Why farmers battle heat and cold in the California desert to grow the world's tastiest fruit
There's something about mangoes that inspires obsession. Shoppers at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market are used to finding delicious fruit like Snow Queen white nectarines and Persian mulberries, but they really go wild when Deborah Chamberlain shows up with her mangoes, grown at Wong Farms in Mecca, near Southern California's Salton Sea. "They're wonderfully fresh, juicy, and aromatic," said Nancy Sternberg, a regular customer. "We're so fortunate to be able to buy these."
We're especially lucky to have the chance to enjoy them this year. In January a savage freeze ravaged most of California's big desert mango orchards, but left Chamberlain's 2-acre planting miraculously unscathed. And that was just the latest twist in the saga of quixotic dreams, bitter reverses, and tenuous triumphs that is the story of mangoes in California.
Half the planet's favorite fruit
The United States is experiencing a boom in the demand for tropical fruit, fueled by immigration from Asia and Latin America and by the increasing sophistication of American taste buds. Papaya and pineapple imports are rising; U.S. growers are even starting to experiment with exotic fruits such as dragon fruit, mangosteen, and yuzu.
But the mango occupies a position all its own. Native to the rain forests of South and Southeast Asia, mangoes are the favorite fruit in much of the tropics; India, China, and Thailand are the world's leading producers. For half the planet, rapturous memories of mangoes — gorging on the sugary, peachy flesh, juice dripping down the chin — are emblematic of home. In the United States, Florida and Hawaii grow exquisite mangoes, but on a modest scale, and chiefly for local sale.
Mangoes have surged in popularity in the United States since 1980. But store-bought specimens often disappoint. The main commercial variety, Tommy Atkins, has a fibrous texture and mediocre flavor. Another problem: Almost all imported mangoes must be treated with hot water to kill insect pests; this diminishes aroma and can cause pasty flesh as well as shriveling.
California farmers started experimenting with mangoes as early as the 1880s, but without much success; too much of the state was too cold for the fruit to ripen properly. And, then, in the early 1980s, one Howard P. Marguleas had an inspiration.
Marguleas was chairman of Sun World International, a grower and breeder of citrus, grapes, and stone fruits. On a visit to Israel, he saw mango orchards west of the Dead Sea. It struck him that the hot, dry climate was similar to California's Coachella Valley, which runs from Palm Springs southeast to the Salton Sea.
Everyone told him mangoes couldn't be grown in California, but Marguleas persisted. He brought in an Israeli consultant, ordered trees from Florida, and in 1984 planted the first 10-acre block at C.M.&S. Ranch in the Coachella Valley crossroads town of Oasis. Here he tested more than 50 mango varieties before settling on a variety named Keitt. Although developed in Florida, Keitt thrived in the desert, producing fruit whose orange flesh is very sweet and fiber-free, with rich, concentrated flavor.
C.M.&S. is an unlikely site today, a jungle of 20-foot-tall mango trees rising from the sands, guarded by a chain-link-and-razor-wire fence. (The security measures are needed because thieves sometimes attempt to break in at night to steal fruit and dig up rows of trees.)
On a visit during last summer's harvest, the temperature had risen to 100° by midmorning. But, said Linden Anderson, who is in charge of Marguleas's mango plantings these days, "This is mild. Last month we had four days over 120°, and 10 years ago it got up to 130°." When it gets more than 118°, he added, young leaves are damaged and weak trees die. Mangoes must be harvested firm and ripened off the tree, like pears; plumpness is a better indicator than skin color for choosing a good Keitt, said Anderson. Harvesting mangoes is tough, sweaty work — climbing ladders, plucking fruit into heavy canvas sacks, and releasing the contents into plastic bins — but the workers relish the fringe benefits: They can eat or keep fruits that are too ripe to ship. Said Ted Johnson, who manages all of Marguelas's farms, "There's never a labor shortage for mango harvest."
Hardship and victory
Sweet as their fruit is, mangoes have not had an easy time of it in the California desert. Mango growers have suffered financial ups and downs. There's the thievery problem, and development pressure too, as golf courses and condominiums spread down the Coachella Valley. Competition from imported mangoes is increasing: Just this spring, the Department of Agriculture started allowing India's celebrated Alphonso mangoes to be imported, and varieties from Thailand will be arriving soon.
All these challenges paled before the meteorological nightmare that occurred this past January. In the worst freeze to strike the California desert since 1937, temperatures plunged to prolonged durations of 26°. The cold proved even more dangerous than heat for the mango trees. Groves were blackened, with many trees killed and the remaining ones badly damaged. Production this year may collapse to 250,000 pounds, just 6 percent of the 4,000,000 pounds anticipated before the freeze.
Yet if there is one thing that California mango producers possess in abundance, it is faith. Marguleas shows no inclination of halting his mango dream, said Anderson: "Howard's the eternal optimist." More mango trees are growing in the Coachella Valley than ever before, and, Anderson added, "We're planning on replanting the damaged or killed trees. It'll take several years to recover, but we're not going away."