Based on perceived human health and environmental concerns, many consumers are increasingly demanding food products grown with reduced pesticide inputs (Pimentel, 2005). At the same time, consumer expectations for fresh fruits with superior quality in terms of external appearance, flavor, and textural attributes have also increased (Choi et al., 2017; Wang et al., 2017; Zheng et al., 2016). In response, rosaceous crop growers are seeking to invest in cultivars that combine market-demanded fruit quality with durable resistance to major diseases (Iezzoni, 2018); however, improving these sets of attributes, in a single cultivar is difficult to achieve and highly resource-intensive for rosaceous crops such as peach [Prunus persica (Iezzoni, 2018)].
Fresh market fruit growers must mitigate yield and quality losses to pests and diseases but also carefully control variable input costs for their management practices. Using disease-resistant cultivars is one obvious and attractive strategy to manage their risk. Fresh produce growers usually receive the residual of the market price, which is the price negotiated by the market intermediary minus the cost of receiving, packing, storing, promotion, and other handling operations performed by the intermediary. In some cases, growers do not cover all variable and fixed costs (Cook et al., 2015). Because growers bear a considerable marketing risk—losses during handling or when end-consumers at the retail level do not buy the product—they strive to provide products with quality attributes that consumers most prefer.
This study focuses on the U.S. southeastern peach sector, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. As of 2018, annual farm gate value for this sector is ≈$95.4 million [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2019]. This region offers a useful case to analyze growers’ preferences for both fruit quality and disease resistance. Southeastern U.S. peach growers have a logistical advantage in supplying highly populated eastern U.S. markets and can also harvest closer to optimal ripeness when the fruit has had time to fully ripen and attain superior flavor profiles (Zhao et al., 2017); however, their seasonally hot, humid, and rainy growing conditions lead to pest and disease incidences that routinely threaten peach operations’ profitability (Zhao et al., 2017).
Disease-resistant cultivars could offer southeastern U.S. peach growers a feasible alternative to manage, prevent, and control diseases, obtain economic yields, and maintain their market advantage. However, plant breeding programs face challenges combining disease resistance and fruit quality in one single cultivar (Gallardo et al., 2012; Yue et al., 2012). Host plant resistance to diseases are often found in wild species, along with undesirable fruit attributes like a low level of sugar, high levels of malic acid, undesirable flavors, and small size (Moing et al., 2003). Considering the complexity of breeding an improved peach cultivar that appeals to both growers and consumers, groups that sometimes have very different trait priorities, breeding programs must carefully assess the allocation of time and monetary resources. In this context, it would help breeders gain a better understanding of growers’ preferences when deciding to adopt a new cultivar. In this study, we investigated the dollar value growers are willing to pay for improved fruit quality and disease resistance attributes in new cultivars. We focused on resistance to brown rot disease, caused by the fungus Monilinia fructicola, which causes significant losses to the southeastern U.S. peach crop (Schnabel et al., 2010) and the fruit quality attributes of size and fruit color (blush). Although the development of resistance to brown rot disease in peach has been limited, it remains an important goal in most breeding programs.
Peaches can be classified according to the harvest time window in early (harvest 15 May–8 June), mid (harvest 9 June–4 July), and late (later than 4 July). Production practices and labor costs differ across these harvest windows. Chavez et al. (2015) and Ritchie et al. (2005) suggested that growers have contrasting perceptions of the importance of fruit quality and disease resistance based on harvest timing. This study addresses that issue directly and specifically examines southeastern peach growers’ decision-making process when selecting a new cultivar, considering the late harvest window of 2016 and 2018. We focus on the late harvest window, as this group exhibits the greatest needs for inputs for brown rot control, as the fruit is on the tree longer. Note that 2016 and 2018 marked 1 year before and after a major freeze event in 2017 in the southeastern peach production regions in which temperature descended below record low temperatures, leading to the worst damage to peach production in 10 years in South Carolina and Georgia (Georgia Department of Agriculture, 2017; South Carolina Department of Agriculture, 2017).
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