Drs. Renae Moran and Peyton Ginakes of the University of Maine examine peach flower buds for winter injury. Photo courtesy of University of Maine

by Enrico Villamaino

The University of Maine’s School of Food and Agriculture was recently endowed with a grant from the USDA to assist tree fruit specialists evaluate strategies for producing peaches in the northeastern New England region.

The grant was awarded by the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI). SCRI grants fund the work of professionals in the specialty crop industry. To be eligible for a grant, a proposal must address at least one of five general areas of study: plant breeding and genetics; addressing threats from pests and diseases; improving production and processing efficiency; new innovations and technology; and food safety hazard prevention and response.

Dr. Renae Moran has been a professor of pomology at UMaine for 20 years. Through the university’s Extension program, she works with commercial fruit growers, advising them in finding solutions to production problems. Her current areas of research and education include care and culture of apple, peach and plum trees for cold hardiness, orchard efficiency and improved cold storage.

Moran’s proposal to study production practices for reducing risks in peach growing was submitted in May 2020. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which makes the final decision for SCRI grants in that state, allotted $52,402 for her project.

“Peaches are a high risk fruit in Maine,” Moran explained. “There’s a high possibility of winter injury. The peach has not fully adapted to our cold climate.”

Despite this, she emphasized the importance of her work with peaches to Maine’s agriculture. In recent years, the peach has become a crop more growers are willing to take a chance on, particularly apple growers. “In the past few seasons, we’ve seen increasingly stiff competition in the wholesale apple market. Peaches are a higher risk planting in Maine, but there’s also a higher potential reward when they’re brought to sale,” she said.

Moran’s research has three main objectives. The first is to compare 20 peach varieties for their cold hardiness and suitability for commercial production in Maine. The first peach variety samples to be studied were planted in 2019. To date, 15 varieties (Manon, Rariton Rose, Messina, Selina, BuenosII, Tangos, Autumnstar, Blazingstar, Coralstar, Glowingstar, PF 009, Lucky 13, PF15A and PF17) have been planted. Shoots from these plantings will be placed in freezers with temperatures as low as -22º F. Five additional varieties will be added in 2021.

“As some breeds die off, we’ll cycle in others. Hopefully, in five years we’ll have the data we need to know which varieties are best,” she said.

Next, Moran will compare orchard locations to identify conditions that reduce the risk of growing peaches. “We need to look at factors such as elevation and irrigation and record how they affect crop performance,” she explained. She has latterly observed that cold hardiness was similar in flower buds collected from Wayne, Monmouth and Livermore, while peach plants grown in Springvale showed slightly greater hardiness. In all, seven orchards across Maine will be utilized in studying site factors. A new round of tests were conducted in February.

Finally, Moran will seek to develop new peach varieties with greater cold hardiness. “Varieties identified as having greater cold hardiness under Objective 1 will be used for breeding new varieties in spring 2021,” she said. In the spring, her research team will plant seeds from last year’s cross-breeding efforts and start an orchard of potential new peach varieties.

In order to complete the tasks laid out in her proposal, Moran will be working with a team composed of her research assistant, Dr. Peyton Ginakes, as well as personnel from the University of New Hampshire.

If successful, the work done could be beneficial to Maine fruit growers. Of all the farms listed on OrangePippin.com, a site listing orchards, only 11 in the state say they have peaches either for sale or for U-pick.