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When Size Matters: Calif. Drought Raises Questions About How We Buy, Grow Food

Karen Caplan
Karen Caplan

by Karen Caplan/Special to The Shelby Report

It always bugs me when I go into a produce department and all the fruits are so large. You know what I mean—strawberries the size of billiard balls, apples and oranges (or even bananas) so big that you could split the fruit with a friend! And these big fruits don’t always have the best flavor.

It’s this pet peeve that got me completely captivated by an article in the Los Angeles Times business section back in June. It featured David “Mas” Masumoto, the well-known farmer and author.

Mas owns an 80-acre organic farm just south of Fresno, right in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley. He’s also the authority on organic farming practices. When the LA Times writer asked him about the California drought and the effects on his farming practices, he responded, “We’ve been experimenting with this petite peach method this year, where we’re cutting back water use 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent on some select areas of the orchard to see how it responds…Can you not grow a small, water-efficient peach that has just as intense flavor? And you can.”

Finally, someone wants to focus on flavor instead of size!

Mas verified what we have known all along: Supermarkets convinced consumers that bigger is better, so they’d buy only large, premium-sized fruit. And they encouraged growers to develop large-size varieties (which you can do with pruning and other farm practices) because the stores get premium prices for them.

But whatever happened to buying fruit based on flavor?

Consumption of soft fruit has declined so much in the last 10 years that many large farmers in Central California have started pulling out trees because they have a hard time making money selling their fruit. The reason consumption has gone down, most likely, is because the flavor and eating quality of the fruit have declined to the point that consumers don’t want to waste their valuable money on tasteless fruit. Why pay a premium for unpredictable soft fruit when they have so many other choices like juicy watermelons and easy-peel citrus? Shoppers vote with their dollars, and those dollars aren’t going to soft fruit. Personally, I would much prefer a smaller piece of fruit, perfect for snacking, that has intense, awesome flavor.

Mas continued to discuss the current farming practice of giving the crop more water and fertilizer to get large fruits. The overwatering is to blame for the decline in flavor.

So, what if other fruit farmers use Mas’ methods and start cutting back their water usage and grow smaller fruits with big, bold flavor? Can you imagine juicy peaches and nectarines like you had as a child?

I predict that farmers will soon be forced to reduce their water consumption but will continue to farm. The unintended benefit will be smaller, more flavorful fruit. And who knows, maybe consumption of fresh peaches, nectarines and plums will start to go up as consumers fall in love with their flavors all over again. Then, other farmers would soon follow, and smaller sizes of apples, bananas and strawberries will encourage better snacking and encourage people to eat more of them.

Size definitely matters for responsible agriculture, as well as to help increase produce consumption for better health. It’s a win for everyone.

Karen Caplan is president and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce in Los Alamitos, California, a leading distributor and marketer of unique and exotic fruits and vegetables to supermarkets and food service distributors in North America since 1962. Follow her on Twitter @karen_kiwi or her blog at Friedas.com/KarensBlog.

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Featured Photo Fresh Produce and Floral Council Expo, April 6
Anaheim Convention Center
Anaheim, California
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