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.

``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.

EVERY day of pollinating season, from June 1 to Sept. 15, Brown and a hired crew of 20 preen the trees by hand, looking for the three-pronged buds. Since there is a 12-hour ``window'' of receptivity, a keen eye is needed. Over the six-month harvest season (mid-November through May), a hand-pollinated tree will produce about 100 more pounds of fruit than one that is not.

``Through the high volume and quality control, they have done more than anyone to develop the cherimoya market in the US,'' says Caplan. Foreign-grown cherimoyas cannot be imported becuase of possible fruit-fly infestation. Other pests prohibit growth in Florida and Hawaii, and cold weather insures cherimoyas will not be grown elsewhere in the United States.

From the wood-paneled boardroom of the three-story fruit-packing house, Brown's mother, matriarch of the cherimoya-growing clan, fills in the blanks of the family story: Divorced and struggling to make ends meet in the mid-'60s, Mrs. Brown and her five children lived on the ranch, selling fruits and vegetables to local markets.

``The children moved sprinklers about in the orchards, and we sorted fruit together on the front lawn,'' she recalls. Mrs. Brown delivered boxes of fruit on Fridays to health food stores in Santa Barbara. After years of irregular profits, the family hooked up with a national distributor that created demand by educating the public.

Brochures were handed out at local taste tests; recipes were offered. ``By growing in huge quantities, California Tropics carved its niche by giving free samples to brokers and local marketers,'' says Caplan. ``Word is still spreading and cherimoyas are hot.''

So is the business. Brother Peter mans the phones, spending full-time in marketing. Sister Emily runs the computerized packing facility. Brother Johnny keeps the finances. Mother signs the checks. Brother-in-law Brad is jack-of-all-trades: plumber, electrician, designer, builder.

``If you're part of this family, you are married to the ranch,'' says Emily. Each sibling lives on the land or nearby, and each has his own acreage to develop.

``I love this life,'' says Peter. ``The country is quiet, we spend a lot of time outdoors, and business is good.'' Not that it's free of hassles. Though 80 percent of the business is in cherimoyas, three other products ensure the juggling of personnel (about 20) and facilities for pollinating, fertilizing, harvesting, refrigerating, juicing and pulping, and packing. That means being tethered to the ranch duties year-round.

Projections are good, however. Business this year was up 65 percent over last, and Peter anticipates 40 and 20 percent gains the next two years before business levels off. The family built a state-of-the-art packing plant three years ago, and will spend $50,000 on packing equipment soon.

``If we can survive the elements - fire, drought, frost, insects, and weather - for another seven to eight years, we will be able to pay for all these improvements,'' says sister Emily. ``Then we'll be in the clear.''

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