Jan 12, 2022
Early California rain surge is challenging for pomegranates

The pomegranate, a deciduous fruit that contains hundreds of deep-red seeds known as arils, is one of the oldest recorded fruits and is considered by many cultures a symbol of prosperity and luck. But for some pomegranate farmers, these traits went out the door this harvest season once Mother Nature got involved.

“At the outset, it was shaping up to be a grand season. What farmers were able to harvest before that damaging rain in mid-to-late October was top-quality fruit,” said Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the Pomegranate Council.

But when the storms hit, many pomegranates couldn’t handle the prosperity of all that sudden water. “With the rain that showed up,” Tjerandsen said, “the bushes greedily suck up the water and send it out into the branches, and the fruit welcomes it but can’t expand fast enough, so it splits.”

California farmers in top pomegranate-growing counties of Fresno, Tulare, Kern and Kings began harvest of early-variety fruit in late September and picked the crop through the end of last year. Tjerandsen said he expects the state’s 2021 pomegranate crop for the fresh market to be 6 million boxes, or 150 million pounds. With addition of processed fruit, he said the state’s total crop estimate could be 12 million boxes, or 300 million pounds.

Ray England, vice president of marketing for DJ Forry Co., a family-owned business in Reedley that grows, packs and ships Wonderful variety pomegranates, said orchards in Fresno County were affected by unexpected weather events.

“The winds just really played havoc with a lot of fruit causing an extraordinary amount of damage,” England said. “There were (puncture) marks on fruit that we had not seen in a long time. That caused a lot of fruit not to be able to make a No. 1 box.

“Then, we get into the latter part of October and we have (atmospheric river) rains,” he added. “With all of the fruit yet to be picked, with a lot of that fruit having some damage from the punctures and scratches, it really just pretty much shut down the ability to pick any really good fruit.”

Other farmers located on the parched west side of the San Joaquin Valley reportedly pulled out pomegranate trees because there wasn’t enough water for irrigation.

Zack Stuller, a farm manager of pomegranates in Tulare County near Exeter, got lucky and avoided weather issues and got fruit picked before the rain.

“Being the early Wonderful variety, we got the crop off before that good chunk of rain in October. It was one and done, and it just worked out,” said Stuller, who manages 50 acres of pomegranates for absentee farmers who sell fruit to Trinity Fruit Co. in Reedley. “Production was off from last year by maybe 15% or 20%. I would equate it to heat. Pomegranates are pretty drought tolerant, but after that fruit set, we had some pretty hot temperatures and got some fruit drop.”

Despite the weather challenges, Tjerandsen said some growers had enough warning to bring in extra crews to pick a substantial part of the crop. He added that pomegranate shipments this season surpassed last season and led to higher prices. The price range for fresh pomegranates could be $20 to $38 for a 25-pound carton depending on the size and grade of the fruit, England said.

Between a third and half of all pomegranates harvested for the fresh market are exported, Tjerandsen said, adding that there is very active demand from the Pacific Rim, while the top export market is Canada. Demand for California pomegranates is also on the rise in Australia and New Zealand, he said.

New market opportunities are opening for California pomegranate exports.

“We just opened Colombia,” Tjerandsen said. “We had a protocol signed with Colombia that clearly spells out the phytosanitary requirements, testing requirements, cutting for infestation and all kinds of different requirements. They took an astonishing volume much beyond what we imagined for a first year would be absorbed by that market.”

Important opportunities for promoting pomegranates, Tjerandsen said, happen during Jewish holidays and Mexican Independence Day in mid-September. Researchers at the University of California Kearney Research Center in Parlier, he said, are developing new varieties that can be harvested early or late in time to expand the season and meet holiday demand. Other varieties are developed for high sugar, salt tolerance or fruit color.

About 70% of pomegranates grown are sold as fresh fruit and the remainder is processed into juice or arils are removed and sold in ready-to-use cups.

“The portion that’s sold as fresh arils is increasing rapidly,” Tjerandsen said, noting that pomegranates are considered a superfruit and an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber and vitamins. “People are recognizing more and more the health benefits found in pomegranates. That is one of the reasons why it continues to increase in popularity.”

DJ Forry, which sells pomegranates for shipment to domestic and export markets, finished shipping pomegranates by the end of last year. England said that fresh fruit will be sold in grocery stores through the end of this month and the company’s arils cup product will be sold domestically into March.

“We’ve been doing (aril) cups for 12 or 14 years, a long time. It’s an area of growth. We see more and more retailers carrying them as a year-round (product),” England said. “It’s something that consumers expect to see in the supermarkets now.”

Last fall, POM Wonderful, the largest grower and producer of fresh pomegranates and pomegranate juice in the nation, kicked off a marketing campaign promoting fresh arils as an easy-to-enjoy snack or an ingredient to elevate a variety of dishes.

“As the No. 1 arils brand sold nationwide, we are excited to see POM drive category growth and raise consumer awareness for snacking and epicurean uses of fresh pomegranates,” said Adam Cooper, The Wonderful Company senior vice president of marketing. “With the ‘Insta-Antioxidant’ campaign, we hope to showcase how quickly and easily consumers can enjoy pomegranate arils.”

Meanwhile, The Wonderful Company has announced a shared $1 million investment in two companies to develop sustainable innovations for the highest and best use for transforming 50,000 tons of pomegranate husks. Funds are awarded to BCD Bioscience and Enagon as part of an innovation challenge.

Christine Souza, California Farm Bureau Federation

California fresh pomegranate farmers estimate 2021 production at 6 million boxes, or 150 million pounds. How farmers fared this season depends on whether they picked the crop before or after storms and strong winds this past fall. Photo: Tomas Ovalle

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