Grower Looks at Potential of 'Alternative' Fruits

8/31/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

BRIDGEVILLE, Del. — For more than a century, peach and apples trees have grown on this land.

T.S. Smith and Sons is known for its orchards, but visitors were given a glimpse of an entirely different kind of orchard during an alternative fruit twilight tour Aug. 21.

Figs, quince, pawpaws, beach plums, sweet and tart cherries, Asian pears, pomegranate and several plum varieties are planted in various sites around the farm.

T.S. Smith has been studying the different fruit trees to see if they have any potential to become crops in the Delaware region. In addition to the fruit trees, they are also studying day-neutral strawberries, sometimes called repeat bloomers.

Some of the fruits, such as quince, can be used in jams or jellies. Local microbrewery Dogfish Head has shown some interest in using quince as a flavoring in a new beer.

Other fruits, including figs, can be sold as fresh fruit.

A few dozen farmers, residents and members of the media toured the farm to see what can perhaps be best described as mixed results thus far. It’s still too early to see much in the way of results, but officials feel there is real potential.

T.S. Smith is providing some of the funding for the work. Other money for the work comes from a 2012 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant that is in partnership with the University of Delaware.

Assistant professor of soil and plant sciences Gordon Johnson said, “We’ll get to see what works and what doesn’t work.”

“I’m kind of learning on the fly,” said Charlie Smith, one of three brothers who run the business.

One of the most promising crops are the day- neutral strawberries. Strawberries are a popular spring crop in Delaware. Day-neutral strawberries are intended to extend that brief season and provide a full crop in both spring and fall.

They can also produce some berries in summer, although that crop is not large. Johnson called any summer production “icing.”

Strawberries are often a pick-your-own crop in Delaware and they are one of the first local crops to become available, but they are usually done for the year in June.

T.S. Smith is growing two different types of day-neutral berries. This year’s plants have produced tasty fruit, according to Charlie Smith. He said, however, that the berries need to fully ripen because the pink berries don’t have much in the way of flavor.

Johnson said the plants developed an excess of runners this year and many have been thinned and pruned back recently. He said the growth was probably due to a very wet year.

T.S. Smith and the University of Delaware will be studying how the plants do under a low-tunnel system covered in the summer. Johnson said different colors of shade cloth will be studied to see whether the color makes a difference.

Johnson said figs could be a fresh fruit crop in Delaware. Most of the fig acreage in America is in California. One drawback is that the fruit is delicate and must be handled carefully. If handled with care, it can last about two weeks.

If you aren’t careful, it might last two days, he said.

Most figs are more southern varieties, so how well the fruit can overwinter in Delaware is also an issue. T.S. Smith is currently growing eight varieties of figs.

California growers have been growing figs and then selling them dried, but fig paste from other countries is cheaper. It’s prompted California growers to begin looking at the fresh fruit market, which Johnson feels could also have some potential for Delaware.

T.S. Smith has a number of sweet cherry trees being grown under a high-tunnel system in raised beds. The tunnels may solve the two main problems with growing sweet cherries in Delaware: cracking because of rainfall and heavy predation by birds.

Charlie Smith uses drip irrigation and hopes the high tunnel can defend against the voracious birds. He is studying several varieties of cherries as well as different ways of training the trees. Some are being trained by placing small weights on branches. Others are being tied to a sort of trellis to reduce vertical growth and encourage more horizontal branching, which allows more light to reach the plant.

Charlie Smith said he has yet to see his first cherry, but he hopes the trees will each produce about 25 pounds of fruit.

Beach plums grow wild at Delaware beaches such as Cape Henlopen and are usually used in jellies. Smith’s bushes are producing fruit the size of a large blueberry with a plum-like taste and a very large pit. Johnson said because of their size, there might be fresh fruit potential.

The other fruit trees aren’t receiving the emphasis that the cherry trees are, but Charlie Smith is also growing pawpaws and quince. Quince is a pear-shaped velvety fruit that was popular in early America, but has since fallen out of favor.

Johnson said quince can be used for jams or jellies. Eating one as fresh fruit is “not very enjoyable,” he said.

The pawpaw trees are growing slowly, but seem healthy.

“I hope I live long enough to see fruit from them,” joked Charlie Smith, as he looked at the mostly knee-high trees.

Pawpaws were grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and have been called America’s “forgotten fruit.” They are a custardy type fruit that is a member of the custard apple family and are sometimes called “a poor man’s banana.”

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