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Great White

June 29, 1995|RUSS PARSONS

Once a rarity, white-fleshed peaches and nectarines are booming in California orchards. Harvests of those varieties have increased almost 70% for peaches and a whopping 350% for nectarines in the last three years.

Still, if you want to buy them, you may have to go to a farmers markets . . . or to Taiwan.

"I'd guess 80% of the white peaches and nectarines we handle go to Asia," says Dale Robbins of Valley Pride Packing, a Modesto fruit wholesaler. "I'm air-freighting more than 1,000 flats a day to Taiwan and I'm a pretty small player."

It seems that along the Pacific Rim they love the look of peaches and nectarines, but don't like the little bit of lingering acidity present in yellow-fleshed varieties. The white-fleshed fruit that is being exported is low in acidity and very popular.

"Those guys will really eat them," says Robbins. "And they'll pay for them, too. I can get $20 a flat there for fruit that would only sell for $10 to $12 here."

As a result, California growers are planting white-fleshed fruits at an astonishing rate. In 1992, white nectarines accounted for less than 2% of the total nectarine harvest. This year it's estimated that as many as half the nectarine trees planted will be white-fleshed varieties.

Ironically, when plant breeder Floyd Zaiger began experimenting with white-fleshed fruits 25 years ago, he was inspired by French white peaches, which are extremely aromatic and very definitely acidic.

While those acidic fruits are still popular in Europe and on the East Coast, most California plantings are geared to the export market, says Zaiger's daughter, Leith Gardner, who, with her father and two brothers, is still active in the field.

One of their biggest advances has been in breeding fruit that will become fully tree-ripe while remaining firm. "One of the problems with white fruit has always been that it is so delicate," says Gardner. "It's white, so it shows every mark and it used to be if you picked ripe fruit you couldn't carry it across the street without bruising it. The new varieties are firm enough to ship, but they'll still soften off the tree."

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