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Commercial pomegranates take root in Arizona

Commercial pomegranates take root in Arizona

A pomegranate farm near Bowie, Ariz., is believed to be the state’s first commercial pomegranate operation in the state.

With the latest "Star Trek" movie coming to theaters, the famous ‘Trekkie’ phrase “Where No Man Has Gone Before” certainly applies to Arizona pomegranate growers Marshall Turley and Larry Romney.

Turley and Romney operate what is likely the first commercial pomegranate operation in Arizona.

Turley Bowie Pomegranates farm is a 92-acre operation owned by Turley near Bowie in the Cochise County High Desert in southeastern Arizona. Romney, Turley’s nephew, assists with the farm management.

“We thought Bowie could be a good place to grow pomegranates,” Romney said. “We compared the growing climate in Bowie to California’s San Joaquin Valley. The two areas are fairly similar.”

About 35,000 acres of commercial pomegranates are grown in the SJV. About 30,000 of the acres are bearing.  

Turley was in Mexico tending to his apple and peach operation when Farm Press inquired about the Arizona pomegranate farm. Turley also grows alfalfa and Bermudagrass at the Bowie farm.

At a 3,700-foot elevation, Bowie is a vibrant, fast-growing agricultural area including large plantings of pistachio and pecan in recent years.

Turley and Romney opted to grow pomegranates instead of tree nuts since pomegranates, which can grow as a deciduous tree or bush, can commercially produce fruit in about three years. Pistachio and pecan take about seven years to reach commercial production in Arizona.

“We decided to try pomegranates out to see how it would work out,” Romney said.

To gain information about pomegranate production, the wannabe growers perused articles and data from the University of California. Turley and Romney participated in a production meeting at the Angel Red Pomegranate company in Visalia, Calif., to learn how to grow the company’s Angel Red variety.

They also gleaned global pomegranate information from the Internet.

The first Turley-Romney pomegranate planting in 2009 was with bare root stock of the Wonderful variety. The cuttings were purchased from Dave Loquaci, a pomegranate grower and nurseryman with Madera Agricultural Services in Madera, Calif.

A year later, the Angel Red variety was planted.

The pomegranate acreage is equally split between Angel Red and Wonderful. The Angel Red’s are grown as trees and bushes. The Wonderful’s are grown as one-to-three-stem trees.

Freeze strikes orchard

In Fall 2010, the young pomegranate plants took a direct hit from Mother Nature. The nighttime temperature plummeted to a frigid 15 degrees. The young plants were still in the growth stage.

“The severe frost nipped about 85 percent of the pomegranate foliage to the ground level,” Romney said. “A young pomegranate cannot survive extreme cold temperatures.”

Since then, the pomegranates have rebounded. In early May, Romney said the plants were 5-6 feet tall, and green and lush. 

“We have some blooms,” Romney said. “We’re happy with their progress and hope it continues.”

The plants are grown in a sandy clay loam soil. So far, insect and disease issues have not surfaced.

Romney estimates plant water needs this year in the 15-18 inches range, a lower amount compared to some crops. "Good quality” groundwater is delivered to the plants via sub-surface irrigation. A shallow well lifts water from about 110 feet. A deeper well pulls water from about 500 feet.

About 320 trees are planted per acre. The Wonderful spacing is 16-by-8 feet. The Angel Red spacing is 14-by-10 feet.

The plants should achieve commercial production in 2016. Harvest would occur from mid September through October. At full maturity, Romney hopes for a fruit yield in the 10,000-15,000-pounds-per-acre range.

In the short term, the fruit would be harvested by hand. Romney hopes to utilize mechanical harvesting down the road.

There are no immediate plans to plant additional acreage until Turley and Romney determine how the existing planting fares. Adjacent land is available to expand the pomegranate operation.

Romney says most fruit will be sold for the fresh market. He believes the pomegranates could hit the market several days before the California crop.

The Angel Red fruit would be harvested, packed, and sold according to Angel Red specifications. Romney says the Whole Foods grocery store chain has expressed interest in buying future fruit.

Prior to the freeze, a small amount of Wonderful fruit was sold to Texas-based Affiliated Foods.

The pomegranate, Punica granatum, is popular for the arials inside which contain a sweet, tart juice. The distinctive large-red fruit, similar to a large apple, is derived from the Middle French name “pomme garnete” or seeded apple. It is also called a Chinese apple.

A source in the California pomegranate industry says about 90 percent of the California plantings are the Wonderful variety. Fresno County is the state’s largest pomegranate producer. Other counties include Kings, Kern, Merced, and Stanislaus.

The two largest challenges for California pomegranates, the industry source says, are limited water and price competition with other crops. Another challenge is about 80 percent of U.S. consumers have never consumed a pomegranate.

UA research trials

Back to the Arizona pomegranate operation. A small portion of the Turley Bowie Pomegranate farm includes a pomegranate research trial conducted by University of Arizona (UA) tree fruit specialist Glenn Wright of Yuma and UA environmental horticulture specialist Ursula Schuch of Tucson.

Wright says 132 plants — 28 pomegranate varieties with four replications — are grown in the Bowie trial. Equivalent trials are also under way at the Yuma Agricultural Center in Yuma, and the UA West Campus Agricultural Center in Tucson.

The varieties in Wright’s trials include Wonderful, Granada, Angel Red, four heirloom varieties including Sosa Carillo, 16 Turkmenistan varieties from Central Asia, and five Japanese ornamental varieties.

Wright said, “The goal of the trials is to determine if pomegranates can be successfully grown in the Arizona desert at different elevations for the fresh market, juice market, or for ornamental use.”

The Tucson trial location is at 2,600 feet in elevation. The Yuma site is about 130-feet in elevation. 

Watering at the Yuma site is with flood irrigation. Like the Bowie site, the Tucson site has subsurface drip.

Wright pursued the trials after several Yuma-area producers asked him to study potential new tree fruit crops for commercial production in the Arizona desert. To fund the project, Wright and Schuch requested and received a three-year, $70,000 specialty crops block grant through the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

Most of the plant material in the trials is from the USDA germplasm repository for deciduous fruits in Davis, Calif. Schuch grew the cuttings in pots at a UA greenhouse in Tucson in 2011. The material was planted at the three sites in Spring 2012.

It is too early, Wright says, to reach a conclusion on whether pomegranates can be successfully grown in the state. He noted one observation from the first year of the trials — the Yuma site had less fruit than the Tucson site.

“I think the major problems we could have in the Yuma area with pomegranates could be sun scald, fruit split, and perhaps less coloration inside and outside the fruit compared to California-grown pomegranates,” Wright said.

The coloration factor could be tied to cooler nights in the fall in California's San Joaquin Valley compared to the Arizona desert.

To view several short videos on pomegranate production, click this link: Pomegranate video.

More information about pomegranates is available at the California Pomegranate Council website:

More from Western Farm Press:

Pomegranate acreage increases in California

EPA: honey bee decline due to disease, nutrition, pesticides

What US states produce the most food? (Ranking 1-50)

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