Israel plows new ground in exotic crops

If Willy Wonka had a farm, it would fit right in here in Israel.

Want a lemon-scented tomato or a chocolate-colored persimmon? How about some miniaturized garlic cloves for the home chef who doesn't have time to chop, or a purple potato that tastes buttery when cooked?

There are no chocolate rivers or edible teacup flowers on Israeli farms, but you will find carrots shaped like potatoes, strawberries shaped like carrots, star-shaped zucchini and "watermelon" tomatoes — dark green on the outside with a juicy red flesh.

There are also specially bred red peppers with three times the usual amount of vitamins, and black chickpeas with extra antioxidants. Not to mention worm-shaped berries and blue bananas.

Though some mock such colorful crops as "frankenfruit," an Israeli tomato breeder, Hazera Genetics, has created a boutique crop worth more than its weight in gold.

The former kibbutz developed a yellow cherry tomato that its own researchers feared might turn off consumers. Instead, the hybrid became a hit in Europe, where the seeds sell for about $160,000 a pound.

Bolstered by Hazera's success, a growing number of Israeli farmers, agricultural companies and government-funded research institutions are jumping into the market for freaky fruits and designer veggies, hoping to stumble upon the next big thing.

"It's fun, it's interesting and it brings in the customers," said Uri Rabinowitz, a Tel Aviv-area farmer who has developed a national following for his strange-looking crops, including elongated strawberries and round carrots. "You can charge twice as much."

Rabinowitz and other Israeli farmers grow exotic fruits and vegetables from imported seeds, including the chocolaty persimmon from Latin America (which makes a tasty ice cream) and the buttery potato from the Netherlands.

Some are trying to create new foods in the lab. A team of Israeli and U.S. scientists created the lemon-scented tomato by splicing genes from lemon basil into tomatoes, producing an aroma and taste of lemons and roses.

Efraim Lewinsohn, who has helped lead the project to develop the lemon tomato at Israel's Volcani Agricultural Research Institute, said the goal was to inject a little spice into tomatoes that had become bland from years of mass production.

"People complain that tomatoes don't taste like they used to," Lewinsohn said. "That's the driving force behind this project: attempting to restore the flavor of the past."

But because of consumer concerns about genetically modified crops, many in Israel are sticking with old-fashioned cross-pollination in which, for example, two tomato varieties — one known for its fast growth and the other for its long shelf life — are pollinated by hand to create tomatoes that grow quickly and last longer.

Israel isn't the only country pushing agricultural boundaries. Japan is producing square watermelons (easier to pack) and kumquat-sized grapes (good for giant raisins). The Netherlands and the United States are also leaders in innovative crops, such as yellow tomatoes and miniature watermelons.

But thanks to its warm climate and advanced research facilities, Israel is becoming a player in the emerging market for agricultural oddities.

"Israelis are a naturally curious people," said Avi Almogi, head of Israel's Exotic Fruit Assn., standing beside a display of fuzzless peaches at his trade group's recent exhibition at Kibbutz Givat Brenner in central Israel. "We take fruits, even things that may not be from here, and we play with them to make them better."

A few years ago, Israeli farmers imported a Chinese orange tree and cross-pollinated it with other breeds to make the fruit more colorful and easier to peel. "Now we are selling the seeds back to China," Almogi said.

Hazera made a splash internationally in the 1990s by breeding a tomato that could be vine-ripened and that stayed red three times longer than ordinary tomatoes. Its seeds were sold around the world.

Since then, the firm has been "diving into tomatoes," said Alon Haberfeld, Hazera's senior tomato product manager. The company pumps about 15% of revenue into research and development, a level he said was comparable to the pharmaceutical industry's.

Drawing on ideas from supermarket owners, farmers and chefs, the company's breeders can devote years to developing a single hybrid. Researchers pollinate the plants by hand and must wait months to see what grows.

Hazera's mini-watermelon was created in response to consumer complaints that standard specimens of the fruit were too big to finish.

Most of the company's research is targeted at specific goals, such as developing a tomato that tastes sweeter or whose vine has a high yield. But sometimes Hazera encourages its breeders to pursue whims.

"We let them go crazy," Haberfeld said. "We tell them to surprise us."

The results aren't always pretty. A snow-white tomato looked "terrible" and was quickly abandoned, Haberfeld said. A teardrop-shaped tomato tasted great but looked unappetizing to consumers.

So when a Hebrew University professor approached Hazera with a golden-hued cherry tomato, made by breeding regular cherry tomatoes with a rare yellow variety, she was greeted with skepticism.

The hybrid, eventually dubbed Summer Sun, had about three times the sugar level of ordinary tomatoes and high acidity, giving it a unique taste.

Researchers thought the flavor held promise. But would consumers bite?

"It takes time to educate people to eat yellow tomatoes," Haberfeld said.

With the rising popularity in the West of cooking shows, healthier eating and gourmet restaurants, Hazera started marketing its products the way other companies sell sports cars and fancy watches.

"It's all about lifestyle," reads a company brochure, depicting attractive young people at the beach, playing tennis, meditating and, of course, munching on tomatoes. "A moment of sensual pleasure. A moment to relax and pamper ourselves."

But in Israel, Hazera tried a different strategy, showing the yellow cherry tomatoes dripping in honey to emphasize their sweet flavor and gold color.

To Israelis, the fruit didn't look ripe. Only one supermarket chain carries them here.

The breakthrough came in Europe, where consumers prefer sweeter produce. Now the yellow tomatoes are showing up on salad plates in France, Britain and Austria, where buyers are willing to pay as much as $11 a pound.

Hazera has sold its yellow cherry tomato seeds to a San Diego-based grower for production this summer.

That motivated Hazera scientists to redouble efforts to develop what they hope will be their next big hybrid hit: the purple tomato.

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times' Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.

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