Local farms filling specialty produce niche

A worker picks Blenheim apricots at Gonzales Farms in Hollister,

It’s only about 20 years old, but the Baby Crawford peach is a
throwback, with all the properties of its heirloom ancestor, the
Crawford, which flourished in the Santa Clara Valley at the turn of
the century.
It’s only about 20 years old, but the Baby Crawford peach is a throwback, with all the properties of its heirloom ancestor, the Crawford, which flourished in the Santa Clara Valley at the turn of the century.

People who know about the Baby Crawford go wild for it. Andy Mariani, who named the new variety and grows it on 60 trees in his orchards in Morgan Hill, sells every last one before he’s even picked them from the tree.

But Mariani can’t make a living selling the Baby Crawford. Its trees don’t produce enough fruit for supply to ever meet demand at a decent price. The Baby Crawford doesn’t last in storage and its blond skin reveals every bump and bruise.

Like its namesake, The Crawford was beloved for its tender texture and intense flavor, but it too wasn’t commercially viable. Todd Kennedy, an agriculture attorney who used to maintain orchards in San Martin calls it “the antithesis of the peach designed to be shipped around the world.”

The Crawford is gone, and many other fruit varieties that used to flourish in the Santa Clara Valley are on the way out, too, victims of a farming industry that has cultivated generations of consumers who don’t know one kind of peach from another and expect to have any fruit they want year-round.

The valley has become something of a fruit museum, a place for people who love vanishing varieties of fruit to visit and reminisce about the way things used to be. Kennedy once grew 2,500 different varieties in his orchards. When maintaining his crops and a law practice grew too difficult, he donated his stocks to the Filoli Estate in Woodside, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“What’s unfortunate about the fruit industry is that large corporate farms dictate what you can eat,” Mariani said. “You get to the point where you lose the diversity and variety in your foods. You’re limited to what producers have, and it’s either that or nothing.”

And the demands of corporate farming have left most shoppers picking through assortments of bland, indistinguishable fruit that’s grown in unsuitable climates.

“Urbanization has displaced each fruit,” Kennedy said. “Nobody is getting optimum fruit of any kind like one that’s grown in the appropriate climate, but commercial growers aren’t growing these things for flavor.”

Commercial farmers are growing fruit for profit and shipping it all over the world. A lot of the fruit in Bay Area supermarkets, especially in the winter, comes from Chile, and in many cases has been sitting in storage for as long as six weeks. To last that long, fruit has to be picked before it’s ripe. Aside from bananas and pears, fruit doesn’t get any sweeter once it’s picked. Peaches rarely used to be red. Newer varieties are bred that way to hide bruises and imperfections.

Phil Cosentino, who founded Consentino’s Markets with a fruit stand in San Jose in 1948 said recently that it’s harder and harder to find fresh ripe fruit for his three stores.

“The majority of businesses don’t want soft fruit,” he said. “They want looks and longevity.”

The valley’s vanishing fruit heritage isn’t limited to peaches. French prunes are all but gone, now marketed to most people as dried plums. And the Blenheim apricots and royal peaches are disappearing, too.

There are a lot of reasons. The ascendancy of corporate farming in the Central Valley and Lake County; the extinction of canneries; the urbanization that’s damaging the valley’s prime growing environment. But Kennedy said that one of the biggest reason it’s harder and harder to buy great fruit is that customers don’t demand it. They’re happy eating six-week-old Chilean peaches and ancient dried Turkish apricots.

“Most people don’t know their apricots,” Kennedy said.” Those who appreciate apricots know there’s a big difference between a California Blenheim or Royal and these Turkish things.”

The Blenheim and royal apricots both originated in France and came to the United States in the mid 19th century. The apricots ripen at the same time and have similar flavors, but grow best in different climates. The royal apricot grows best with a lot of water. The Blenheim was developed in Great Britain by grafting royal seedlings with almond root stocks to make it drought-resistant.

The Blenheim is a prime drying apricot, but imports have nearly ruined the South Valley market for them. There were once about 2,000 acres of Blenheim apricots grown in the region. Today, there are only about 200 remaining.

“There’s no money in drying apricots in California,” Kennedy said. “The real issue is that there are very few people who care and know the difference.”

But Mariani is on a mission and says he is unbowed. He’ll continue to grow heritage varieties as long there’s market for them, however small it may be.

“There are enough people to warrant being in this business,” he said. “People who want old-fashioned flavors, and new flavors, and want the opportunity to pick their own favorites. There’s always a steady stream to keep the glory of the old varieties but not to the point where you can mainstream them.”

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