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For more than a century, the freestone peach market in the eastern United States was dominated by two varieties. First was Elberta, a peach from Georgia that dominated production from 1880 to about 1950. Then, along came Michigan’s Redhaven, which became the world’s most-planted peach for the rest of the twentieth century.

But that single-variety domination sends a quirky message, for it suggests a lack of activity by breeders or lack of change in the industry, and that’s not the case. For most of the last century, breeders have churned out new varieties. There are, in fact, so many choices today that growers struggle to keep up with them all.

Luckily, they have the help of Jerry ­Frecon. From his location in southern  New Jersey, where 90 percent of that state’s peaches are produced, this Rutgers University agricultural agent has for 29 years led a testing and evaluation program that influences not only what Mid-Atlantic growers plant, but the choices made by growers across the United States and in other countries.

His Fact Sheets, available on the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station Web site, describe the characteristics of dozens of yellow and white melting flesh peach varieties, yellow and white nectarines, flat peach varieties, and plums.  Most years, he participates in a peach or fruit variety showcase and open house, which last year displayed 180 peach varieties when it was held at the Pennsylvania State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville. It drew more than 120 peach growers.

He began this evaluation work in 1982, when he came to Rutgers after spending ten years at Stark Bro’s Nurseries, where he found and introduced new varieties. One of his best introductions while at Stark Bro’s was Encore, a peach cultivar that was bred by Rutgers but initially discarded by the New Jersey Peach Council. When he came to Rutgers, he convinced growers of its value. Eventually, more than 10 percent of the peaches grown in New Jersey were Encore, the single largest variety.  Other new varieties since tested by Frecon have replaced it in importance.

While at Stark, he also introduced Saturn, one of the first peento (flat, or doughnut-shaped) peaches, also a Rutgers cultivar. Many other flat peaches have been tested and some introduced.

Today, he has a research planting containing 25 varieties of plums and 350 varieties of peaches and nectarines, usually four trees of each cultivar on Lovell or other peach seedling rootstocks. Growers visit his blocks in cooperating grower orchards to see what the varieties look like in production.

“I used to get numbered varieties from many breeders and test them, but it’s too big a project now,” he said. “Over the last twenty years, I’ve probably evaluated more than a thousand varieties.”

Now, much of his testing focuses on new varieties being bred by Joseph ­Goffreda, the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station fruit breeder, but he still exchanges information with breeders across the country. There are nine large peach-breeding programs in the United States.

“Peaches, plums, and nectarines  have been tested from private breeding programs like Paul Friday, Fruit Acres, Zaiger Genetics, and Burchell Nursery,” he said. “There are public peach breeding programs at the USDA-ARS  in Byron, Georgia, and Kearneysville, West Virginia, at Rutgers, the University of Arkansas, Michigan State University, and Clemson University,” he said. “Nurseries like Adams County, Cumberland Valley Nurseries, Dave Wilson Nursery, Stark Bro’s Nurseries, and individual growers have found and provided varieties for testing.”

Important trends

A lot has changed in the peach industry, Frecon said. A century ago, many peaches were white-fleshed, and now most are yellow-fleshed. Now, breeders and growers are looking for white-fleshed varieties and  more novel varieties as the trend seems to be changing.

The peach season keeps getting longer. In the days of Elberta, peaches were late maturing. “In New Jersey, we now harvest peaches from June 25 to September 15 and market peaches into October,” he said.

People keep wanting bigger peaches, or at least, retailers say they do. Frecon isn’t sure why. He says he hears more consumers complaining that peaches are getting too big. They don’t need to eat a huge peach. Still, he said, the desired peach size has grown from 21⁄4 to 21⁄2 to 23⁄4 to 3 inches.

“I am primarily selecting varieties for commercial growers in the eastern United States, primarily the Mid-Atlantic area. I have been strongly and financially supported by Pennsylvania growers and the New Jersey fruit growers,” Frecon said. “These growers are looking for highly colored fruit with a bright orange-yellow background color, great flavor that is held well after harvest, and large fruit size with an average of 21⁄2 inches to 3 inches in diameter.

“They want firmness on the tree and during the handling process, consistent productivity, and disease resistance, particularly to bacterial spot, Xanthomonas pruni, and ­constriction canker, Phomopsis.

“They want novel shapes and colors, with and without fuzz. Things like plumcots, apricots, Pluots, and plums are of increasing interest in the eastern United States.”

New generation of consumers

Younger consumers seem to like mild sweet and low acid peaches, he said. Because many of the attractive white-fleshed varieties developed in California for ethnic markets have low acidity and have become readily available from growers, they’re catching on in the eastern United States.

There’s a growing interest in crunchier peaches, too, so the melting flesh characteristic, while important, is less of the mix of novel flavors and types. “As long as it tastes good, that’s what counts,” Frecon said. “A lot of people don’t want a peach that gets juice all over their shirt when they eat it.”

One thing the apple industry did that peaches never did very well is gain more shelf space by selling more varieties. Peaches  have a relatively short storage season, so they are sold in season, one variety following another, but peaches are rarely sold by name. Often several varieties masquerade as Redhaven, a name many people recognize. Still, stone fruits are gaining more shelf space as they are sold by characteristic—white, flat, etc.—and new stone-fruit hybrids, like Apriums, Pluots (trademarked varieties from Zaiger Genetics) and plumcots, gain individual recognition. Saturn is often marketed as the “Donut” peach, a trademarked name, very novel.

Frecon has the distinction of being the person who first identified plum pox when a Pennsylvania grower sent him samples of some odd-looking fruit. The resulting confirmation by USDA scientists and a well-funded program for eradicating plum pox changed propagation  practices. Growers used to look for the best trees in their orchards and have commercial nurseries propagate them, even selling scion wood to others. That is now considered risky for growers and nurserymen, he said.

“We have a lot of exciting new material in the Rutgers NJAES breeding program,” ­Frecon said, “but it’s become more expensive to test and develop these varieties. Before we can extensively test a potential new release, we need to have it virus indexed, and that costs $1,500-plus per variety.”

Rutgers has an exclusive marketing agreement with Adams County Nursery for release of new Rutgers varieties, and ACN has taken on much of that cost, he said, but fewer selections are chosen for widespread testing. “We have to work extra hard to make sure we only select the best,” he said.

Frecon’s variety fact sheets can be found at http://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs.