A few California farmers have long pushed the envelope by trying to grow crops like pineapples or lychees that are really a bit too tropical for local conditions but still tantalizing in their possibilities. A case in point is the mango, which just barely gets enough heat in the scorching Coachella desert to merit being grown commercially; all the more amazing that Markov Farms of Valley Center, located in a coastal climate zone even less well adapted to the fruit, is finally starting to market its crop at farmers markets, albeit with a catch.
It could not have happened without two brothers, Michael and Robert Markov, whose willingness to experiment and whose tenacity have put them in a position to refute the naysayers who said, based on more than a century of futile attempts, that mangoes couldn't be grown commercially in coastal areas.
By selecting well-adapted varieties and coddling the trees for many years, a few homeowners in special locations have managed to coax impressive mangoes from coastal gardens. But growing fruit for private enjoyment is far different from commercial farming, for which the costs of land, water and other inputs must be balanced against the expected return.
Michael Markov, 65, born and raised in Pasadena, served as a pilot in the Navy and then became a private helicopter pilot specializing in agricultural spraying. Fifteen years ago, he and his brother Robert, now 57, bought a 60-acre property in Valley Center, in north San Diego County, which they planted mostly to avocados, the area's largest fruit crop.
To manage their grove, they hired Jaime Serrato, who, in addition to farming standard crops, had a knack for choosing and growing under-exploited fruits that appealed to California's growing Latino community, such a tejocotes, sweet limes and guavas. Michael Markov says that he vividly recalls seeing mango trees loaded with fruit at a test planting that Serrato farmed in his area and thinking, "Why couldn't I do that?"
So 12 years ago, along with 4 acres of guavas, he had Serrato plant 4 acres of Valencia Pride mangoes, about 500 trees, ordered from Florida. By long experience, home gardeners have found that this variety, which originated in Florida, is one of the few that is adapted to coastal California conditions, because the trees are vigorous, relatively cold-tolerant and produce large fruit with sweet, juicy, aromatic and fiber-free flesh.
However, mango trees, which are native to tropical areas of India and Southeast Asia, require a lot of heat over the course of the season to grow strongly and fruit prolifically. Even near the Salton Sea, where three owners farm about 300 acres of mangoes and summer temperatures often exceed 120 degrees, the trees take their own sweet time to bear fruit.
Fifty miles west and over the mountains from the desert, Valley Center has enough moderating maritime influence on its climate to make the area perfect for citrus and avocados but marginal for mangoes. The main problem is that insufficient heat causes the trees to grow agonizingly slowly.
"Five or six years into this project, the trees were just a few feet tall, and we weren't getting any crop," said Michael Markov. "We were shaking our heads and wondering what we got ourselves into."
There were many other challenges and things that the Markovs would have done differently in retrospect. They planted on a hilltop, from which cold air drains down, to avoid freezes, but even so on several occasions cold snaps and high winds killed or damaged their trees, which are especially tender when young. They also learned the hard way that mulching was critical to nurturing the growth of mango trees in the thin, poor soil of their location.
More impatient growers might have yanked out the trees, but the Markovs persevered. Even when they finally started to see a decent crop, three years ago, they found that the fruits didn't ripen until February, five months after the season in the desert. Although that timing was odd, it wasn't necessarily bad in itself, but it did have the unfortunate result that their precious crop had to withstand the full brunt of winter cold, wind and rain. The wind knocks ripe fruits off the trees, and most problematically, the moisture causes the development of anthracnose, a fungal disease that is the scourge of mango growers in many areas around the world.
To avoid losing most of their crop to this disease, which causes black spots on the skin that eventually spread and spoil the fruit, the Markovs started harvesting their mangoes in the green stage, at which point Asians use them, like green papayas, for making salads. However, when sold to the Asian American market, the green mangoes did not earn enough of a premium to justify their upkeep, and the Markovs considered going through farmers markets, where the crop's unusual timing and local origin would be a selling point.
Last year they tried selling though another local grower, Sydney Spencer, at the Pasadena farmers market. By happenstance, Robert Markov's accountant is the brother of Robert Polito, a well-known citrus grower who sells at the Santa Monica farmers market and who offered to let one of his workers serve also as their employee to sell their mangoes and guavas.
Last Wednesday, the Markov brothers hitched a ride with Polito to the Santa Monica market, where they spoke with Laura Avery, the market manager. There's a long waiting list for new vendors at the market, and she rarely allows farmers to sell for others, but local mangoes in winter are otherwise nonexistent, and so she invited them or Polito to sell their green mangoes and guavas, starting with a small amount, just eight to 10 cases, next Wednesday.
For many shoppers, green mangoes will be an intriguing oddity but just a foretaste of the really big deal, which would be ripe mangoes in February, if excessive rain and wind don't ruin the crop. (The ferocious winds recently miraculously spared their planting.)
On Wednesday, the Markovs brought a sample box to show to potential buyers, mangoes that were large, firm, and green on one side, with a dusky reddish blush on the sunward half. Within a few seconds of their appearance at Polito's stand, a small crowd gathered.
"I'm totally amazed that we have local mangoes at this time of the year," said Arlene Chang, a loyal customer of the Valencia Pride mangoes grown by Deborah Wong Chamberlain near the Salton Sea, sold at the Santa Monica market in late summer.
"These would make a terrific chutney," said Stan Weightman, co-owner of Valerie Confections, which sells at the Hollywood and Santa Monica Saturday downtown markets. "When they're ripe, we'd put them up in jam, with a little bit of lime zest."
Avery just wanted to know if one especially ripe mango, which showed a little give, really would ripen enough to be eaten as a dessert fruit. Wait a week or two, said Robert Markov, and the fruit's flesh will be orange and sweet.
Only time will tell if the Markov mangoes hold and mature on the tree to be marketed in February, and whether they will live up to their luscious potential.
"We're still trying to figure out how to market these things," said Michael Markov.