Desmond Layne’s work in peach cultivar evaluation means tasting a lot of peaches. “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” he quips.
Desmond Layne looks younger than he is, and he thinks young, too.
His goal is to use that modern information tool, the Internet, and put together “the most comprehensive peach Web site anywhere, a one-stop shop for peach information,” that fits the needs of commercial growers, backyard hobbyists, and even consumers looking for recipes and places to buy tree-ripened peaches.
Last July, he launched such a Web site, Everything About Peaches, at www.clemson.edu/peach and by May this year had collected nearly 76,000 hits from 76 countries. It was recognized earlier this year by the Southern Region of the American Society for Horticultural Science with the Blue Ribbon Extension Communication award.
“There you will find a lot of new information that has been developed for peach growers,” he said. “There are ten educational videos, 32 original educational columns I have written, 33 original FAQs (frequently asked questions), many with pictures, and other information. The educational videos up on YouTube have been viewed more than 10,000 times around the world.”
The titles of the videos include: How to Pick the Best Peach, How to Determine Peach Ripeness, Different Kinds of Peaches, Clemson Peach Evaluation Program, The Perfect Peach, South Carolina Peach History and Field Day, Chinese Protected Fruit Cultivation, Recognizing Stress Factors in Orchards, and Peaches—Fresh for You.
In May, Dr. Layne began a new series of videos called Peach Picks for South Carolina. Each week during the harvest season, he will feature those cultivars that are best suited for growing in “The Tastier Peach State” (a term South Carolinians coined as they compete with Georgia, “The Peach State”). “Featured cultivars in the series will include those that have performed consistently well over the last five or more years,” he said. Although the videos emphasize South Carolina, where Layne’s evaluation work is focused, many of these cultivars will also perform well in other southeastern states, he said. Layne is associate professor of pomology at Clemson University and South Carolina’s state fruit specialist. He came to Clemson in 1997 after working for four years at Kentucky State University in Frankfort leading efforts to develop the native American pawpaw as a new fruit crop for farmers who were trying to find high-value horticultural alternatives to growing tobacco.
At Clemson, his primary work has been in the evaluation of advanced selections and cultivars for the commercial peach industry. He has also conducted research in orchard management systems, disease management, and use of reflective films.
His peach evaluation Web site contains 11 years of data on the characteristics and performance of more than 350 varieties of peaches and nectarines.
His latest development is posting evaluation data within 48 hours of collection. You can find out today how a particular cultivar performed when it ripened earlier this week. This also includes digital photos to a standard, scaled background.
As each variety ripens, he and his assistants collect the fruit, bring them to the laboratory, test them for sugar levels and firmness, measure their size, assess their flavor, shape, and color, and comment on any interesting features. Photographs of the representative fruit are taken to show all of the important details that a grower or breeder would be interested in (skin coloration, shape, size, flesh color, etc.).
Layne, who is 48, comes by his interest in peaches honestly. His first summer job at age 14 was picking peaches at a local farm. His father is Dr. Richard E.C. Layne, who led the Agriculture Canada breeding program at Harrow, Ontario, from 1963 to 1996. During his career at Harrow, Des’s father released and named 36 new fruit cultivars—15 peaches, 13 apricots, 4 nectarines, and 4 pears—many containing Har (or Harrow) as the prefix for the name (for example, Harrow Diamond, Harcot).
Desmond grew up working with his dad, and, following in his father’s footsteps, he brought his own three sons into the work of fruit evaluation. “They help me all summer long and bring excellent technical skills—especially when it comes to making fun and creative videos for YouTube!” he says of sons Stephen, 21, Michael, 19, and Daniel, 16.
Layne maintains a large collection of trees, about 350 cultivars, at Clemson’s Musser Fruit Research Farm at Seneca, ten miles from campus. Many of these trees were donated by commercial nurseries for testing. He also currently has or has recently completed large on-farm grower trials in the two primary production regions of the state.
Layne uses a standard eight-point scale for rating peaches. Is there a full crop? Is the shape spherical or lopsided? How deep is the suture line? Are there pointed tips that could be bruised in handling? How fuzzy are they? How firm? Do they taste good?
At the end of the year, Layne produces an annual report in which he picks the year’s top varieties.
Layne just completed a two-year term as president of the American Pomological Society, the oldest fruit organization in North America—again following in his father’s footsteps. Richard Layne was president in 1991–1992.
In 2008, Layne co-edited with Daniele Bassi of the University of Milan, Italy, a new book, The Peach: Botany, Production and Uses. The list of 49 chapter authors reads like Who’s Who in Peaches.
“This is the most comprehensive text on peaches that has ever been published,” he said. “It features an entire chapter on the history of cultivation of peaches in China (the home of peaches) with translated accounts going back 3,000 years!”