Much goes into making peaches readily available for New Jersey residents and beyond

Scarlet Rose
The Scarlet Rose™ Rutgers peach is pictured above. This clingstone peach has excellent firmness and good eating qualities.

When it comes to producing peaches, New Jersey, with help from Rutgers scientists, does its part in keeping up with the competition.

The round, slightly furry tree fruit is commercially produced in roughly 20 states. New Jersey sits among the top five peach producers alongside California, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

Much of New Jersey’s peach crop can be credited to Joseph Goffreda, associate professor in the Department of Plant Biology at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. Goffreda, who has more than 30 other patents for apples, apricots, nectarines and peaches, has led the university’s tree fruit breeding program since 1989.

“New Jersey is very well located with regard to proximity to peach markets and enjoys a very good climate for peach growing,” said Dan Ward, an associate extension specialist at Rutgers who works alongside Goffreda. “But growing and selling peaches is never easy. Peaches have a short storage life and shelf life. Growers produce multiple varieties that ripen one after the other, so that they can provide fresh fruit to buyers for the whole peach season from early July through September.”

During National Peach Month, Rutgers Today spoke to Goffreda, Ward and Mark Gregory Robson, a Rutgers Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology, about the peach industry and what it takes to be one of the country’s top peach producers.

What are some newer peach varieties out of Rutgers?

Joseph Goffreda: Last year we patented a white peach variety Anna Rose™, named in honor of Anna M. Voordeckers, who provided valuable continuity to the program serving as the laboratory/field research assistant for the Rutgers tree fruit breeding program for more than 50 years. Felicia, a yellow-fleshed peach was made available this spring. Its tree is winter hardy, very productive and resistant to bacterial spot, which can damage the finish of the fruit and cause leaf loss, and a reduction in fruit quality.

Daniel Ward: The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) breeding program has released several peaches in recent years with flesh that stays firm much longer than older varieties.

These new "neat" peaches provide a different eating experience and have less potential for bruising during packing and shipping. The breeding program continues to increase the options for growers regarding a range of ripening seasons, the flesh color (yellow or white), the flavor profile (e.g., acid and tangy, or sub-acid and mellow) and the shape (e.g., spherical or the flat type), while constantly selecting for productivity and disease resistance.

What could we see upcoming from the program?

Joseph Goffreda: We are very interested in developing tree fruit varieties that tend to bloom later. Since peaches, nectarines, apricots and our cultivated apples are not native plants to this region, they tend to bloom too early if we have warm weather in late February or early March, which may be exacerbated by climate change. Freezing temperatures post bloom can damage the developing fruit and result in complete crop failure. We have a large collection of tree fruit germplasmessentially a bank for genes from plantsthat we use in our crosses to develop varieties that tend to bloom later than standard varieties. Our focus in recent years has been to develop better nectarine varieties that are cold hardy and have more tolerance to bacterial spot.

How does Rutgers and the state compete with other major peach producers?

Mark Gregory Robson: Our growers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania stay competitive because Joe has socially developed cultivars for this region that are flavorful, are high quality and have a good yield. New Jersey is in many respects the ideal place for high-value agricultural products because we sit between Boston and Washington, D.C. We have fertile soil, decent climate and many people to buy our products. 

Daniel Ward: Fresh fruit production is a very competitive business where different fruits compete for shelf space and consumer dollars, while different production regions compete for market share. The New Jersey industry continues to evolve in response to many challenges and the NJAES continues to support this industry to help it address the challenges. Diversifying the range of available peaches is one way to increase this industry's competitiveness.

Have the heat waves affected crops this summer?

Mark Gregory Robson: Heat always has an impact on all agriculture. Cows give less milk, hens lay fewer eggs, heat stress is tough on field crops and vegetables and fruit need more water. High temperatures cause the crops to mature (and usually spoil more quickly) and field heat leads to excessive respiration and decomposition. In addition, the high temperatures are ideal for insects and diseases that attack the crops and make it harder for the farmers to control the pests.  Heat stress is also tough on the farmers and the farm workers.

The process of growing and breeding peaches is lengthy and complicated and involves quite sophisticated technology. How does Rutgers choose what kind of peach breeds to focus on?

Daniel Ward: The Rutgers/NJAES peach-breeding program creates and selects peaches suited explicitly to the producers in this region. With the support from industry, Joe and his team create thousands of new crosses, plant them in the field, and select the most promising ones for further testing. If they are good enough, naming, licensing and propagating follows for distribution to nurseries and ultimately peach growers.

Along the way, others from Rutgers like Hemant Gohil and Megan Muehlbauer, both county agricultural agents, work with the state’s peach growers and nurseries to evaluate the performance of the advanced selections. Rutgers scientists like me also work with the agents, growers and other scientists to collect fruit quality data, and help develop the most respected advanced selections into commercial varieties.