[NAFEX] fruit varieties unnamed

Idell Weydemeyer iwgarden at earthlink.net
Fri Jun 25 11:54:24 EDT 2010

Thanks for the good article by David Karp. He wrote an excellent one on
blueberries and one on peaches too. 


-----Original Message-----
From: nafex-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
[mailto:nafex-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Betty Mayfield
Sent: Thursday, June 24, 2010 4:43 PM
To: North American Fruit Explorers
Subject: [NAFEX] fruit varieties unnamed

To the list,

I saw this story today in the online Los Angeles 
Times and agree with it completely. Several years 
ago I bought tomatoes at a farmers' market from a 
man who directed me to a variety with a flavor I 
wanted. Later I went to another market and asked 
what their tomato varieties were, and they said, 
"whatever was ripe this morning." Needless to 
say, I didn't buy any. But I always buy 
strawberries from anyone with a Shuksan sign.

Betty Mayfield
northwest Oregon
Fruit varietals: Identity crisis in the produce aisle
The names help consumers know what produce will 
taste like and whether to buy it. But the era in 
which shoppers could look for favorites is passing.

By David Karp, Special to the Los Angeles Times

There are 230 varieties of peaches grown in 
California, freestone and clingstone, heirloom 
and newly developed, flavorful and bland, but 
when you go to the grocery store and even many 
farmers markets, they're usually sold just as "peaches."

The identification of a fruit's variety is the 
single most important piece of information 
consumers have in deciding what it will taste 
like and whether to buy, but the era in which 
consumers could look for distinctive varieties by 
name - Fantasia nectarine, O'Henry peach, Santa Rosa plum - is rapidly

Aside from apples and pears, most fruits are 
typically not identified by variety at markets, 
and have not been for years. This is a problem 
not just for fruit connoisseurs but also for all 
consumers. To give just one example, buyers often 
have no way to distinguish between yellow peaches 
with a traditional balance of sweetness and 
acidity and the low-acid varieties; the latter 
may be preferred by some for eating out of hand, 
but they are virtually useless for cooking.

Until 2006, the California Tree Fruit Agreement, 
the organization that sets standards for the 
state's shippers of peaches, nectarines and 
plums, required the specific variety to be 
identified on the carton. But some growers and 
shippers found that they could not readily market 
certain varieties perceived by buyers as 
inferior, and so the CTFA now allows fruit to be 
shipped under generic designations such as 
"yellow peach." Dale Janzen, the organization's 
director of industry relations, estimates that 
only 30% of shipments today name the variety on the carton.

There was a time when many of the stone fruit 
varieties grown around the nation had long lives 
and distinctive identities. In recent decades, 
however, the interval between stone fruit variety 
generations has contracted to just 20 years, or 
even 10, after which growers replace their trees 
with newer varieties. Plus, supermarket produce 
managers, who now mostly have little in-depth 
knowledge of fruit, don't want to be bothered segregating batches by name.

Variety names could easily be printed on produce 
stickers, which instead have recently been filled 
with bar codes; this may be convenient for 
self-checkout, but it gives a creepy industrial feel to the product.

For many fruit varieties, the true cultivar name, 
such as Cripps Pink apple, has been overshadowed 
by the same variety's marketing name, the Pink 
Lady. Part of the reason is that patent 
protection of fruit varieties extends for only 17 
to 20 years, but names used for marketing are 
protected indefinitely under trademark law.

Moreover, large growers and marketers are 
increasingly moving to a system that subsumes 
individual varieties in a series of cultivars 
that are marketed under the same name. For 
example, Sun World has a line of plums of 
different varieties that all share purple-black 
skin and red flesh and are all marketed as Black Diamonds, from May to

This commercial nomenclature is convenient for 
marketers, but something has also been lost - the 
feedback mechanism that allows consumers to 
identify varieties that they like, and ask for them by name.

Both philosophically and practically, it's 
crucial to capitalism that good products be 
rewarded with increased demand and higher prices, 
and inferior ones fall by the wayside. When a 
named variety delights consumers, they buy more, 
even if they have to wait until the following 
year; the produce manager orders more from the 
wholesaler, who increases his order from the 
grower, who buys more trees from the nursery, who 
pays greater royalties to the breeder for 
devising the variety to begin with and is 
encouraged to come up with more such superior fruit.

Conversely, when inferior varieties are marketed 
generically, producers of inferior varieties 
piggyback on producers of better varieties. In a 
pomological version of Gresham's law, bad fruit drives out good.

So why don't marketers sell by variety? All too 
often today, new varieties are bred to appeal to 
the lowest common denominator, to be inoffensive 
to the greatest number of people, so it suits the 
industrial distribution system when fruit is 
marketed anonymously. When fruit quality is 
homogenized, variety is less significant; in 
turn, anonymity deprives consumers of their main 
weapon to resist homogenization.

It doesn't have to be so. The European Community 
requires that grapes, oranges, apples and pears 
be identified by variety at the point of sale, 
and the practice is common there for other fruits 
too. There's no reason why American retailers 
should not respect consumers by empowering them to select by variety.

There is a downside to varietal transparency, 
however: When shoppers become smitten with a 
superior variety, such as the Tulameen raspberry, 
they may demand it to the exclusion of others, 
even early or late in its season, when other 
varieties would actually taste better, notes Chad 
Finn, a berry breeder with the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture. It can be difficult for consumers to 
make a fully informed decision, juggling the 
typical season for a variety, the geographical 
area where a batch is grown, the earliness or lateness of crops that year,

Growers and marketers don't want consumers to get 
too attached to a variety by name, particularly 
for stone fruit varieties, which are often in 
season for just a week or two, before a new 
variety takes its place. Similarly, they want to 
be free to replace obsolete varieties in the 
orchard and store, without consumers saying, "Oh, 
you don't have Fantasia nectarines anymore, phooey on you."

You'd think that farmers markets, celebrated for 
keeping alive unusual produce varieties, would 
offer a different dynamic, but all too often when 
vendors are asked for the name of the fruit 
they're displaying, they just say something like 
"white peach." Duh! Occasionally, the farmer may 
not know the variety of an item because the trees 
were unnamed when he bought the farm, but more 
often the vendor is an employee who is uninvolved 
in farming or who can't be bothered to list varieties.

Fitzgerald Kelly, a highly regarded vendor at the 
Santa Monica farmers market, takes an 
idiosyncratic approach to stone fruit 
nomenclature, bestowing his own whimsical 
monikers on series of similar varieties, such as 
Carmen Miranda for low-acid yellow-fleshed 
nectarines. In some cases, he offers experimental 
selections from breeders and doesn't want to tip 
off competitors to what he's growing; for all 
except old-fashioned high-acid varieties, 
customers don't care to know the specific name, he says.

Another high-quality grower, John Hurley, has 
sometimes sold intensely flavorful, hard-to-grow 
Snow Queen white nectarines (in season now) as 
generic white nectarines, which is like mixing 
Ferraris and Yugos. When I pointed this out, he 
said, "Oh, you're right, but I'm so exhausted by 
harvest and driving down here that I often lose track of the varieties."

The culture is much different at upscale markets 
in the Bay Area, such as the Ferry Plaza and 
Berkeley markets, where most vendors make a point 
of identifying varieties - not because 
regulations require them to do so, but because it 
is seen as a shrewd marketing move.

Varietal identification is also indispensable to 
farmers market integrity. A small but increasing 
minority of vendors are obtaining certified 
production certificates that state the number of 
trees they're growing but without naming specific 
varieties, making it much easier for those who 
are dishonest to buy or supplement their 
offerings with little fear of being caught.

What can be done to reverse the trend to 
anonymity, to return to a model in which fruits 
have names and people know and care about them? Here are three proposals.

Consumers can ask store managers and farmers 
market vendors to name produce varieties. You 
don't have to boycott anonymous fruit, just favor 
vendors who do identify varieties.

Growers, packers and shippers should retract the 
veil of anonymity. In the long term, it's to 
their economic advantage if consumers are 
informed and have a choice. The cost is nugatory, 
and a satisfied customer is likely to buy more.

Finally, fruit industry leaders, regulators and 
politicians can pass and enforce regulations that 
require produce to be identified by variety at 
markets. That's not so far-fetched, since a 
similar law went into effect last year requiring 
stores to identify the country where produce was grown.

Then we can finally let the best fruit win, and 
when it does, we'll know how to ask for it.

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