Peach growers and shippers in the Northeast who market to large retailers are seeing increasing competition from shippers in California, Georgia, South Carolina and even countries in the Southern Hemisphere.
In the Middle Atlantic states, particularly, they have responded by continuing to change their stone fruit offerings to capture more shelf space in the produce section.
Though Mid-Atlantic peach production volume is less than that of the Southeast, the region has a number of attributes that make it a solid peach-growing location: good, well-drained sandy loam soils, a temperate climate and timely rainfall throughout the growing season — as well as proximity to major population centers.
Traditionally, the market has hung its hat on yellow-fleshed peaches, said Jerry Frecon, a Rutgers University emeritus professor and horticultural consultant to Adams County Nursery of Aspers, Pennsylvania.
“We can pick them from June 20 through Sept. 15 but, unfortunately, have difficulty moving fruit and getting prices to cover the costs of production and marketing.”
Consumer demand for white peaches, low-acid varieties and various kinds of nectarines have upped the pressure on Mid-Atlantic growers and breeders to deliver new, novel fruit with great regularity.
It’s all about providing a steady supply of new types and varieties to keep up with diverse and changing consumer tastes.
Frecon said there are plenty of new peaches and nectarines being developed. Many in the Mid-Atlantic states are coming from Rutgers University’s Tree Fruit Breeding Program, under the direction of plant biology and pathology professor Joseph Goffreda, at Cream Ridge, New Jersey.
Among the new varieties under advanced testing are five highly attractive, red-skinned, yellow-fleshed peaches — ripening in very early midseason, midseason and late season; a new, white-fleshed, red-skinned nectarine; an early, red-skinned, yellow-fleshed nectarine; a flat, yellow-fleshed, yellow-skinned nectarine; and a flat, yellow-fleshed nectarine.
The red-skinned peach’s value lies in the way it presents itself in the market. “It has a bright, red skin that is more attractive than other peach varieties. Color must be right, complete or have a balance of a bright orange and yellow under-color,” he said.
Flat peaches, mostly the “doughnut varieties,” are hot sellers. Just about every farm market in the Northeast sells flat peaches — most often, the first flat peach variety, Saturn (NJ F-2). Supermarkets, too, will give shelf space to them.
There are two reasons. First, there is the novel shape, which is easily distinguished from other varieties and types of peaches, thus attracting the supermarket shelf space peaches would normally not get.
Second, their sugar is high. “They have an exquisite flavor, which people remember and associate with the shape,” said Frecon.
They have a downside. Packinghouse equipment is built to size round peaches. Flat peaches don’t roll over the rollers very well and frequently get damaged.
The Saturn also comes with its own management problems.
“You have to be very careful when you pick it to twist it just right or the skin tears. The fruit also has a scar on the distal end of the peach,” he said. “We are evaluating varieties, similar to Saturn’s exquisite taste, that do not tear, are firmer, freestone and only have small scars.”
Marketers are in a bit of a quandary with low-acid peaches. While they don’t appear to be different, they taste different. It seems growers prefer to grow and sell traditionally flavored peaches but many consumers like those peaches with less than 5 percent acid.
They associate many of the low-acid peaches with white flesh, but more and more varieties feature low acid and have yellow flesh. Low-acid peaches have a milder taste and appeal to younger and Asian consumers, though others say white-fleshed, low-acid peaches are too mild.
The low temperatures of the past few winters and springs have been hard on white-fleshed nectarines. Yet hope springs eternal: the most recently introduced white-fleshed nectarine variety by Rutgers is called SilverGem (NJN 100). Unlike varieties developed in California and grown by Mid-Atlantic growers, it has better flavor and is more tolerant to bacterial spot and low temperatures.
SilverGem is a medium-sized fruit ripening two weeks ahead of Redhavens. What it brings to the table is flavor and lots of it. “It’s the best flavor of all of the white-fleshed varieties,” said Frecon.
Yet some of the varieties yet-to-come promise improvements. There are more than a few advanced selections producing large-sized fruit; some have cream-colored flesh, while others have red in the flesh.
“In the future, we may see peaches and nectarines that are fully red-fleshed with exquisite flavor, better than the ones we have now,” he said.
While supermarkets are interested in new varieties, they also want fruit throughout the season, he said. “We still have gaps in many fruit types; we don’t have it all covered.”
That’s true, says Boyertown, Pennsylvania, fruit grower Ben Keim of Keim Orchard. The early season finds Eastern peach growers selling semi-cling peaches to retailers and farm markets.
“We don’t start wholesaling until the last week of July. By that time, consumers are looking for freestone fruit,” he said.
That’s because California growers begin shipping semi-free and semi-cling peaches into the Mid-Atlantic markets. Keim said he’d like to have some early-season varieties to compete with the California produce, especially a freestone variety.
In the meantime, the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, for which Frecon is a consultant, is pursuing a strategy of familiarizing consumers with peach varieties in their seasons. “If peaches were identified by variety, we can get more shelf space,” said Frecon.
However, this is a much tougher marketing problem than it seems.
Experience shows supermarkets are not prone to devote extra space to peaches when they have several varieties on hand with different names but similar characteristics.
For example, in late July and early August, they’ll have Redhavens, JonBoys and Redstars for sale at the same time and give them the same shelf space because they look alike and can be mixed together.
Not surprisingly, tradition is another obstacle. The problem with Northeastern peaches — unlike apples — is that they enter the market and are sold for about 10 to 12 weeks throughout the summer, after which growers and supermarkets move on to the next fruit type.
So what’s the incentive for supermarkets to sell peaches by varietal names? Not much, considering the fierce competition from other regions and other varieties of fruits and vegetables.
So, what’s going to move supermarkets in the direction the promotion council wants them to go? “We need fruit with profoundly different colors, shapes and flavors,” Frecon said.
One possibility is so-called “neat peaches” or peaches that can be snacked on without the juice squirting all over clothing. “Some people will not eat peaches as a snack because they are too juicy and messy,” he said. •