ON THE CUTTING EDGE

ON THE CUTTING EDGE

PHOTOS AND STORY
BY MARIA IANNUCCI

Polk County has long been known for its contributions to the Florida citrus industry with an annual economic impact in the millions of dollars. But what might not be mainstream knowledge is the gradual immersion of local citrus farmers into diversification by introducing an aspect of agriculture usually associated with the state to our north. The addition of peach groves shows that these growers are, literally, on the cutting edge.

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James Shinn, President of Tree-O Groves, Inc. in Lake Alfred, is a grower that’s been established here for over half a century. As a grower, citrus has historically been at the forefront of the family business: but with the research going into such alternatives as peach farming, Shinn welcomes the opportunity to diversify and try something new. “We thought it would be an interesting addition to our business,” said Shinn. Some citrus trees in recent years have been affected by disease, called greening. While the trees are being managed, the growing desire for peaches and fruit with a low-chill requirement (many fruits need several hundred “chill” hours at a certain temperature to set fruit) make peach growing an attractive opportunity.

Tree-O began adding peaches to its acreage in 2009. With over 7,000 trees currently under management, the grower maintains four “blocks” of peach trees in addition to its citrus operation. Two blocks are in Lake Alfred, one is in Polk City, and the remaining block is in Vero Beach.

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One of the first decisions to be made was the selection of varieties to plant. The University of Florida has played a tremendous role in the development of several species that need less cold that what’s normally required, a necessity in Florida where temperatures don’t usually remain frigid. “We started with the UF-Sun variety and a few others,” said Shinn.

There are many reasons that contributed to the company’s expansion into the peach business. Citrus growers that are adding peaches to their established groves find it to be a relatively easy transition. “The grove setup is very similar, so we can use the same irrigation and this makes it cost effective for the grower,” Shinn revealed. Peach trees are said to offer an average of 10-12 years of production, beginning with the first year. They grow fairy quickly and steadily, blooming in January; each tree is hand trimmed to a top height of about six feet and pruned into a “vase” shape, forcing the branches outward instead of upward. Later, as the fruit is ready to be picked, the vine-ripened peaches are selected by hand every few days. “It is labor intensive, but the best way to harvest peaches,” Shinn shared.

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“It’s definitely a new industry to us,” said Shinn. “We’ve been learning about the best wa  y to market and package the fruit.” Because of the more delicate nature of peaches than citrus fruits, it has taken time to find the right methods to use. Once harvested, the fruit goes to Dun-D (Dundee Citrus Growers Association has also formed the Stone Fruit subsidiary), a packing house in Dundee that markets and sells fruit from Polk County to across the nation.

While citrus is still the main stead of the family business, Shinn is a big advocate for diversification. “We’re testing about 150 pomegranate trees at the moment,” Shinn said. “We raise cattle, and we will continue to look to the horizon to find other opportunities.” Working in the groves and managing the business is a privilege, he said. “I love being a farmer; I get to be outside all day and I’m my own boss. I don’t always like all that I have to do, but I love what I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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