A breeding program that started on a grower’s Michigan farm 25 years ago has grown into a strong presence in the market, with 17 nurseries in the United States and Canada licensed to carry its varieties.

Paul Friday displays some of his peach varieties at his booth during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the years, his prolific Michigan breeding program has introduced 37 peaches, all under the series name Flamin’ Fury. Each new variety can take up to two decades to develop. <b>(Leslie Mertz/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

Paul Friday displays some of his peach varieties at his booth during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the years, his prolific Michigan breeding program has introduced 37 peaches, all under the series name Flamin’ Fury. Each new variety can take up to two decades to develop. (Leslie Mertz/Good Fruit Grower)

The number of patented peaches and nectarines that have come out of the Flamin’ Fury breeding program has already topped three dozen, and others are in the pipeline, according to grower and breeder Paul Friday, who is entering his 55th year in the peach business.

“Of those who grow peaches commercially in Michigan, a significant portion of their peach volume is made up of Paul Friday’s peaches. That’s a pretty good indicator of the importance of his breeding program,” said Bill Shane, senior extension tree fruit specialist at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center in Berrien County.

“His breeding program has been extremely valuable for the people in this climate and our more temperate, rainy growing conditions.”

Getting started

Friday grew peaches for three decades on his family’s farm in southwestern Michigan, established in Coloma in 1846. He started the Flamin’ Fury breeding program about 25 years ago when he simply wanted more selection.

“The number of quality peach varieties available at that time were very limited in Michigan, so I decided to come up with some new varieties just for myself on my own farm,” he said.

His list for the perfect peach was long:

—Excellent flavor, texture and overall fruit quality.
—Large size.
—Bacterial spot resistance.
—Red-over-yellow color, because as Friday said, “They look like billiard balls if they’re a solid color!”
—Short fuzz.
—Cold hardiness.
—Good shipping quality.

On top of that, Friday wanted to find a peach for every harvest window from early to late season. So he wandered through his orchard, sampling fruits tree by tree.

He came across some “chance mutations” with desirable characteristics and cross-bred those trees.

“From my original crosses made in that first year came seven new varieties that turned out to be commercially acceptable,” he said. He shared the news with fruit experts, but they were skeptical, he recalled. “They said it would be outstanding if I had found just one new variety, and it took them a long time to realize I did have seven and that six of those original seven were particularly good.”

Soon, Leno Mori of Mori Nurseries in Ontario and Phil Baugher of Adams County Nursery in Pennsylvania took interest in the new varieties, the nurseries started selling them, and Friday has never looked back.

“As I developed varieties, I’d use them as parents to continue that bloodline, so to speak, and develop newer varieties,” he said.

Breeding success

Of the 17 nurseries in the U.S. and Canada licensed to carry Flamin’ Fury varieties, two are recent additions from California.

“My varieties seem to be moving both southeast and west. I have a lot of interest from California, where they’re particularly interested in my flavor and bacterial spot resistance,” Friday said.

In addition, he noted, his varieties are currently undergoing extensive testing in parts of South Africa, which supplies Eastern and Western Europe with peaches in the off-season.

Friday is happy about the wide distribution of the peaches, but he seems most excited about responses from individuals.

“A shipper packer in California has had my varieties on test for a number of years, and he told me, ‘We always eat your varieties at home and serve them to our guests.’” Friday smiles, and then he pulls out his phone and plays back a voicemail of a telephone call he got from a grower in Kentucky about his PF Paramount 24 variety, which he describes as a sweet midseason peach with bacterial spot resistance, cold-hardiness and high yield.

On the recording, the grower remarks, “I just want to thank you for an amazing peach. It’s really the best peach we’ve ever had. We’ve really been talking about it all day.”

When asked about his own favorite Flamin’ Fury variety, Friday answered, “For what season? They’re all only good for 10 days, so there are lots of good peaches.”

He does, however, point out a few notable varieties: One is the PF 24-007, a freestone peach that ripens about 22 days after Redhaven.

The other is the PF 24-007 peach, which has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest peach since 2002.

It was 5.5 inches in diameter and weighed almost 2 pounds, although Friday said he’s actually grown some that are larger.

In 2010, the talk show Late Night With David Letterman got wind of the record, and called Friday asking him to bring his record-holding peach to the show. “I said, ‘I ate it eight years ago!’” He laughs. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Other Flamin’ Fury peaches he thinks especially worthy of mention are the PF Lucky 13, one of his most popular varieties; the large, midseason PF 19-007; the PF 28-007, a late-season peach that ripens 32 days after Redhaven; and the even later ripening PF Fashionably Late.

He is quite fond of PF Fashionably Late, which he considers “one of the best in the series.” PF Fashionably Late ripens 54 days after Redhaven and, while a semi-cling variety, is very juicy.

Shane has a few favorites in the Flamin’ Fury line, too. “The PF 19-007 is a nice one for its harvest window about 16 days after Redhaven. Other ones that I like quite a bit are his PF 9A-007, which is in the Redhaven window, and one of his really early ones called PF 5 D Big, which is about 24 days before Redhaven.”

Besides the merits of Friday’s individual varieties, Shane asserts that the entire Flamin’ Fury series has made a difference.

“One of the things that his breeding program has done is it has developed peaches that ship well, that have enough red color to compete in the national peach market and have good fruit size,” Shane said. “He’s really made remarkable progress, and the number of his introductions is amazing for a breeding program.”

Today, Friday is easing up his workload a bit. He has retired from his life as a peach grower and even moved into a retirement home — “It’s like a cruise ship, but without the seasickness!” — but when asked if he’ll retire from breeding, he immediately and emphatically said, “No. The goal is always to develop something better than what you already have, and I have a lot of stuff in the works.”

He added, “I’m always in search of the perfect peach.” •

– by Leslie Mertz Ph.D., a freelance writer based in Gaylord, Michigan.