Food

Farmers Markets: For May peaches, royalty found among the sports

Among the most intriguing May peaches are three patented by Alan and Lori Asdoorian of Kingsburg, whose century-old Island Farms lies between two branches of the Kings River, southeast of Fresno.

Because of the short period from bloom to harvest, May peaches naturally tend to be small, with only moderately sweet, clingstone flesh and a susceptibility to split pits. But early-season varieties can be lucrative for breeders and farmers, who have striven to find improved selections.

Alan discovered the first of his varieties as a limb sport, a spontaneous mutation, on a tree of Queencrest in his orchard in 1992.

"I could see the red fruits among all the green ones," he recalls. "I was so excited I jumped up and down."

This Island King, as he named it, ripened in early May, two weeks earlier than Queencrest, but it had one major flaw: a prominent, bruise-prone tip. He planted an orchard of the new variety, kept looking and found two additional sports, Island Prince and Island Princess, which were a week or two later but easier to pack, especially the Prince. Proud of their discoveries, the Asdoorians spent about $25,000 securing U.S. plant patents for the three varieties.

Their years as commercial growers were numbered, however. Alan's grandfather Parseg had immigrated from Armenia and started growing grapes and apricots in Kingsburg in 1910. By the 1970s, Parseg's son, Soren, and his son, Alan, raised 100 acres of clingstone peaches, plums and grapes, much of it for canned fruit salad. But in the following decades, the prices paid by canneries and wholesalers plummeted, and thousands of small farms like theirs failed.

In 2002, threatened with losing the farm, Alan and Lori started selling at farmers markets at Burbank and Studio City, where customers now eagerly await their ripe, fragrant Island peaches. (They also sell in Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo on Thursdays.) They have just started the harvest of Island Princess and next week will begin picking Island Prince, the most important of their proprietary peaches, with about 1,000 trees on 21/2 acres. Later in the season they take particular pride in their heirloom varieties, such as Fay Elberta peaches and Elephant Heart and Laroda plums.

Along with two employees, they do all the work on their 40-acre farm, which now includes other crops such as citrus, apples and pomegranates, and a vegetable patch supervised by Lori. After several years of transition, the farm was certified organic three years ago.

Kingsburg is one of the nation's top stone fruit production districts, and the Asdoorians' farm is surrounded by huge commercial orchards, endless regiments of manicured trees. Island Farms looks very different, with old-fashioned furrow irrigation and scruffy vegetation between many rows serving as hosts for beneficial insects. Every other row is a different variety, which would be uneconomical for commercial growers but makes sense for farmers market vendors, who need a diversity of varieties over a long period. For some crops, such as cherries, "skips," spots where a tree has died and not yet been replaced, are common. There is never enough time for the Asdoorians to get everything done before packing up the truck for another three-hour drive to market.

"Last night after I got in, I said to Lori, 'I don't know how much longer I can do this,' " says Alan, who just turned 60, mopping his brow on one of the first hot days of spring. "I'm exhausted."

Growing peaches is long, hard work, and it's less of a surprise that most of the stone fruit at Southern California farmers markets is sold by employees who rarely see the farm than that the Asdoorians continue to arise at midnight to drive to Burbank. Ironically, Alan made sure that his elder son, Michael, could continue the farm some day by encouraging him to enter a sector of the fruit business where he could prosper more easily: as an employee at a produce broker.

Seasonal picks: Hybrid blackberries, with a intense, complex flavor reflecting their mixed pedigree of native blackberries and raspberries, are back in season, starting with Olallie and Sylvan berries from Murray Family Farms, which will be at Hollywood and Santa Clarita on Sunday, Torrance on Tuesday, Santa Monica on Wednesday and Woodland Hills on Thursday. They're $4 a punnet, three for $10. Even better, Murray's sweet-tart Boysenberries should be here by next Wednesday.

Murray's GG1 cherries, super high in acidity and sugar, were a sensation at last Wednesday's Santa Monica market and should be there again next week. Frog Hollow Farm of Brentwood returned to the market with highly blushed Rainier cherries, which need to be dead ripe like that to lose their astringency and taste as good as they look. They also had perfectly ripe, dark Brooks, which at their best can be close to prime Bings in richness of flavor.

The Bing cherry crop this year is not particularly bountiful, but J.P. Barbagelata says he will drive down from Linden to Santa Monica with a modest quantity next Wednesday. Most widely available are the Bings grown by Mark Lewis in Stockton, which should be sold by Zuckerman's Farm starting next week at about a dozen venues, including Hollywood, Studio City, Encino, Pasadena, Irvine and Corona del Mar.

food@latimes.com

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