Opinion

DUNBAR: Wowing the world with new fruit created in Modesto

mdunbar@modbee.comSeptember 7, 2013 

— There was a lot of cross-pollination going on at Zaiger Genetics on this late-summer Wednesday morning.

It wasn’t the kind of cross-pollination you’d expect in the orchards of the world’s foremost tree-fruit breeder. That kind of pollination has been going on every day for 40-plus years under the direction of Floyd Zaiger and has resulted in the development of some of the most tasty and profitable fruits in the world.

No, this cross-pollination was the kind that takes place between people. There were Zaiger’s usual partners from Dave Wilson Nursery, who transform Zaiger’s creations into seedlings to be transplanted on thousands of acres. There were major fruit growers – some from as close as Reedley, others from as far away as Melbourne, Australia. If these people like what they taste, they turn those saplings into productive, profitable trees that produce thousands of tons of fruit and hundreds of jobs. Finally, there were people more specifically involved in selling fruit, often directly to consumers.

The cross-pollination between growers and sellers might have been the most important thing taking place on this particular Wednesday.

“We’re trying to improve the fruit industry, and if (introducing people) helps, then we work for that,” said Leith Gardner, Floyd’s daughter and one of the company’s key managers. “Last week we had a marketing director from the UK, living in South Africa and working on the interspecific plum. … He wanted to know what he would have to offer the people of Europe and England.”

Zaiger Genetics started as a hobby for a Modesto High ag teacher four decades ago. It blossomed into a passion and grew into the world’s foremost breeder of fruit trees and a major player in nut trees, operating out of what looks like a typical tidy farm off Maze Boulevard, about three miles west of downtown Modesto.

Growing in the orchards at Zaiger Genetics is the most astounding array of stone fruit found anywhere in the world. There are cherries the size of golf balls; nectarines the shape of goose eggs; plums as dark as midnight and other plums twice as big and as bright as a sunrise. Consider it the Central Valley equivalent of Willy Wonka’s candy factory, but with only natural sweetness.

Visitors aren’t there to ooh and ahh; they’re there to critique and compare. And the most severe critics are members of the Zaiger family. They know good fruit and they know the business of growing it.

“The Zaiger family is the most influential and creative plant breeders of our time,” said Eric Wuhl, who represented Family Tree Farms of Reedley on this recent tour. “Without Floyd Zaiger, we don’t make a profit.”

Growers have specific priorities. “Flavor first,” Wuhl said. “And no matter what it eats like, if the tree isn’t producing, you can’t make money.”

So every grower representative this day carried a scorecard, noting sugar content, skin thickness and color. The first column was for a reaction.

“Wow!” is what Dave McHaley of Reedley gave to three of the 25 or so fruits he tasted. “Wow” means an “immediate transplant” to his company’s test fields, he said.

Growers want a fruit hearty enough to withstand packing and one that ripens on schedule. They’d also like good “hang time,” meaning any fruit that ripens faster shouldn’t overripen while waiting for its siblings to mature.

“You don’t want to have to pick a tree four or five times to get all the fruit,” Wuhl said. “That eats up all your profits. You need a tree you can pick once.”

The priorities of growers and sellers don’t always mesh. For instance, growers loved a dazzling red-yellow plum the size of a hand grenade – they’re sold by weight, after all.

But the folks from the farmers markets saw it differently.

“Consumers want smaller pieces of fruit for kids’ lunch pails,” said Gail Hayden, director of the California Farmers Market Association. “A kid might take two or three bites of this, then throw the rest away. Their moms would find that wasteful.”

Hayden did not have a specific flavor in mind when she arrived at Zaiger Genetics, but she knew good when she tasted it. One cross surprised her: “It has a banana flavor. I can market the hell out of this. It’s so unusual.

“We’ll call it the pina colada plum. It’s the perfect size for lunch.”

Wuhl smiled. “It’s all marketing,” he said.

There’s more to marketing than flavor.

“The days of saying apricot, plum or nectarine are over,” Hayden said. “(Today’s buyers) want to know what’s in it, where it came from, who the grower was. They want to know if it was genetically modified.”

As the morning progressed, Wuhl and Hayden chatted. Her ideas about fruit marketing and changing consumers paired with his concerns over production and demand. To facilitate this process, the orchard tour ended with lunch. It always has for these invitation-only tours, which are offered on Wednesdays through the harvest season to real or potential customers.

“For 35 years, my wife (Betty) cooked these meals,” said Floyd, sitting at a table on the covered patio. She passed away in 2010; her loss clearly still troubles him.

His granddaughters carry on the tradition, always serving “Papa” first.

A patent on the Pluot

In a way, Zaiger is also “Papa” to a lot of fruit. Zaiger Genetics holds nearly 300 patents – including for the Pluot. If the word “Genetics” smacks of Frankenfruit or altered chemistry, then perhaps looking back at how Floyd and Betty started would allay any fears.

He was an ag teacher at Modesto High who became ever more engrossed in developing heartier plants in the 1950s. He told The San Francisco Chronicle two years ago that they harvested the pollen with eye droppers then dried it in front of their fireplace. This is no mad scientist, this is a hardworking family farmer. And a smart one.

He was listed by Fast Company as among the “top 10 most creative people in food,” and he has awards ranging from the American Pomological Society’s Wilder Award to the Horticultural Achievement Award from the California Association of Nurseries to the Chevalier Award from the nation of France. And he’s a member of the Stanislaus County Agricultural Hall of Fame.

At 87, Floyd still sits at the head of the company table but he gets considerable assistance from daughter Leith and sons Grant and Gary. At least six family members work in the operation.

If you want a sense of Zaiger, then compare him to what he grows. There’s a sweetness about the man, but with a touch of acidity – most often directed at himself or some of his discarded creations. And there are many of those.

He has nearly 200,000 fruit crosses in his orchard, often more than one on a single tree and each tracing its line back six or seven generations, meticulously noted in binders – his bibles. Only a tiny fraction make it to market.

Those are the “Wows!”

You’ll find them growing in Europe, Australia, Japan and throughout North and South America.

What’s he working on now?

With all the concern over the health of bees, Zaiger has developed a self-pollinating almond called the Independence. Not yet in widespread use, it saves farmers money but could also save the industry if the colony collapse disorder isn’t fixed. Blue Diamond just recently gave its own pricing classification.

The significance of what happens on this relatively small farm just west of Modesto shouldn’t be under-appreciated. Not all food science is conceived in sterile labs to extract profit from the cheapest ingredients without regard to nutrition. Some of the best science is taking place in the fields and orchards. And the scientists are seldom dressed in lab coats or three-piece suits. At least one wears suspenders and blue jeans and has that unmistakable squint of a valley farmer. It comes from a lifetime spent looking for ways to make better fruit for the world.

Dunbar is a Bee editor. He can be reached at (209) 578-2325.

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