In spite of the heat and low water levels, this looks like a good year for California's summer fruits. Peaches, plums and nectarines taste almost as good as they look for a change, and there are plenty available.
How come? Well part of the improvement may have to do with the fact that, according to one grower of California tree fruits, Jim Wanzer of Visalia, "Growers have received the message that consumers want a riper, better tasting, pretty fruit." And it seems they are trying to do something about it.
The California Tree Fruit Agreement, a statewide association of peach, plum, nectarine and pear growers, is spending around $250,000 in research funds to see what can be done to provide consumers with the kind of fruit that will have them returning to produce sections for more of the same with greater frequency.
Mary Swinger, a grower who owns Redwood Orchards near Reedley, agreed with Wanzer that, "More flavor is becoming important." After years of trying to develop fruits that were sturdy enough to stand extensive shipping and less than desirable treatment in warehouses and grocery store receiving rooms, the cycle has come full circle and now growers are trying to breed flavor back in. It's both a good and a long overdue step, as a recent visit to the San Joaquin Valley showed.
Admitting that she's prejudiced about the fruit she grows and ships, Swinger thinks that consumers must accept some of the blame for the poor quality fruit they have found all too often in the past. Produce buyers buy what they think the consumer wants, generally picture perfect fruit that may or may not have any flavor, Swinger said. And when the consumer buys a nectarine or peach that looks beautiful but has no flavor, he or she tends to gripe to family and friends, but that's all.
That, according to Swinger, is one reason why flavorless produce has been around for so long. "They should take it back to the store," she said. "Most people simply don't buy again, so the message doesn't get across. Buyers dictate the fruit and they have been zeroing in on appearance." Her point is a good one. Unless consumers make an effort to tell produce buyers of their unhappiness with a sour plum or tasteless nectarine, the produce buyer at the market where they bought it can only assume they were happy with it.
Concerns about pesticides and their uses are, not surprisingly, a major worry to the growers. But their concerns go far beyond the usual question of whether any contaminants remain on the fruit by the time it reaches the consumer. Most of them live in or very near their orchards and thus have no desire to have the wind wafting dangerous sprays around them and their families. Also, spraying the orchards for pests is an expensive proposition and California agricultural laws are very strict concerning safe pesticide usage, far more strict in many cases then federal regulations.
California's Proposition 65 has added to the problem of pesticide usage. According to Dennis Metzler, a San Joaquin fruit grower and attorney, "Because the language of the law is ambiguous and difficult, everyone is scrambling around trying to figure out what to do." Metzler contends, "Our food is safe. We in agriculture are very circumspect, particularly in California where we have the toughest rules in the country. Nobody wants to spray and use chemicals. For one thing, they're expensive."
According to the California Tree Fruit Agreement, chemical companies must spend between $40 and $60 million to register a new chemical, and many companies are no longer registering their chemicals in California, a move that has created numerous problems.
There is, however, a good side to the increased concern over the use of pesticides on produce. Wanzer of Visalia pointed out, "For every action there is a reaction. Proposition 65 has made growers much more aware of pesticides and we've all become even more careful with the environment."
One result of this increased awareness is an experiment in progress at the Kearney Agricultural Center in Parlier, Calif. Dr. Richard Rice, entomologist and lecturer at UC Davis, is working on a project that is a non-insecticide approach to pest control. The project is based on the interruption of the mating process of the pests through the use of synthetic sex pheromones which trick ready-to-mate insects into not mating.
Pheromones are hormones released by one sex of the species to attract the other. This type of pest control has many obvious advantages, not the least of which is that the pheromones are nontoxic and leave no residues either in the orchard or on the fruit. And there is no need for workers handling the dispensers to wear protective clothing. In addition, the dispensers need no special storage or waste disposal.