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BEYOND the KIWI : Small Farmers Cash In on California's Appetite for Nouvelle Produce

July 16, 1989|JUDITH SIMS | Judith Sims is a free-lance writer who specializes in food and gardening.

MOST PEOPLE THINK OF the American farm as vast acres of gently undulating land planted with rows of corn or wheat, cultivated by tractors, harvested by combines--and threatened with extinction. But not in Southern California. Here, farming is a healthy industry, partly because a select group of growers has learned how to reap hefty profits from tiny pieces of land: They grow unusual foods. On suburban plots, hillsides, even gullies--wherever the condo /shopping mall /industrial park developers have yet to stake claim--these farmers raise specialty crops to supply a growing demand for offbeat produce.

"The growth of specialty produce in California has been phenomenal," says Roberta Cook, an agricultural economist at UC Davis. In the last few years, Cook adds, shipments of specialty vegetables in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 13%, contrasted with 2% for traditional vegetables. And specialty produce now represents about 5% of the total national produce volume.

The following growers share a fresh approach to growing food and selling it. They somehow absorb the high cost of irrigation, outwit the elements and explore alternative marketing ploys for their unfamiliar crops. Some sell exclusively to restaurants, others frequent farmers' markets and a few ship to foreign ports, but what they all have in common is uncommon produce.

Ten years ago, how many people had heard of the kiwi? Who would have thought to eat baby beets? So pay attention. These may be the foods of the future.

FEIJOAS AND PEPINOS

John Swift and his family live in jaw-dropping splendor in a rose stucco mansion atop a Los Osos hill, overlooking Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, and it takes a mule or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get there. In this rugged Shangri-La, Swift, 34, is growing fruits that many people have never heard of: the pepino, feijoa (pronounced feh-JO-uh) and yacon (yuh-KAHN). He also grows the now-familiar kiwi and plans to plant a few fields of loquat and white sapote (sah-PO-tay). All are growing in an area usually considered too far north for subtropical edibles.

"The ocean air keeps temperatures above freezing most of the time," Swift says, but he does have to deal with stiff winds that whip through his canyons with a vengeance, flattening unprotected young plants. Swift, who bought the ranch while he was studying international agriculture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, owns 600 acres but cultivates only 40 because water is scarce. Longhorn cattle graze on the rest.

He started farming in 1982, planting eight acres of feijoas, small Brazilian trees commonly known as pineapple guava and often used as landscape plants in Southern California. The fruit is small, about the size of a large kiwi, with a tart-bitter green skin. Two years ago, he branched out and started growing the pepino, native to Chile and a relative of the tomato and the pepper. It is teardrop-shaped, with yellow and purple skin and flesh that is pale, sweet and melon-like. "The pepino is hot right now," Swift says. "It looks so pretty, there's no trouble marketing it."

The yacon, from Ecuador, looks like a lumpy brown potato and has the crisp texture of jicama and a slightly sweet flavor. Swift, who became one of the country's few commercial growers of yacon last year, says, "Taste testing has been very good, but there's some difficulty marketing it because it's not appealing to look at."

Swift's company, Swift Subtropicals, along with about 80 other members of the Feijoa Growers of California, has had to create a demand for the unfamiliar produce, a process that involves in-market taste tests, brochures and recipes, a feijoa video, even stickers instructing consumers how to use the fruit: "Peel and eat," for instance. "We had a zero market five years ago, and now feijoas are found in Canada and in cities all across the U.S." Swift may eventually reap about $300,000 annually from his 16 acres of feijoas (12 acres are producing now), and some of that money may come from far away. Swift recently returned from Hong Kong, where his feijoas dazzled the Chinese, he says. "They ate them, skin and all."

PURPLE ARTICHOKES AND RHUBARB

Thirty-nine-year-old Mike Horwath is perhaps the most traditional farmer on this short list, growing row crops and selling them to wholesalers. He studied agronomy at Cal State Fresno, then joined his father's wholesale produce-shipping business in Los Angeles. Today, his company, TMY Farms, is one of only two growers of rhubarb in all of California and one of only five growers of Big Heart purple artichokes in the state.

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