Hill Country Fruit Council

Guide to Finding Texas Hill Country Peaches

TFGA High Tunnel Peach Project

The Texas Fruit Growers Association (TFGA) set up a high tunnel project for tree fruit here in Texas. The purpose was to use hoop type structures to protect early blossom types of tree fruit from Spring freeze damage and hail injury. The purpose includes creating earlier production for the season when peaches are in short supply and high priced. We also planned to observe whether the controlled environment in a high tunnel will reduce insect and disease pressure.

We used “Chinese protected structure peach production” as a model to set up our project. The Chinese have been using this type of production system since the 70’s on large acreage with the assistance of University experts from the U.S. and we have not tried it here in the U.S. for peaches. To start, we chose varieties of peach, an apricot, and low chill sweet cherries that had lower winter chill requirements than varieties normally grown at each of the site areas. This enabled us to create blossoms 3 to 4 weeks earlier than in open orchards. We obtained the cooperation and space at four successful peach producers for the demonstration sites. Each of the caretakers was responsible for the construction of the TFGA high tunnel and all caretaking responsibilities including planting trees and structure maintenance. Sites are in 3 different USDA climate zones including 8a, 8b and 7b. The Project Manager, Dan Rohrer, assisted with construction and provided information to the growers as each season progressed. We had volunteer labor help at several sites because of curiosity on the project. Other entities assisting or cooperating included Tree Fruit Specialists, Monte Nesbitt and Jim Kamas of Texas AgriLife Extension, Dr. David Byrne, Peach Breeder of Texas A & M University, Dr. Desmond Layne of Clemson University, Dr. Curt Rom of Univ. of Arkansas, Hill Country Fruit Council, and conversations with Dr. Greg Lang, a Sweet Cherry Specialist at Michigan State Univ. Dr. Byrne, Dr. Rom, and Dr. Layne had visited some of the Chinese sites so their counsel was instrumental in setting up this project. A portion of the funds were provided from a TDA Specialty Crop Block Grant program.

We used two different manufacturers, Haygrove and FarmTek. The hooped structures had 2 rows of trees 12 feet apart with tree spacing at 4 ft. on the row in a 200 ft. long tunnel with drip irrigation for water and nutrients. Variations included cherry trees at 3 ft. spacing instead of 4ft. and one peach tunnel with 3 rows to be similar to the Chinese high density to compare our production methods. Peach trees were trained in a V shape for peaches and in a slender spindle upright growth in cherries rather than a bush type. The structures were covered with the specialized plastic (more light diffusion than greenhouse plastic) in January after the lower winter chill hour requirement (400 hr.) was met. The earliest peach blossoms occurred by January 20, about 5 weeks earlier than normal outside orchard. The increased heat (growing degree days) kept the trees growing more than a month ahead of schedule till harvest time. For the initial 2011 planting, we at TFGA were only able to obtain about half of the plant material (bareroot trees) because of the lead time required for propagating special varieties on correct rootstocks. Each structure was at least 50% planted in 2011 and peaches finished planting in 2012. A portion of the early cherry varieties were propagated in 2012 but are not ready for replant till 2013. With the cost savings on the initial setup, we were able to expand the project to include a citrus site in 2012. With the Citrus Greening disease, the high tunnel unit may be an alternative production system in higher chill localities for vector control in citrus. Green Leaf Nurseries donated Satsuma plant material for this trial site in Tomball, TX.

Lessons learned:
1. Early planting even if only 14 days earlier is very beneficial for extra first year growth.
2. Fruit production on 1st leaf trees is workable in a high density planted high tunnel.
3. Early training reduces first year yield.
4. Much lower disease and insect pressure in high tunnel. No “free water” or rain on fruit eliminates Brown rot.
5. Mites and mildew increase possible in high tunnel vs. open field, but we have good controls, both Organic and chemical.
6. V shaped training on peaches appears to be most optimal tree shape for us in TX.
7. Cotton Root Rot in cherries can be a problem even on the peach interstem rootstock.
8. Chemical free or organic production in peaches are much more workable in HTs.
9. Hail on 5-7-12 at Rohrer site, 50% loss on outside trees, no damage in tunnel.

Goals achieved include:
1. Showing this high density production method is an option in Texas by minimizing risk.
2. Fruit can be 4-5 weeks earlier than field production.
3. Marketable fruit can be produced on 1 yr. old trees.
4. Lower insect and disease can reduce chemical pest inputs.

For the site identification, the grower name and city is listed in summary and 2012 yield recorded.

Studebaker, Stonewall - trees planted 1-28-11, not headed at planting, no training cuts, and pushed for maximum growth. 1 peach variety and apricot pulled at end of 2011 growing season for inadequate growth. Yield may be compromised 2nd year due to heavy pruning.
Yield 26.4lb./tree

Childress, Cross Plains - 2-20-11 planting trees were headed and started early scaffold branch training in June so growth not as rapid in 2011 as Studebaker site. Cherry samples planted also.
Yield 7lb./tree

Cooper, Fairfield - last date trees planted on a vigorous soil and modified tree training. Several Satsuma varieties planted also.
Yield 7.2lb./tree

Rohrer, Fredericksburg - trees planted 2-14&15-2011. Headed at planting and scaffold trained thru the season. Cherries high headed at planting but did not develop adequate lower branching so retrained in 2012 growing season. A few cherry clusters on but no yield till expected till 2013. Peaches grown using only organic fertilizer and organic pest control so growth was less vigorous than conventional grown.
Yield 10.8lb./tree

Matt, Tomball - Some citrus trees planted in 2012, TFGA purchased high tunnel 5-12-12. Planting is continuing, to be completed in 2013. Possible small Satsuma yield in 2013.

Earlitreat peaches ready to pick 04-13-12

Peach blossoms 02-15-12

Freestones ready to pick 05-19-12, outside
average picking date is 06-15.