GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Students at the University of Florida led the charge to harvest and donate nearly one ton of peaches to Gainesville food pantries.
Initiated by horticultural sciences doctoral student Trequan McGee, members from two University of Florida student organizations, along with faculty in the UF/IFAS horticultural sciences department, some friends and a few family members harvested about 1,700 pounds of peaches at the UF/IFAS Plant Science Research and Education Unit in Citra, Florida. The student organizations involved were Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) and the University of Florida’s Black Graduate Student Organization (BGSO).
“We had two different harvests,” said McGee, president of MANRRS and first vice president of BGSO. “The first was just our student organizations’ members and we picked about 700 pounds of peaches. The second day we had a lot of other people come to help, and we picked about 1,000 pounds.”
Throughout the year, the unit’s peach trees are used by faculty and students, primarily for research. McGee, for example, has been conducting an experiment since 2019 to investigate how to assist Florida peach producers in harvesting by growing smaller plants.
“If you grow a tree in Georgia, South Carolina, or even as far north as New Jersey, after you harvest the tree, the weather cools down,” McGee said. “In Florida, the weather stays hot. You can get 20 or more inches of growth over the summer, so we want to keep the plants smaller to make harvests easier, so you don’t have to drag out ladders or anything when people go to pick [the fruit].”
Peach research at the research and education unit in Citra varies, but many projects are focused on helping growers in Florida. Though the fruit is safe to eat, the peaches are not sold for profit because the unit’s focus is on the peach research.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, no one was able to harvest the produce, so hundreds of pounds of peaches fell to the ground, rotting. After the pandemic, students stepped up to make sure the produce was useful.
“We [MANRRS] had talked about doing this a couple times before. We talked about having a fruit sale to raise money for the club,” McGee said.
This year, the timing worked out. Peach season in Florida is short, usually lasting from mid-March to mid-May, although that can vary based on the varieties grown.
The student organizations donated the fruit to the Alan and Cathy Hitchcock Field and Fork Pantry. Any surplus of peaches was given to other food pantries or banks in Gainesville, such as the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank.
“We took something that needed to happen, the harvest, and found a way to use it to help others,” McGee said. “But we also got some people in the orchard who don’t normally get to do that, and we are looking forward to doing something like this again.”
–Jarred Shellhouse, UF/IFAS