Gary Kirckof stood in a peach tree’s shade to escape the glare and sweltering heat of the sun as he cut into a peach he called “Sugar Lady.”
He twisted the fruit open with ease and found the pit free of flesh, a trait consumers like in a fresh peach. He tasted the peach’s soft white flesh, savoring its low acid juices that contribute to its sweet, melonlike flavor.
Kirckof, 49, is a research supervisor for Yakima’s Northwest Soft Fruit Testers Association. The association pays him to extract as much data as he can to discover the consummate soft fruit that will lure consumers and delight their purchasing-power appetites.
After eating the Sugar Lady on a recent morning, Kirckof pointed to the peach tree’s full branches.
“See how much fruit is on that,” he said. “It’s what (growers) want.”
But the blazing red and orange peaches, among 300 varieties of peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, plums and prunes spread across three acres of Dale Olsen’s Twin Acres orchard, won’t be harvested for consumers.
They’re part of a test program intended to help Washington growers compete with California’s massive peach industry.
California produces 700 million pounds of peaches a year, including canned and frozen peaches, said Gary Van Sickle, field director for the California Tree Fruit Agreement near Fresno, Calif.
By comparison, Washington state ships about 28 million pounds of fresh peaches a year and produces another 28 million pounds for processing, said B.J. Thurlby, the promotion director for the Washington State Fruit Commission.
In 1990, a group of local fruit growers formed the Northwest Soft Fruit Testers Association. It’s funded by the Washington State Fruit Commission and 10 farmers who decided it was time to expand their soft-fruit varieties. Membership has grown to about 100 farmers across the world.
One soft fruit the association would like Washington to grow more of is the peach, particularly the white-flesh varieties such as the Sugar Lady and the White Lady. Those peaches are sweeter than yellow-flesh peaches and command higher prices overseas.
The white-flesh peach has big potential for Washington growers, Olsen said.
“But we need to do some catching up. … California has been ahead of the game,” Olsen said.
Last year, California shipped more than a million boxes of white-flesh peaches, most of them to Hong Kong and Taiwan. This year, some foreign markets are paying up to $20 a box for them, Van Sickle said. In domestic markets, the peaches sell for about $5 to $8 a box.
California’s White Lady and Sugar Lady peaches have been in production for seven years. A limited number of white-flesh peaches went into production two years ago in Washington, Olsen said.