Stoking a Passion for Passion Fruit
Once public interest was piqued, a family of exotic fruit growers started selling big
`OUR whole family grew up eating these off our own trees,'' says Tony Brown, speaking of the exotic fruits that now drive his lucrative - and worldwide - family business: cherimoyas (cheree-MOY-as), feijoas (fay-JO-as), white sapotes (sah-PO-tays), passion fruit. ``We thought it was normal,'' he says. In 1917, his grandfather bought these 76 acres tucked between ocean and high foothills. Fifty years of lemons, lima beans, and avocadoes later, root rot all but destroyed their prime cash crop of avocadoes. Searching for alternatives immune to the fungus and able to grow in the clay soil, grandson Tony and twin Johnny came up with cherimoyas: sweet, juicy fruits whose custard-like flesh tastes like a mix of papaya, pineapple, and banana.Skip to next paragraph
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``Everyone told us, `you can't make money off cherimoyas, nobody knows what they are,''' recalls Mr. Brown, now field manager of family-owned California Tropics - home to 4,000 trees and a packaging center for 28 local farms. ``That really got our hackles up,'' he adds.
The size of grapefruits, but shaped more like apples, cherimoyas have green skin patterned with raised, hexagonal outlines. Cousin to sweet and sour varieties well-known in South America, India, and Southeast Asia, the California cherimoya can be grown only in a fragile set of conditions present from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Previously sold mostly in high-priced specialty markets at close to $8 per pound, since 1983 they have become common at chain stores in major cities from December to May at prices from $2.50 to $5 per pound.
It was 1968 when 17-year-old Tony and brother Johnny transplanted about 400 seedlings from a friend's farm - ``free of charge, because they were considered weeds,'' he says. From there the twins, three siblings, and mother began their own nursery.
Now, full-sized semi-trailer trucks are required to haul the firm's cherimoyas to market. Last season's harvest: 80,000 ten-pound boxes. Twenty percent of the crop goes to Japan, 40 percent to California, and the rest east of the Rockies. ``The demand for cherimoya has gone hand-in-hand with the computerization of supermarkets who have found how much they were making from produce,'' says Frieda Caplan, head of Frieda's Finest, a specialty produce company. Devoting more space to produce has allowed the ``mainstreaming'' of cherimoyas - providing the visibility which draws consumers to their unique flavor.
``Sales will only go up, and prices are coming down,'' says Kerry Hodges, vice-president for produce at Ralph's Supermarkets whose 140 stores here have tripled cherimoya sales in two years.
The story that helped bring those prices down begins with a lesson in botany.
In a wide-brimmed hat, blue jeans, and dusty boots, Brown leads a visitor into a grove of gnarled, nine-foot-high trees. Reaching into heart-shaped green leaves, he withdraws a three-pronged flower bud about an inch-and-a-half long.
``Hand pollination is the only way these trees will produce enough fruit to be commercially viable,'' he says. Under normal circumstances in California's dry climate, the bud's receptive stamen, wet with nectar, dries out before the pollen behind it can make it ``set,'' or produce fruit. In a technique learned from local botanists but perfected on this ranch over the years, Brown demonstrates how pollen is extracted to produce a mixture which is later sprayed onto receptive buds.