Keen On Peaches

A farmer with a passion for flying helicopters, Greg Waters thinks this fuzzy fruit will take off in Florida.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

Greg Waters flies over his orchard of low-chill peaches.

Greg Waters flies over his orchard of low-chill peaches.

Another juicy fruit has begun to grow in Florida groves. Long known as a product of California and Georgia farms, the peach may have a future in the Sunshine State.

Lake Wales farmer Greg Waters certainly thinks so. In the spring of 2010 he planted 25 of his 40 acres with two varieties of peaches that were specifically developed by the University of Florida for sub-tropical climates. The varieties are referred to as low-chill, since the trees need less time under 45˚ F than do peaches grown in states to the north.

VIDEO: More on the low-chill peach varieties. >>

“The peach thing has become very big down here,” says Waters, who then corrects himself, saying, “or it will be big.”

While Waters is new to peaches and his trees are still a few years away from maturity—surprising even to him, they produced fruit the first year—he grew up working in his family’s citrus orchard near Frostproof, just 15 minutes away from his current farm. Since graduating college with a business degree, he’s worked as a controller for a sizable landscaping and irrigation company, and has pursued his passion for flying helicopters.

To help pay for what he refers to as an “expensive hobby,” he’s provided rides to paying passengers from a dude ranch and flown frost patrol, which entails buzzing low and slow over citrus orchards in the winter to keep the fruit from freezing. He still does the latter, but says, “It’s hard. It’s dangerous. It’s dark. It’s not fun.”

MORE: Click the play button below to hear Waters talk about frost patrol:

[audio:|titles=Greg Waters on Frost Patrol]

Until mid-2010 he also flew for Progress Energy-Florida, a large utility company, piloting his helicopter as company personnel inspected power lines and the the rights-of-way that surround them. “I did that for 6 1/2 years and was flying a lot. But I got to talking to my wife one night, and I said, ‘You know, there’s no security in these contracts, because we’re dealing with huge companies. We better do something to subsidize our income in case something happens.’” VIDEO: Fly along with Waters as he discusses his power line work. >>

Waters surveys the orchard from above.

Waters surveys the orchard from above.

The fallback was planting peaches on property the Waters family had previously purchased. It was fortuitous. The contract did eventually get canceled, and even though Waters’ helicopter company is still his main source of income, the orchard has now taken on a greater role.

Waters explains he felt safe going with the relatively unproven peaches, in part due to his experience with citrus. Yet, he quickly discovered that peach trees need a lot of TLC. For instance, because they grow so fast, he has to prune them back twice a year. “What was to be a side thing, has become an animal,” he says. “I mean, it’s a lot of work. Fortunately, I’m able to do 90% of it myself, because I have the background.”

Like something of a helicopter parent, Waters hovers over his peaches. “I take very good care of these trees, noting that at $3,500 per acre in Florida, they’re more expensive to grow than the $1,500 for an acre of citrus. Yet, the latter price has more than doubled in the last several years due to the need for additional spraying to control pests, and it could go even higher.

Waters' daughters Taylor and Summer in the orchard.

Waters’ daughters Taylor and Summer in the orchard.

“The citrus industry down here has been taking hits,” he says, mentioning several diseases affecting the plant, including canker and greening. “It’s got everybody running scared pretty much, so people are looking for alternatives.”

In addition to the fact that peaches are less disease prone, growing them in the subtropics provides another advantage. “It’s timing,” says Waters. “They harvest in April and early May … prior to Georgia and California peaches,” which are mostly harvested in June and July.

According to Dr. Mercy Olmstead, a stone fruit Extension specialist at the University of Florida, there are some 900 acres of these low-chill peaches currently growing in the state. Compare that to some 52,500 and 14,000 acres in California and Georgia, respectively, and it’s obvious the impact of Florida peaches is small. There are, however, opportunities for growth.

“The prospects are very bright for the Florida peach industry,” says Olmstead. Like Waters, she points to the early harvest and notes an agreement signed earlier this year that will allow peaches from the Southeastern U.S. to be sold in Mexico for the first time in 17 years. They had been banned due to fears of invasive pests.

Olmstead, while noting the difficulty of making such forecasts, predicts an additional 1,000 acres in Florida to be planted with peaches in the next 10 years. Waters, however, has no plans to expand—at least not yet—but he does expect the industry to do so. “There haven’t been a lot of peach harvesting and packing houses, because there just haven’t been Florida peaches. Now they’re gearing up for that, hopefully to accommodate all of us.”

Indeed, Waters’ decision to grow peaches was all about timing; it took place just before losing a major source of income and relatively early in a fledgling industry. As he wipes sweat off his brow, he ponders the move and says, “I think I’ve got something here.”