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Tasteless Cherries, Big Bucks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this irrigated desert where the nation’s cherry harvest begins in late spring, Arden Kashishian wanders the dusty fields searching for a taste of his childhood.

The cherries that catch his fancy hang as big and round as ever, and they have made the turn from pink to glossy red. But Kashishian is a picky man looking for something akin to alchemy beneath the shine. So he takes a bite and waits for that burst of flavor that no candy can mimic, that little kiss of acid and sugar that sends him back in time.

But on this day, the old sweetness never comes, and the 68-year-old fruit buyer leaves the field wondering if age has calloused his tongue.

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The cherry, the apricot, the peach, the plum--you don’t have to be a professional bird dog like Kashishian to know that what comes off the farm these days doesn’t always taste the way it used to. The grapes now exploding in the vineyards of Kern and Fresno counties will grow as fat as golf balls come July, but good luck picking out sweet from sour on the supermarket shelf. This is an age when flavor takes a back seat to eye appeal, and the grocer values early, if not ripe, fruit.

For the entire month of May, the relentless Kashishian chased mediocrity up and down Highway 99 before finally hunting down the perfect cherry, striking pay dirt last week in the fields of Lodi. But along the way, a funny thing happened in the selling of this year’s 110-million-pound cherry crop in California, a reaction more commonplace, say, in France or Italy.

The first fruit off the tree, varieties known as Brooks and Tulare, were so devoid of taste that shoppers themselves began turning up their noses at the cherry. Entire loads were shipped back to the packer. Only in the last few weeks, as the harvest moved north to Stockton--to Bing Country--did the cherry find its top flavor and the market lose its madness.

“These days, it’s all about ego and coming out first to capture the big-dollar market in Japan and elsewhere,” said Kashishian, who drives 40,000 miles a year looking for the best fruit for his customers worldwide.

“Some of the buyers are like vultures in the fields. They hover around crying ‘Send the fruit, send the fruit.’ And so the farmer and packer send it, even if it doesn’t taste all that good. This year, some of them got burned.”

When it comes to lackluster fruit, all fingers point elsewhere. The farmer blames the grocer and the grocer blames the packer and the packer blames an American consumer who talks flavor but chooses firmness, size and flawless complexion nearly every time.

For the aesthete, it’s a far bigger story than fruit alone, and everyone shares blame in a lowbrow culture where cosmetic perfection for the masses gets higher consideration than the palates of gourmets.

No one expects this year’s small cherry revolt to usher in sweeping change. Like so much else in modern American agriculture, the rise of dull fruit is a consequence of pushing nature too far through chemical and genetic tampering, but also stopping nature far short. Long ago, the sugar content in a California apricot or nectarine began to fall somewhere down the list of preferred attributes--behind size and color and the ability to withstand a long haul.

More and more, in a rush to meet the desires of a global economy, fresh fruit heading to Tokyo or Toronto or even to the Vons in Pasadena isn’t bred or picked to wow the taste buds but to capture a tiny window in the great marketplace.

In a mad race to hit price--not sugar--at its peak, farmers and packers know that harvesting now and harvesting a week later can mean the difference between a juicy profit and breaking even. Sweetness be damned.

The cherry is no mere fruit. It has inspired poets and been coveted by noblemen. And because it ripens first, it heralds each new summer fruit season. Twenty years ago, a cherry tree planted in the middle of this big valley was the sign of a madman or a heretic. The fruit couldn’t withstand the 100-degree heat of May. It either cooked to alcohol, a punch for drunken birds, or developed into the fruit form of Siamese twins.

But this valley happens to be the world’s most technologically advanced farming region, and growers and their University of California researchers like nothing better than to find a way around Mother Nature. The notion that the cherry tree couldn’t venture south of Modesto, where the delta breeze cooled down the fields, was too much to resist defying.

So came the development, grafting and planting of the Brooks and Tulare, varieties bred less to taste good than to pick early and endure a plane ride to Japan or Australia. They colored up nicely, if not that classic mahogany, and they had a good crunch and struck a delicate balance between tart and sugar.

Before the 1980s, no one in America had ever harvested a cherry in spring. The market for the early varieties went crazy, and a handful of farmers and packers got rich. Much to the envy of growers in Stockton and in Washington and Oregon, the southern end of the valley had captured a bonanza slice of the calendar. These cherries could be picked in the first days of May, just in time for Golden Week holiday in Japan, where the fruit is revered for its color.

The Japanese consumer was now jump-starting the U.S. cherry harvest, weeks before Memorial Day sales kicked in.

Howard Hiyama, a third-generation Japanese American farmer near Fresno, planted his first cherry tree 18 years ago and has never looked back. Each spring, as the price of the fruit jumps to more than $100 a box ($30 a box is considered breaking even), Hiyama fights off the urge to harvest his fruit before its time.

Robbing a cherry of full flavor and color, he says, is a culinary and aesthetic crime. “Once you start the season off with sour fruit, it’s hard to get that shopper to come back for more.”

Over the last five seasons, Hiyama, 62, has watched cherry trees march farther and farther south, all the way to the oil fields of Kern County. He has seen greed rear its head as valley growers stampede to find a place in the early market, where the price for a box of cherries can fall $10 every day.

In Bakersfield, growers trying to maximize their paydays are now using a caustic pesticide to jolt the tree out of its January slumber. The dormancy-breaking chemical, known as Dormex, speeds up spring ripening by four or five days. In early cherries, a game of leapfrog, such a head start can mean tens of thousands of dollars in a grower’s pocket.

“They want the fast buck,” Hiyama said. “So far, I haven’t used it. It can kill a tree.”

This season taught even the old-timers a thing or two. First, a record heat wave in May reminded them that middle California--irrigation canals or not--is desert. The weather held back the sugar and then overcooked some early fruit. But rather than wait for the rest of the crop to ripen, growers in Arvin, gaga over high prices in Japan, rushed to harvest.

Kashishian, sucking on an ever-present cherry pit as he roamed from orchard to orchard, knew it was too early. But the growers had gotten away with poor flavor in the past. They had come to believe their own coffee shop tattle: Humans think flavor but buy color; a shopper once burned isn’t necessarily twice shy.

Fruit Wasn’t Moving Off Grocers’ Shelves

But this season, for whatever reason, the consumer bit back. A good portion of the early crop didn’t even have the color of a cherry, much less the taste. Sales began to lag and whole pallets of the fruit were returned as rejects. At OK Produce in Fresno, the first three shipments of cherries, about 1,500 pounds, came back.

“A lot of fruit just wasn’t moving on the shelf. It wasn’t sweet,” said Howard Mason of M&R; packing in Lodi.

“Solving the problem isn’t going to be easy. How do you tell a farmer who’s got a mortgage that he can’t pick his cherries when they’re selling for $140 a box?”

Some small upscale grocery chains, like Andronico’s of the Bay Area, passed on early cherries and waited 10 days. “Our customers expect the best, and by waiting we ended up getting some excellent tasting Brooks out of the valley,” said Larry Murray, who oversees produce for the 10-store chain. “Taste is our first consideration. We don’t care about being first.”

One suggestion to even out quality, considered profane in these parts, is to ask the government to step in and establish basic taste requirements. As it stands, cherries are inspected only for color.

But even advocates for flavor say government red tape and minimum sugar standards for grapes haven’t always produced good-tasting fruit. The problem of dull fruit, they say, ultimately rests with the consumer. Ed Laivo, a nurseryman who holds fruit tastings and advises families wanting to plant backyard orchards, agrees that the problem extends far beyond the farm.

“If you go to Europe, flavor is everything. They don’t care about looks and they don’t care about size or a little bruising,” said Laivo, who works for Dave Wilson Nursery near Modesto. “In America, we go for eye appeal. We go for size. It’s a reflection of our culture.”

Every time he holds a fruit tasting, whether in San Jose, Pomona or Oceanside, Laivo is confronted by a resolute age gap in his blindfolded patrons. Those under 40 almost always choose firmness over sugar. Those older than 40 recall the fruits of their youth and often pick taste. Fruit is about memory.

“Younger people’s idea of good fruit is what they are accustomed to buying in the grocery store,” he said. “They don’t like fruit to taste ‘good.’ They like their fruit to taste firm.”

The list of fine-flavored fruits that have fallen by the wayside--replaced by tasteless cousins that grow bigger or blush redder or ship earlier and better--can fill a whole bin: the Alberta peach, the Blenheim apricot, the Santa Rosa plum.

At least one large mover of stone fruit, Fowler Packing in Fresno County, is attempting to wed aesthetics and good taste and take the mass market fruit industry to a different place. Last week, Dennis Parnagian and his three brothers sat around a desk and sliced into one new fruit variety after another.

“The challenge for us is to find that perfect fruit that tastes good and ships well and looks nice and has one more quality. It has to produce in the fields and capture a place in the market,” said Parnagian.

“I wish you could eat this nectarine I’m biting into right now. It’s low acid and a nice yellow and it tastes absolutely delicious. I think you can have it both ways, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

As this harvest closes in California and moves to the Northwest, growers shudder to think about next year and beyond. Almost certainly, the big paydays from Japan will lure more into the state’s cherry business, and a glut is sure to follow. Of the 6 million boxes packed in California this year, more than 1 million were shipped to Japan.

Already, some of the biggest Bing cherry growers in the Stockton area, seeking a piece of that lucrative early market, have traveled 250 miles south to buy land and plant new varieties in Kern County. With even more new varieties in the pipeline--fruit that can endure the desert heat and ripen early--it’s a 50-50 bet that cherries will be grown one day near the California-Mexico border and into Arizona.

Maurice DeBenedetto, a fig farmer, who sells Dormex to cherry growers, doesn’t relish that day.

“The Bing growers who developed the whole Pacific Rim market and have been growing cherries for 50 years, they’re going to get beat to death by the early market. It isn’t fair, but that’s agriculture. That’s life.”


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