Agri Leader

Peach-growing family feels the fuzz

There may be a big smiling orange on every “Welcome to Florida” sign on the interstate, but in Arcadia, the Adams family is putting peaches on the state map.

Florida Sweet Peaches, owned by Donald and Michelle Padgett, their daughter Nicole Adams and Nicole’s husband, Ben Adams, has pioneered peach-growing in the Heartland. Co-owner and business partner Ralph Chamberlain coined the trademark “feel the fuzz” slogan.

Wondering just when the heck Florida became a peachy state? “UF has had this science at their fingertips for quite awhile, 20-plus years,” explained Nicole, who handles the marketing, office and logistics. That said, Florida Sweet Peaches is only eight and a half years old. The University of Florida test cropped their Florida-friendly peach trees in Queensland, Australia, Nicole said. Now the business has five different varieties growing on about 25 acres in Arcadia and about 70 acres in Edentown.

The challenge of growing the furry fruit in Florida is a similar challenge to other northern fruit trees - in order to make a peach, a tree needs a certain number of “chill hours.” “At a certain point when the buds are setting on the tree, if they do not acquire enough temperatures below 45 degrees it will be an empty bloom,” explained Nicole.

A Georgia peach requires over 600 chill hours, which is why the same tree wouldn’t produce in our warmer climate. The new peach tree varieties developed by the University of Florida, however, only require between 150 and 200 chill hours. Nicole said they have actually set a crop with fewer than 100 chill hours, and Florida Sweet Peaches is the southernmost peach producer in the state, selling to chains like Winn-Dixie and Wal-mart as well as a high-end hotel food service company.

You have to have impeccable timing to take advantage of the Florida peach crop, too. The limited number of varieties also have only a limited production window, about eight weeks in April and May. That means if you buy a peach at a market today, it’s likely local.

Today, the Arcadia orchard was humming. Workers carefully picked buckets and buckets of sweet, tree-ripened fruit and drove them up to the packinghouse where they were sorted by size and quality, boxed and stacked in a cooler until shipping time. Since Florida Sweet Peaches picks all its fruit ripe off the tree, the fragile product requires special care.

Nicole said her father and Chamberlain, both originally citrus growers, came up with the idea to diversify into peaches over eight years ago. They were both struggling with the effects of citrus canker, when a contaminated tree meant a certain radius of grove around the offender had to be decimated. The growers wondered what they could do to make good use of a big hole inside a citrus grove, and they decided to give the low chill hour peach varieties a try.

When the business took off, Nicole, who had grown up packing squash since her dad was a farmer and a grower, took on the daunting job of marketing and selling the product.

“I’ve learned on the fly,” said the mom of two boys, 9-year-old Caleb and 8-year-old Brady. She left college early in order to get married and raise a family. At the age of 24 and still green in the industry, she found herself on the phone to retailers, hitting brick walls.

Not only did she have inexperience against her, but many retailers were already soured on the idea of a Florida peach. The times in past years they had given the fruit a try, it was of poor quality, and they didn’t even want to talk to her. Nicole had to drive to the stores herself with samples and get the feet on the street excited about the product, then use that momentum to get to the buyers.

For the first time this year, the company is selling out of state as far as Texas and Massachusetts. “This year we’ve really put legs on the fruit,” she said.

Challenges have been many, especially with an unforgivingly short season. But a walk through the orchard of umbrella-shaped trees dangling fruit on a warm spring day had a distinctly tropical feel to it. The ambiance was punctuated by the business’s version of a scarecrow - a tower that radiates the calls of birds of prey, tricking the fruit-eating varieties into keeping their distance.

It’s nicer than a cannon, Nicole claimed.

She added that even though a Florida peach may be smaller than a peach grown further north, the pit is smaller, so the amount of flesh is about equivalent. She also said brix content is quite high, making for a sweeter piece of fruit: “the flavor is magnificent, something about the Florida sunshine.”