues with pests or diseases like citrus canker," said Bob Wallace, owner of Chestnut Hill, who also carries persimmon, pomegranate and chestnut trees, among others.
Furthermore, growing peaches can be profitable. According to Wallace, "Peaches can produce (5,000) to 10,000 pounds per acre, and prices in this market window can bring $2 to $4 per pound or more."
For the consumer, the advantage is fresh, juicy peaches.
"Consumers can get access to an excellent tree-ripe fruit that has not been stored for a prolonged period of time." said Chaparro of UF.
In a recent Florida peach consumer survey, as part of a study by UF (2008), "Sub-Tropical Peach Market Improvement Project," it was found that "Peaches were purchased by 73.7 percent of the participants in the past year from a supermarket, and price and origin ranked high as a determinant in their purchase. However, 76.6 percent said they would be willing to pay more for tree-ripened peaches."
"The good news is that we haven't even scratched the surface as far as a market for Florida peaches," said Olmstead, who explained that many consumers don't realize that peaches grown in the state are available at their grocers as early as late March.
For growers, by having a domestic product available before other states have it, means that Florida growers get a premium price.
Interested in planting peaches? At the UF Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce, you can see a demonstration/research peach orchard established by James W. Olmstead, in cooperation with Peter J. Stoffela, both of UF/IFAS. The orchard contains the varieties recommended for subtropical peach production.
Another good resource is the Chill Accumulation Calculator at Agro Climate: http://agroclimate.org/tools/ChillAccum/. Also check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map at http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/
While peaches can be grown all over Florida now, it's important to choose trees that work well in your particular zone.
"Be sure to plant the right chill hour cultivar for your location," said Wallace.