Farm Name: Davis Family Orchards
Grove Location: Plant City, FL
UM Grower Since: 2011
Crop: Peaches (3 firm-flesh “non-melting” varieties developed by the University of Florida and one soft-flesh “melting” variety called Tropic Beauty)
Although Dan Davis is a relatively new organic grower (2011), he’s still a pioneer for the emerging Florida organic peach industry that’s growing in acreage every year. Assisted by Uncle Matt’s production team, Dan and his son Danuel are cultivating 20 acres of peaches in Plant City, Florida, located east of Tampa. A computer engineer by trade and COO of a financial services company, Dan started his orchard as a hobby and has employed his 22-year-old son, Danuel, full-time to run the day-to-day operations of the orchard which is now fully certified organic for 2014.
UM: With no background in farming, what made you decide to grow organic peaches right out of the gate?
Dan: When I started considering this farming endeavor, I looked around at a variety of Florida produce markets. At first, I looked at orange groves, but due to the problems associated with the greening disease, it was not an option for me. Then I looked at blueberries, and that looked like a good option for a small grower, until the market got saturated due to some citrus growers converting a portion of their crops to blueberries. The Florida peach market is emerging and since the additional “hands-on labor” part of organic farming didn’t scare me, we went with peaches.
UM: Florida’s neighbor to the north is famous for peaches. What made you think a Florida peach could give Georgia a run for the money?
Dan: I spent a lot of time evaluating it and actually talking to the University of Florida and various nurseries. The big push for growing Florida peaches has to do with the fact that they come into season earlier than Georgia and South Carolina.
Regarding other factors, such as flavor and fruit size, much of the research I found analyzing the Florida peach versus the Georgia peach came out favorably for the Florida peach. In many of the samplings, the Florida peach performed better than the Georgia peach in terms of taste. One of the distinguishing factors with the Florida peach is that it is a smaller peach than the Georgia peach, although I don’t believe that’s going to be much of an issue with consumers.
UM: What are the obstacles that you have to overcome in growing peaches organically in Florida? How do you tackle those?
Dan: The single largest issue is the labor that is required in organic farming. For example, weed control is very labor intensive for an organic grower and it usually requires a lot of hand labor. To try to mitigate that, we have tried to use mechanical controls such as tillage and tractor-driven implements. We are trying to eliminate hand-hoeing (which we did for the first year). Obviously, hand-hoeing ten acres was tough enough and now we’ve gone to twenty acres, it’s just not practical.
The next obstacle has to do with the care of the trees themselves. Peaches have to be pruned twice a year to develop the desired bowl-shaped tree structure. You have to cut the interior of the tree away so the sun can penetrate and air can flow through the tree. The Florida varieties grow so fast that cutting away by hand the undesired limbs tree by tree by tree can be very intensive.
Finally, the Florida peach tree puts out way more fruit than the tree can sustain. If you were to leave all that fruit on the tree, it wouldn’t get any bigger than the size of a golf ball. You have to go in and handpick all of the extra fruit that is on the tree. You leave one peach for every 6 to 9 inches of tree limb. For that one peach that we keep, we will handpick off 6 to 10 other peaches. You do that all the way around the entire tree and for every tree. The process is called “thinning” and has to be done in a matter of a week when the fruit reaches a certain size. Finding skilled laborers for peach crops since they’re new in the state has been a challenge, but we’re working through it.
UM: How did you come to partner with Uncle Matt’s Organic?
Dan: It was almost by accident. I knew I wanted to get into the peaches, and I was investigating obtaining trees from a variety of nurseries. The nursery I ultimately chose told me about Uncle Matt’s and started the notion in my mind about going organic. When I learned more about Uncle Matt’s and about organic, it solved all of the remaining concerns I had about getting into peaches.
UM: We know you’re a relatively new organic peach grower. Has Uncle Matt’s come alongside you to help you learn how to farm organically? How?
Dan: Yes, they’ve been absolutely critical to the process. Again, I do not come from an “ag” background so Benny [Uncle Matt’s production manager] has been with me the whole time guiding and instructing me what to do, when to do, and how to do it. For example, when it came time to “thin” the trees, we actually had an Uncle Matt’s crew come in and do it. We learned by watching and we plan on participating this season. Uncle Matt’s is helping my son and me gain the grower skills we need so that we can effectively supervise others.
UM: What is the most rewarding aspect about being an organic grower for you?
Dan: I think one thing I find most rewarding is the way we keep our orchard seems to get a lot of compliments. That, in and of itself, is very rewarding. We put a lot of effort into keeping the weeds down. We strive to keep our orchard looking every bit as good as a conventional orchard that is using chemical weed killer to keep weeds in check. We’re using hand labor to get the same well-groomed result year round.
On the fruit side, it’s rewarding to get feedback from surprised people saying how how good a Florida peach is!
UM: What do you appreciate most about organic farming practices?
Dan: Although I’ve only been farming since 2011, I have come to appreciate the risks associated with farming today and I am glad I grow organically. I am very happy to not be exposing myself or my son to the harsh chemicals required to spray weeds or the trees themselves, especially in the case of airborne spray applications that we could breathe in. The farmers themselves are exposed to denser concentrations of chemicals than what would be found on a piece of fruit sitting on a store shelf. As an organic grower, our spray applications are made from organic compounds, so if the spray drift is landing on us as we are applying it, it’s nothing that is going to be harmful to us. That’s a significant difference between conventional growers and us.