Swimming Against the Tide

by Tony Stevens

As epicurean horticulturists, we may possibly have a deeper role in this trans national corporate world. John Rance clarified my vague unease about commercial fruit when he mentioned that taste entered a list of desirable characteristics at about number ten. It makes sense to the money makers to select fruit which has a terrific appearance with plenty of size, gloss and this year’s colour and also matures all at once for efficient picking and has a prodigious shelf life so profits are not threatened by wilting, shrivelling, rotting stock.

Transport is the other big area of worry, fruit must be very robust to survive picking, sorting, packing, loading and unloading and setting out for display. This article will not stray into the discussion over the spraying of fruit even though I would like to explore the number of sprays applied against cosmetic blemish pests.

The customer is thus presented with a very attractive display of large glossy colourful fruit. The customer hands over the purchase price and the financially rewarding process is confirmed. Don’t blame the growers and the corporations and the breeders when it is the customer who selects and thus drives the process.

Is this a fair summary of the situation? Does the customer actually have choice? Where do you go to find fruit where flavour and scent are paramount?

Rare fruit growers who battle climate and pests may have the pleasure of picking direct from the tree and tasting a naturally ripe, aromatic and richly flavoured fruit, hopefully with long and staggered periods of maturity so we can pick our harvest off the tree over days and weeks. Provided of course that we planted a variety which expresses all these characteristics.

Where do such varieties come from? If the breeders are rewarded by commercial imperatives and nurseries propagate mainly commercial varieties, where do we get varieties which have flavour first and maybe staggered maturity as well?

Heritage Varieties – Our society has done well in preserving heritage varieties which have characteristics more in keeping with our aims. Even here there are more questions than answers. Were these old varieties grown for pest resistance in the time before chemical pesticides? Were they chosen for long life storage in the times before controlled atmosphere? Were they selected for a specific purpose such as pie or jam making or for drying? Maybe they were the forerunners of the big glossy fruit, good to sell to townies at the local fruit market.

If you have an enthusiasm for fruit archivist work then you efforts are much appreciated, but at present we do not have a clearly defined method of dissemination of such records. We have reached the essential first stage of saving and conserving varieties unwanted commercially.

Where do we go from here? Who has what? Who wants to know more about their heritage varieties? Who is prepared to find out and record the information? Seed saver organisations are facing similar problems and are developing formats for members to record and share information, perhaps our society should lease with them to avoid reinventing the wheel.

Our field trip to Loxton allowed us to see the reality of a commercial breeding program. Jenny Witherspoon, as guest speaker, had guided us theoretically around the world in her search for desirable drying apricot traits and explained the breeding program. She then guided us through the reality of the trial orchards. We were very grateful to make some of our own selections from the new varieties produced, using our own criteria of desirability. The stumps of felled trees which had already failed to show any desirable features reminded us what a big effort this breeding and selection procedure entails. Grow a thousand trees knowing that over 99% will probably fail to meet the combination of characters required.

Our society does not have the resources to mount the huge commercial breeding campaigns but we can make use of the free production of new fruit varieties which occurs in a chaotic and random way all around us, the ongoing procession of new varieties which are seedling trees.

Think of the figs, the peaches, the apricots, the loquats and above all the olives which sprout and survive in wilder parts of gardens and blocks of land. A phrase like “It just came up by itself but it tastes really nice”, could be a trigger for action, graft it on, give it a name, test it out and maybe share it around. Some members of the society, notably John Rance, are well down the track in seeking out and propagating these valuable seedling selections. How about you?

Will this article just fill space and be one member’s little philosophical rave? Can we use this newsletter or our website or some other means of recording and sharing our new discoveries and old heritage stock?

Your committee will be very happy to record your information. Our strength is as a group with diverse enthusiasms but together we can amass a very substantial collection of gourmet fruit to add quality of experience to our world.

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