In sports you hear talk of a game changer. Either it’s a moment in a game where an event takes place that instantly changes the momentum of the game, or it could be a trade or free agent signing that takes a team to the next level of competition. In the produce world, you also have your game changers. A few years back, when Sumo mandarins first hit the stores, the game was changed. Never has there been a piece of citrus that comes in such a huge package that is so easy to peel, and so rich in flavor. Everything else has to try and measure up. For diehard fans like me their annual arrival in stores has now become the pinnacle moment of the entire citrus season. None of this happens overnight. There is a story to tell about how Sumos get from the tree to your hands. Today I am going to tell you that story.
Brief Sumo History Lesson
There is a wonderful article published in the LA Times that gives a detailed background on the Sumo, make sure to check that out. To give a summary – the Sumo, whose name overseas is the Dekopan was developed in Japan in 1972. It made it’s way into South Korea, China, and Brazil. Imports weren’t allowed into the United States. In the late 1990s, a man by the name of Brad Stark Jr. brought budwood branches to the U.S. in order to graft new trees. Still it took years for the first trees to be planted. The fruit couldn’t be imported due to real concern about spreading citrus diseases foreign to U.S. soil. So the branches brought to the U.S. went through a process that took several years to cleanse the tree of these potentially harmful diseases. In the meantime, another company secretly brought in their own budwood and planted trees in the San Joaquin Valley that were infected with disease. They were discovered and were seriously fined and ordered to destroy the trees. If those diseases spread to other citrus trees who knows what kind of damage it would have caused the California citrus industry. Brad Stark Jr’s company eventually went bankrupt, but his disease free trees eventually ended up in the hands of the Griffith family owners of TreeSource Citrus Nursery and Suntreat Packing & Shipping. They enlisted growers who had to grow the fruit in secret until 2011, when the first commercial crop was ready.
I am amazed by all the hard work and time spent just to begin growing the fruit in the U.S. The story is fascinating, it could be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. I can envision Nicholas Cage with guns blazing as he takes the disease free budwood away from the evil, rich villains.
The Passionate Sumo Growers
When the fruit was finally able to be grown it wasn’t just given to any citrus grower. These people were sought out and selected to grow it. I recently had the opportunity to communicate directly with two of the Sumo Citrus growers (Jonelle George and Guy Wollenman). In those conversations I could really feel their passion for citrus and their role in the industry. It just jumped right off my computer screen. These people are truly excited to be growing Sumos and even through all the challenges, it was well worth it, no doubt about it. I got excited just hearing about their excitement. These are the kind of people I want to buy my fruit from. They care, they desire to do a good job, and they are loving it along the way. I have seen many a farmer that looks like all the life was sucked out of them and they had no passion for what they were doing. Talking to these two growers shows that farming, whether it be fruit or vegetable, is still something people are passionate about. It makes me smile…ear to ear!
The Challenges of Growing Sumos
Not only was it challenging to get the fruit to the point where it could grow in the U.S. without spreading disease, growing the fruit itself was a new challenge to even seasoned citrus growers. The standard citrus horticultural techniques do not work with Sumo. The fruit must be pruned in a certain way so that areas of the tree that produce sub-quality fruit are removed. They also must prune them more like a peach tree, so that the sun can shine upon the fruit itself, which helps sweeten it. The neck on the fruit that gives the Sumo it’s name is susceptible to damage by wind and rain. When the fruit is ready to be picked it has to be done so careful. They go into totes until they make it the packing house. You won’t see big bins of Sumos like you do oranges. Even then the cases they go into are flat and wide single layer cases.
The Fruit Picked for Quality
When the fruit is ready to be picked, it’s not done so all at once. The fruit is carefully selected. Different parts of the citrus grove are picked when ready. Due to slight different micro climates in the San Joaquin Valley, they are ready at different times. You don’t just send people in to pick the trees bare. And like I mentioned above they have to be delicately handled. The LA Times report also mentions that at the start of the harvest the fruit goes through a curing process that utilizes a secret Japanese storing method that reduced the tartness of the fruit.
The Reason for the High Price
After reading this story you can see all the work that has been put into growing Sumos. It’s a more labor intensive piece of citrus. So when you head to the grocery store, you can expect to pay more money for them. Last year they were going for $3.99 a pound at my local Whole Foods markets – one of the top carriers of Sumo Citrus. They cost more to produce and they are still a new crop, they are going to be among the more expensive pieces of citrus in your produce aisle. What you are paying for it is top of the line quality fruit grown by passionate growers, who work their tails off to bring you an amazing taste experience that is worth every single penny you pay. Even though I may not be buying them by the case or bag full, I will manage to squeak some money out of the food budget to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
For more infomration on where to find Sumos this season, check out my post – Where to Buy Sumo Citrus Mandarins in 2015?