Peach breeder Dick Okie retiring
Okie has focused on developing peaches adapted to the Southeast
After 30 years breeding peaches for the South—15 in the Prince series alone—W.R. (Dick) Okie retired this year. He is still working until a successor is decided upon
W.R. (Dick) Okie, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s stone fruit breeder in Byron, Georgia, for more than 30 years, retired earlier this year and is continuing to work part time until a new breeder is hired.
“My successor will have lots to evaluate,” Dr. Okie said. “We have a lot of seedlings in the ground. We plant 3,000 to 5,000 peaches every year, and about half that many plums, and when they fruit we save about 10 percent for further evaluation.”
Meanwhile, Okie remains hard at work. He’s screening previous years’ plantings and continuing evaluations in the test orchards where new varieties—from his breeding program and elsewhere—are compared against commercial standards. He’s not sure when a successor will be found, or whether budget issues will interfere with the hiring.
Okie came to the Southeastern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory in June of 1980, with a doctorate he earned at North Carolina State University breeding tomatoes for disease resistance. His work since then has focused mostly on developing new peach varieties, most of them with Prince in their name. Victor Prince was Okie’s predecessor—and Okie gives him credit in the naming. Plus, he said, “Prince is just a great name for any peach.”
Starting with Fireprince and Juneprince in 1985, Okie released a string of Princes over 25 years—Flameprince, Blazeprince, Scarletprince, Julyprince, Sunprince, Springprince, Goldprince, Rubyprince, Summerprince—15 in all, ending with Augustprince and Early Augustprince in 2007. In addition to these commercial yellow-fleshed peaches, he released Scarlet Pearl and Southern Pearl white-fleshed peaches, Roseprincess white nectarine, Juneprincess yellow nectarine, and Candy Cane flowering peach. He also bred and released the plums Black Ruby, Rubysweet and RubyQueen, which are adapted to the South, plus the plumcot Spring Satin, a cross of plum and apricot.
“Southeastern fruit growers have trouble growing plums and apricots in our region’s climate,” he said at the time of the release. “Spring Satin is the first plumcot that is well adapted to the medium-high chill areas of the South. Plumcots developed in California haven’t done well in the South.”
That’s true of peaches as well, he said. There are four distinct peach climates in the United States—north, south, deep south, and west. The southeastern climate is hot and humid, so peach varieties from the arid climate of California often don’t have the resistance to diseases that growers in Georgia and South Carolina need. Chill hours are also an issue. Some California varieties will tend to break dormancy much too early for the area, or lack enough flower buds to survive the common spring frosts.
Okie looks for varieties that need about 600-850 chill hours; more northerly breeders shoot for 850 and up.
“Peach growers need a series of varieties that are consistently productive and have commercial quality fruit to be competitive,” Okie says on the station’s Web site. “To be productive a peach needs to bloom at the appropriate time for that area and set fruit every year. To be marketable, commercial fruit must be large, firm, red, round, and of good eating quality. Varieties must be available that ripen from mid-May until September. Varieties that are tolerant and resistant to diseases such as bacterial spot and brown rot are more economical to produce. This breeding program is designed to develop new varieties that improve on existing Southeastern peaches so that better fruit is available in the grocery store.”
In the South, peaches bred for the northern region tend to have deeper sutures, prominent tips, and retain a green ground color even when ripe. These are traits he selects against.
The Southern Fruit and Tree Nut Research Laboratory was established in 1970. The 1,200-acre research farm is devoted to stone fruits and pecans, with the goal of finding improved cultivars and rootstocks and developing control strategies for insects, diseases, and nematodes. Bacterial spot and brown rot are major disease problems. The Southeast has particular difficulties with soilborne diseases and nematodes. Okie was part of the team that discovered the peach eventually released as Guardian rootstock, now the predominant rootstock used for peach in the Southeast, with nurseries selling more than a million annually.
Okie has been author or co-author of dozens of publications. He wrote a USDA Agricultural Handbook on peach varieties that includes over 6,000 peaches and nectarines. He also co-authored the chapter on fresh market cultivar development in the book “The Peach: Botany, Production and Uses” compiled by Desmond Layne at Clemson University and Daniele Bassi at University of Milan in Italy.
During his career, much has changed in the peach industry.
“Almost all the commercial varieties in the market when I started have been replaced,” he said.
White peaches have started to make a comeback after a century of domination by yellow-fleshed varieties. Orchard workers, once mostly local black people, are now mostly Hispanics hired under the H-2A program.
Peaches have gotten much larger. “We sold some really small early peaches back then, as small as 1 ¾ inch,” he said. The emerging standard for peaches is almost an inch larger.
“Growers in the Southeast are working together much better,” he said. “They’d had to cooperate to develop the critical mass it now takes to market to chain stores.”
Many of the intermediate size producers have left the industry, he said. A few very large producers serving the wholesale market generate most of the peach volume in the Southeast, but many small producers grow for the roadside market, a very important feature across the South.