COLUMBUS, Ohio - Peaches may very well be one of Ohio agriculture's best-kept secrets.
For nearly a decade, the state's peach production has been quietly growing, jumping 53 percent from 5.8 million pounds in 1995 to over 11 million pounds in 2002. In 1997, Ohio wasn't even ranked as one of 20 top peach-producing states by the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2001, Ohio was resting in 17th place, with the crop valued at nearly $5.4 million, a $3 million increase from 1995.
Compared to other major fruit crops (apples, grapes and strawberries) that have either declined in production or remained unchanged, peaches have exploded onto the market - fueled largely in part to favorable producer prices, an increase in consumer demand and improved production practices led by years of Ohio State University research.
"When I talk to other people they always say that they hear about peach production in states like California and Georgia, but they never hear anything about Ohio's peaches," said Dick Funt, an Ohio State University Extension small fruit specialist. "In fact, peach production has quietly been on the upswing. Growers have enjoyed good production and good prices the past several years during a time when other states, like Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan, are either in decline or are holding steady."
One reason for the boost in peach production is the economics. Since 1997, average fresh peach prices have increased from 40 cents a pound to nearly 50 cents a pound, with average U.S. prices only reaching between 18 cents and 21 cents per pound.
Funt said one of the main driving forces behind the increased peach prices is the decline in Ohio apple production.
"Apple growers have been receiving low prices over the last 10 years. As apple prices have gone down, peach prices have gone up, so growers are not replanting apple orchards but getting into peach production instead," said Funt. "Also apple and peach growers are getting about the same number of pounds per acre. So when you are getting the same production but twice the price, that's an incentive for growers to switch to peaches."
The switch to peaches may also be a business strategy for growers. Funt said that it takes about eight to 10 years for an apple orchard to mature enough for growers to receive a return on their investment. By comparison, peach orchards only take five to seven years.
"It depends on current price, weather conditions and the varieties being grown," said Funt. "But right now, the conditions are more favorable for peach production."
Growers are also responding to market changes, as consumers are seeking that soft, sweet, juicy peach at their local farmer's market.
"Ohio growers know what consumers want and we have the varieties here in Ohio that provide the juicy peach that just runs down your chin when you bite into it," said Funt.
He noted that peaches imported from elsewhere tend to be dry and too firm since the fruit is packed for preservation rather than quality.
"It's all about consumer awareness and quality. Consumers want that fresh fruit just picked from the tree," he said.
Ohio State research has also helped boost peach production in Ohio through projects on cultivar evaluations and improved production practices.
Currently Funt and his colleagues are analyzing nearly 20 peach cultivars for late spring bloom to increase bud survival and improve fruit set during periods of spring frost.
"Open buds are most susceptible to frost damage, so if we can identify cultivars that bloom two to three days later than average, then maybe we can improve low productive years when trees are hit with cold temperatures," said Funt. In central Ohio, the period of spring frost generally runs from April 11-April 21.
Studies conducted this year and in 2001 found that cultivars 'John Boy', 'White Lady', 'Bounty', 'Harrow Beauty', 'Snow King' and 'Laurol' showed promise in delayed bloom.
The researchers are also incorporating fruit size, fruit color, flavor and yield into their studies. They are looking for cultivars that perform just as good or better than 'Redhaven', Ohio's champion peach cultivar for the past 30 years.
"The cultivar has been a grower's mainstay. It exhibits a one-to-two day delayed bloom and produces fruit consumers want," said Funt. "If we can find other cultivars that perform like 'Redhaven', then growers may have more of a selection to choose from."
In addition to cultivar studies, Ohio State researchers are working to improve peach production practices. For example, nine years of research found that growing peach trees on raised beds enhances irrigation, improving the root system and subsequent growth of the tree - especially in areas with poorly drained soils.
Approximately 1,000 acres of peach orchards are grown in Ohio, with over 75 percent of the crop being grown in north central, northeast and central Ohio counties.