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Toward a More Eatable Nectarine

July 25, 1996|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

REEDLEY — Off the assembly line they roll in an ungodly din, one candy-apple red piece of fruit after another, each polished and gleaming and seemingly more perfect than the last.

As if newly painted by GM's finest, they shine and catch the light as they rumble on their cushioned way from field bin to shipping box. Meet this year's model in the nectarine industry.

You don't have to spend much time in farm country to be reminded that what they're growing here is not just food but product. This football field-sized packing shed in the middle of the southern San Joaquin Valley is as packed with computer-controlled Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions as any auto assembly line.

And like other manufacturers, nectarine farmers are constantly bringing out new models--in this case fruit varieties--trying to second-guess shoppers' shifting desires.

Though we tend to think of nectarines as nectarines, to the farmer, shipper and produce department, it's more complicated.

There were more than 80 major varieties of nectarines grown commercially last year, each coming into season for no more than 10 days to two weeks. And though they all may end up being sold under the label nectarine, each has its own taste, texture and appearance.

The quest for variety is of no small importance. California produces 90% to 95% of the nation's nectarines. That's a crop worth nearly $100 million in a good year. The Fresno District, a stretch of fertile bottom land comprising southern Fresno and northern Tulare counties, accounts for the lion's share of the fruit--roughly 90%.

These flatlands have been farmed since they were settled in the mid-1800s. Small towns--once market centers--are scattered every seven or eight miles along the railroad track. That was about as far as someone could carry his crop, sell it and still get home in a day.

Today the railroads have been replaced by almost impossibly straight highways. As you roar down them, the radio stations offer a selection of modern country music, '70s-vintage heavy metal and Bo Gritz selling investments in gold.

Scattered along the side of the road, among the vineyards and orchards, are '60s brick ranch-style ramblers, along with the occasional Nouvelle Colonial stucco mansion. Here and there you can still spot old Plains-style farmhouses, some of them quite grand, given away by the telltale "tank house" out back that was originally used for storing water.

This is an area almost uniquely suited to the growing of nectarines. In the winter, the heavy cold air of the Sierra slides downhill to rest along the banks of the King River. While this phenomenon produces the area's tule fog, infamous among drivers, it also gives the trees the chill they need to get their off-season rest. In the summer, the hot dry weather of the San Joaquin Valley is perfect for ripening fruit without the humidity that can encourage spoilage.

"Our winters may be pretty dreary for people--cold, wet and foggy--but that gives the trees the amount of cold they need to go dormant," says Micky George, president of George Bros., a grower-packer-shipper now in its third generation. "The industry is based here for some pretty good reasons."

George's packing shed in the tiny town of Sultana--complete with photoelectric scanner and computer-operated sorter--is within half a mile of where his grandparents settled in 1879. This is not unusual; the Fresno District had established itself as the home of the nectarine as early as the 1880s, producing well more than half of the state's crop even then.

You can think of the entire area as an extended factory for the production of nectarines. And just as in any other factory, there are constant product changes.

The fashion in fruit is as variable as that for cars and trucks. That's especially true for nectarines. A variety from the '80s is considered an outright antique. In this topsy-turvy industry, none of the Top 5 sellers in 1995 was among the Top 5 in 1990.

LeRoy Giannini--one of the founders of the modern California nectarine industry--says he changes more than 20% to 30% of his nectarine orchards every year and he's never repeated the same variety.

"By the time you get to the point you want to change [varieties], they've upgraded so much you just don't go back to what you had," the 77-year-old Giannini says. A small, quiet man, he runs the 100-year-old family business from a tiny pine-paneled office tucked in the corner of a cavernous modern packing shed.

In one corner, a file case is decorated with wooden busts of Indian chiefs and a couple of glass flasks holding preserved two-tailed lizards. On the walls hang pictures of Isola d'Elba, where his family originated, and the old home ranch his grandparents built in Kingsburg, 10 miles away. Alongside are plaques and color snapshots of various Little League teams he sponsors.

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