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Specialty crops draw attention of large and small farmers

A high chain link fence encircles the Kearney Agriculture Center near Parlier, Calif., where USDA and University of California agricultural scientists conduct experiments aimed at helping farmers.

The fence does not keep the coyotes out.

Hopefully it keeps out unwanted, two-legged critters bent on thievery or otherwise ruining an experiment.

Tulare County UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Manuel Jimenez jokingly suspects the fence may not have been high enough this summer to keep the curious from a closer look at one of the most unusual crops on the sprawling Kearney complex: papaya.

It is the only “commercial” papaya growing in the valley, part of one of the university's most successful efforts, the Small Farm Program.

There are six small farm advisors in the state working to take the same technology and science to small farmers as has been available to large growers. They have a big audience.

Richard Molinar, small farms farm advisor in Fresno County, says there are 6,000 farmers in Fresno County and 4,000 are considered small farmers. In Tulare County 3,000 of the 4,000 producers there are farmers who make less than $250,000 per year farming. That is considered the economic dividing line between small and large producers.

Inquisitive crowd

However, the line between small and large is dimming, evidenced by the turnout at a recent Kearney Ag Center specialty crops field day where Jimenez, Molinar and Michael Yang who also works for Fresno UC Cooperative Extension paraded before a large crowd a cornucopia of agricultural novelties that could become mainstream.

There were as least as many large farmers and commercial consultants as there where so-called small farmers at the field day. Large or small, farmers are looking for something today that will make money and one of those novelties could become it.

Jimenez admits his work is a two-edged sword. His primary role is to help smaller growers, but it has been larger producers who have taken some of his demonstration crops and commercialized them on a big scale.

Blueberries are an example. Jimenez hoped blueberries would help smaller growers diversify with five, 10 or 20 acres of blueberries. However, there are blocks of 100 to 200 acres now established in the central valley, and one of the state's largest berry marketers, Driscoll, is now marketing California blueberries.

“When you are looking at $10,000 per acre to establish blueberries, 100 to 200 acres represents an investment most so-called small farmers cannot afford,” said Jimenez.

Jimenez's approach is like a field of dreams. Plant it, and they will come see it. Jimenez calls it a “shotgun approach” because he throws out as much as he can and what growers catch is up to them.

“We planted 200 tomato varieties; almost 300 chili pepper varieties and 200 squash varieties at Kearney. Most of the tomatoes are lousy, but we wanted to plant as many varieties as we could to let people see what's available. Some may be unique and things consumers want. We leave it up to the producer to try what they want to grow and market,” said Jimenez.

Too successful?

That was Jimenez goal when he planted 42 blueberry varieties in 1997, but success changed all that. Growers soon realized the economic potential of blueberries and are now asking Jimenez and his fellow small farm advisors for production research.

“Growers want to know more about how to grow blueberries, and we are now trying to refine production practices. We are doing variety trials and trying different production techniques,” said Jimenez. There remains many unanswered questions about central valley blueberry production, admits Jimenez. “The next two years will tell us what will happen in the long term with blueberries,” he said.

The same thing is happening with specialty melons, especially mini-water watermelons. There seems to be a huge market potential for the small, personal size melons which are only about half the size of regular watermelons.

They weigh three to six pounds each and easily fit into an average size refrigerator crisper. One feeds two adults or four children. They have been in development for about 10 years and are now sold at Raley's and Nob Hill supermarkets in the Bay Area for $4 each. Eating quality has not been particularly good, but that is changing with variety development.

“Tanimura and Antle has a significant program under way to try to find the best varieties for the marketplace,” said Jimenez. Tanimura and Antle is one of the largest vegetable producers in California.

Jujube tree

Then there is the jujube tree. It produces what is often called a Chinese date, marketed primarily into the Oriental market in the Bay area for $1 per pound. It tastes like a dry apple when eaten fresh. Jujube is a thorny, deciduous tree that can grow to 30 feet tall. Fruit ripens in September and October. Dried fruit looks like a date, but not as sweet. They can also be candied, pressed into cakes, made into syrup, drink, or liqueur. Leaves are used in Asia as poultices for liver, asthma, fevers and to stop diarrhea. Fruits are applied on cuts and pulmonary ailments to help indigestion and to act as a laxative. Hundreds of jujube varieties are planted in China, but the main varieties in California are Li and Lang.

An acre of jujube can yield eight to 10 tons of fruit.

“There are probably 20 to 30 acres of jujube trees in the valley,” said Molinar. “One hundred acres would be too much for the market to absorb.”

The field day visitors also got to see capers, water chestnuts, lemongrass and grape tomato.

Grape tomatoes have a rapidly expanding market in many restaurants and stores. They have a long shelf life and are “squirt free.” However, Molinar and Yang said grape tomato growing cost is very high because of high seed costs, trellising and harvest. “A search is on to find a determinate variety that does not require trellising,” said Molinar.

Papaya star of show

Lush, tall rows of papaya plants loaded with fruit were the stars of the field day. Jimenez said papaya a “very long shot” for the San Joaquin Valley because the plants may not survive the winter.

“I may be the pied piper taking you to the edge of the cliff,” Jimenez said as he led everyone through the towering papaya plants on tall, wide, raised beds.

“Papaya is the extreme of what we are trying,” said Jimenez, but the price of papaya in the supermarket makes it worth a try. “We may have opened a can of worms.”

“What we are looking at is small one to two pound papaya that can be sold for $1 per pound,” said Jimenez. “What you get in the store now are big expensive, papayas — five to six pounds imported and bruised and fumigated. Maybe we can carve a niche market with our papaya.”

But before that happens, the plants must survive the valley's cold, but relatively mild winters. “What we are looking at is making small infield greenhouses to get the plants through the winter without frost protection. They have got to make it in the field…not in the greenhouse. We are still a long way from determining if papaya is practical in the valley.”

That is what some said about blueberries and mini-water melons.

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