By Christina Hoag, The Miami Herald Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 28--Ever heard of lychee and longan, mamey sapote and sapodilla or dragonfruit?
If not, you're far from alone. But if South Florida farmers have their way, these exotic fruits will soon become mainstream, rather than just occasionally showing up in the ethnic produce section of local supermarkets or at ethnic grocers.
Tropical fruits, native to Latin American and Asia, are enjoying rising popularity with U.S. consumers whose palates are continually broadening in a quest for new tastes.
And for Homestead-area growers, that's good news as South Florida is one of the few places -- and in some cases, the only place -- in the United States where these fruits grow. Hawaii and southern California are the other locales.
"There's a good market, or a potentially expanding one, for many of these fruits," said Jonathan D. Crane, a University of Florida tropical fruit crop specialist who works in Homestead. "And we have a unique environment here."
But Homestead is a difficult place to run a fruit farm these days. There's cut-rate competition from abroad that has edged out more expensive home-grown crops such as mangoes. Mexican mangoes, for example, undercut Florida mangoes by about $4 a box.
There are pests and diseases that thrive in the hot, humid climate -- citrus canker wiped out most of the area's lime trees several years ago, and there's a sizzling housing market that has pushed up land prices, making it more lucrative to sell than struggle on with farming.
"We have a lot of challenges," said Dewey Steele, president of the 100-member Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida. "But I like to think we're holding our own."
Homestead farmers will do more than that if the Hispanic and Asian immigrant populations keep growing at a rapid clip. Ethnic grocers have been the traditional mainstay of South Florida's tropical fruit industry.
Lychee and longan, which are similar to the grape-like lychee, are typical Asian favorites, for example, while mamey sapote and sapodilla are familiar to Latin Americans.
But growers hope that some of these tropical fruits will solidly stake out a place in the big supermarkets, which would really spur demand.
"Some of these fruits will cross over into the mainstream markets," said Craig Wheeling, chief executive of Brooks Tropicals, Homestead's largest tropical fruit farmer.
The key is to get consumers who are unfamiliar with the fruits to try them -- and then keep buying them.
Armed with a $638,000 federal specialty-crop initiative grant, Homestead's tropical fruit growers have been trying to do that, holding samplings and cooking demonstrations in supermarkets, for example.
The plan has met with some success. Publix Supermarkets has started carrying carambola, also known as starfruit, and lychee.
Growers have also launched their own marketing strategies with varying success.
Fresh King, one of Homestead's biggest producer-packers, puts stickers on its mangoes, distinguishing them as "tree-ripe mangoes" as opposed to imported mangoes that ripen during shipment.
"We can't sell mangoes for $2 a case, which is what Mexico sells its mangoes for," said Peter Schnebly, president of Fresh King, which grows mangoes, lychees, carambolas and other fruits.
"Just the box costs 40 cents, freight another 25 cents. We have insects here that they don't have in Mexico. But I believe the customer wants a better-tasting mango, which is the Florida tree-ripened mango."
Still, Schnebly predicts that with fierce competition from Mexico, domestic mangoes will occupy a niche market at best in the future.
Likewise, Brooks Tropicals tried a marketing campaign for starfruits. "We poured money into marketing carambola in the '80s and '90s," he said. "But demand has been very static. It's really a niche market."
Other local crops are doing better -- Brooks Tropicals' most popular Florida product is its "Slimcado" avocado, bred to have fewer calories and less fat than traditional avocados.
"It's been a fabulous success," said CEO Wheeling, who also imports papaya from Brooks Tropicals' farm in Belize. "We spent three years in the lab testing it."
Besides the obstacle posed by marketing an unknown product, tropical fruits' growth is hindered by such factors as short shelf life and harvest seasons that don't give consumers enough time to become acquainted with the new tastes.
The fruits can also be pricey. "If you have lychees at $4 a pound, you have to really like lychees to buy them," Wheeling said. "Some of these prices have to come down in order to get a broad slug of people in the U.S. buying them."
Still, growers are encouraged by the broadening popularity of such fruits as papaya and mango. "I wouldn't even call mango an exotic fruit anymore," said fruit specialist Crane.
Schnebly is looking at another project to expand the market for tropical fruits: wine made from the excess production of lychees, carambolas and passionfruits.
It's part of a grand vision he has for the rural Redland area of Homestead: The Redland Tropical Trail, which would lure city dwellers for a day trip revolving around a visit to his winery, local fresh markets, nurseries and so on.
"We need to reinvent ourselves because a lot of agriculture is starting to disappear," Schnebly said. "We need to get tourism here. We have breeders of koi fish and parrots; there's a bonsai grower, orchids. We really have a lot of interesting things going on, but no one knows about them."
Schnebly plans to open the winery in September and a fresh market to sell fruit and such fruit products as shakes and jellies outside his packing warehouse in December.
"Visitors are always amazed at all the different things we grow down here, and our fruit goes all over the country," said Steele of the growers association. "The demand is there. It's a question of finding the niche in the market."
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