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California Desert Mangos Are One Man’s Dream

The broad produce industry, understandably, focused on citrus when California had a freeze. The August 2007 issue of Sunset magazine, though, has offered a reminder that the freeze also hit California’s nascent mango crop:

California farmers started experimenting with mangos 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 mangos 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.)

If you were wondering how, in light of industry problems with labor, they can get the mangos harvested in the desert heat, they have an ”incentive program” in place:

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.

Mangos 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 mangos 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.”

The freeze was the latest of many obstacles to California mango production, but the plan is to rebuild:

Sweet as their fruit is, mangos 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 mangos 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.”

Howard Marguleas has long been an innovator in the field. If you look at the whole field of proprietary produce, you see giants like Syngenta drawing inspiration from work Howard was doing decades ago.

The freeze is a mighty blow, but Howard has known the taste of bitter challenges and has always lived to fight another day. Not many men can say that much.

There was never a question that Howard would leave his mark on the produce industry, but who knew he would make a jungle spring where a desert stood?

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