Local Subtropicals

January 12, 2011

Think of tropical fruit and chances are warm temperatures come to mind. So it can feel like lucky that — in California — fruit like mangos, guavas and cherimoyas are ripe in winter. To be fair, these fruit are actually “subtropicals,” meaning they can also be cultivated in cooler climates than true tropical fruit.

Will Brokaw of Brokaw Nursery inherited orchards full of these subtropicals, from his father Hank Brokaw, who started farming as an extension of a nursery business (now Will runs the farm arm of the business while his brother Rob runs the nursery). “It’s a long-term experiment,” he says. My mom and dad had their initial success in selling nursery stock, so my dad always treated the farm like his playground; a lot of our disorganized groves will attest to that. He’d discover a new variety and put 2-3 trees in at a time.”

The farming branch of Brokaw Nursery still makes the majority of its income selling avocados, but they’ve kept up the subtropical tradition despite how tricky the fruit can be to grow. (Hank is no longer around, but Will’s mom and their long-time foreman Jose have carried on the work).

cherimoyaBrokaw’s subtropical fruit grows in a canyon in Ventura County, where the land is steep and the temperature can vary greatly. In order to create a relatively stable environment, the farm uses three wind machines designed to mix warm air from above with cool air below. Of course, farming technologies can never truly override nature; after the notorious cold snap of early 2007, for instance, the farm lost a great deal of its fruit for the year.

Getting the subtropical fruit trees to produce consistently in California — even with hefty applications of fertilizer and a great deal of irrigation in the summers — is another challenge. Cherimoyas (probably the least well known fruit Brokaw sells) are the most finicky. For starters, each tree has to be hand-pollinated; otherwise, the rate of pollination (the numbers of flowers actually turning into fruit) is dismally low — around five percent.

“We go into the orchard in the afternoon,” says Will, describing the process, “and we gather the male flowers, mix the pollen with a powder used for hand-pollination, and then we take it back the next day and dab it in the female flowers.” But, he adds, years of hand-pollination still hasn’t amounted to much. Will is currently working with an avocado consultant from Chile (a hotbed of Cherimoya research) who is also helping find the right cherimoya variety for the farm.
mangoMangos, a fairly new addition to the farm (pictured on the right), have been somewhat more productive than cherimoyas, but from Will’s perspective they don’t quite pull their weight. He can sell some of them green (a more economically feasible endeavor, generally), but the, “big, beautiful, tree-ripened” ones he brings to the Ferry Plaza are not so easy to come by.

The White Malaysian guavas are another story entirely (pictured at the top of the story and below). Brokaw sells quite a few of them to the Mexican American community in Southern California. And last year Scream Sorbet created a white guava flavor that required around 400 pounds of the fruit. On top of their marketability, guavas are easy to grow from seed, meaning they don’t need to be propagated through grafting like most fruit trees. And they grow quickly.

guavaWill said the family has recently acquired a new piece of land covered in old avocado orchards that might get partially replaced by guavas in order to make the land profitable sooner. “We could replace them with avocados and get fruit in four years or we could plant guavas and get fruit in two years,” he says.

Have the Brokaws considered growing other subtropicals? Their new property is rumored to have a couple of lychee trees, says Will, and they actually bear fruit! Keep your fingers crossed; they could show up in the market some day.

The small photos are of Brokaw Nursery.