Specialty Crop Grower Magazine: Tracking Progress of Region’s Fruits, Vegetables

Clint ThompsonSpecialty Crop Grower Magazine

By Clint Thompson

Sweet Corn Picks Up After Slow Start

Florida sweet corn volume was expected to ramp up during the first couple of weeks in April. The increased production was needed for growers who experienced a sluggish start to the season, mostly due to excessive rainfall. The record rainfall kept growers from being able to access the field for planting.

“We had a little bit of a slower start this year,” said Tori Rumenik, director of commodity services and supply chain at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. “There have been rain skips from winter and fall that have affected the start of the crop, but now it’s really rolling. From what I’ve seen driving around, it looks beautiful.”

According to Rumenik, the high rain doesn’t mean there will be lower sweet corn volume this year. “A lot of people couldn’t get out to plant for a few days but then got in and made up some ground afterward,” she explained.

North Florida Watermelon Acreage Up

North Florida watermelon producers have this year’s crop in the ground … and there is a lot of it.

“The consensus is there is an increase in acreage in this vicinity. Exactly how much? It seems like it’s 10% more,” said Bob Hochmuth, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences regional specialized Extension agent in Live Oak. “If we figure that there are 8,000 acres, more or less, in this area, then we’re talking about an additional 1,000 acres … It’s a very significant increase.”

More acres this year is not surprising for the North Florida region considering the quality and quantity of last year’s supply was high. Growers planted earlier and capitalized on a favorable market. It is also why producers were 95% done planting by mid-March. They started planting in mid-to-late February.

Georgia Melons Planted in March

Georgia watermelon producers planted this year’s crop in March. How many acres that equates to remains a question mark.

“In general, I’ve heard that acreage is going to be increased this year,” said Tim Coolong, associate professor in the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “I talked to a few growers this winter, and they seemed reasonably optimistic. But at the time, I don’t know that they knew the total acreage going in.”

Georgia melon growers will once again follow North Florida through the production window. Acreage is expected to increase in North Florida following a bumper crop last year. That could impact market prices in June.

“If they have a bumper crop in North Florida, obviously there’s going to be more supply out there,” Coolong said.

North Georgia Peaches Poised for Success

North Georgia peach producer Drew Echols is optimistic this year’s crop will have a different ending than a season ago. The crop has already dodged one late-season freeze event.

Branch of peach tree in closeup.

“We got down to 29 degrees Fahrenheit, and the peaches at that stage could take 26 or 27. We were splitting hairs,” Echols said. “We’ve still got them right now. Up here, we lose more peaches in the first 10 days of April than at any other time.”

In early April, Echols was watching weather closely in hopes of avoiding a cold snap.

A couple of freeze events in March last year devastated Georgia’s peach crop. Following unseasonably warm temperatures in February, peach trees bloomed too early and were susceptible to cold temperatures just a few weeks later. That was not the case this year, however.

“What was strange was that we got killed on March 14 last year, which was the earliest we had ever lost peaches. We normally don’t bloom that early,” Echols said. “We’re blooming on time this year. Right now, we’ve got 100% crop everywhere. It’s going to cost a lot of money to thin this crop, but we’ll spend it.”

Alabama Peach Trees on Track

Sufficient chill hours have Alabama peach trees where they need to be during bloom season. David Lawrence, regional Extension agent in Central Alabama, believes the chill helped trees get through the vulnerable bloom.

“We got a little bit better chill this year,” said Lawrence. “There were some varieties that I think would have made it through the freeze last year, but they just didn’t have the chill that was required. It was kind of a double hit last year. This year, we at least got the chill we needed.”

Edgar Vinson, assistant research professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Horticulture at Auburn University, said chill hours were well over 800, a significant improvement from the previous season.

Early varieties started blooming in early March.

A Challenging Florida Strawberry Season

Supply overwhelmed demand in the strawberry industry in March. As a result, the market did not respond favorably for Florida growers. Matt Parke, farm manager of Parkesdale Farms in Plant City, stopped harvesting his crop on March 17 because he was going to lose more money harvesting the crop.

“The market was horrible. Everything just ran together between us. California pushed hard, and Baja pushed hard. It was a lot of berries at once. Between everybody, I imagine it was close to two million boxes a day,” Parke said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture was reporting (prices at) $6 to $8 (per box), but it was more along the lines of a $3 price after sale. There was good business on the retail side, but anything that wasn’t sold in retail was going to the open market. The open market was so saturated that you were lucky if you got $3 back.”

What was more discouraging was how much crop Parke left in the field.

“I had 1,000 flats to the acre, probably,” he said. “I haven’t had to stop this early in seven years, besides the COVID year when they shut us off when the pandemic happened. Other than that, we haven’t had to stop early in a long time.”

Weather also impacted Florida strawberry production. Cooler temperatures combined with excessive rains slowed the crop considerably. It led to too much supply at the wrong time.

“The weather we had pushed our berries back to coincide with California. California came early this year, and we came late.” Parke said. “We would have had a better go at it if we were a little bit earlier.”