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Come and get your last taste of lychee sweetness before it’s all gone for the summer! Bee Heaven Farm will be selling Green Grove organic lychees the weekend of June 13th and 14th at the Redland Summer Fruit Festival, located at the Fruit and Spice Park.

Juan, up in the bucket, picking lychhes.

Up in the bucket picking lychees.

As the early morning sun painted dappled golden light on the lychee trees, Steve Green met me at the front gate and let me into his grove. The picking crew of three had already arrived less than an hour before. This was the second picking of the season, and there would be a few more more in May and June before all the fruit was all harvested. I walked down a row of lychee trees and heard Juan, the picker, before I saw him. He stood in the bucket of a yellow machine on wheels with a crane arm (known as a cherry picker) and rose up the side of a tree. A stack of plastic bins was fastened to the side of the bucket, where he put clusters of ripe lychees. Juan started at the top of a tree, and with an experienced eye, checked every cluster for ripeness. He clipped only the ripe clusters and put them into the bin, and angled around the tree to reach more fruit.

Clusters of lychees ripening in the morning sun.

Clusters of lychees ripening in the morning sun.

You can’t tell by the color when a lychee is ripe. “When they are ready, lychees get rounder, and the little spikes in the skin flatten out,” Steve explained to me as he rubbed his thumb over the rough skin of a lychee he took from a bin. “Ripeness depends on how much sun and rain the fruit gets. Not all the fruit on a tree will ripen at the same time,” he added. Steve knows when the fruit is ripe to pick by tasting a few when the time comes. “An unripe fruit has some bitterness and too much acidity,” he said, “while a ripe fruit has a balance of tart and sweet.” He cracked the skin with a bite, then peeled and tasted. “One more day and it’ll be perfect. But I like mine a little on the sour side.” He handed me a lychee, and for me it was not too sour and just the right amount of sweet.

Grower Steve Green getting ready to taste a lychee for ripeness.

Grower Steve Green getting ready to taste a lychee for ripeness.

Steve’s dogs can also tell when it’s time to pick. “When the lychees are ripe, they’ll pull some fruit down from the low hanging branches of the trees,” Steve said. “They will make a small stash, and then eat the fruit, but not the skins or pits.” His dogs earn their keep by chasing after squirrels, possum and other intruders that also like to eat fruit.

Jose, the runner, gathers picked lychees.

Gathering picked lychees.

The second man on the crew, Jose, was the runner. He brought more empty bins to the picker, and returned full bins back to the packing table set up beside the farm house. Because this is a certified organic grove, everything that comes into contact with the fruit — the cherry picker, wheelbarrow, table, and all the bins — had been triple sanitized to meet organic standards.

Leticia removes fruit from the clusters, in preparation for sorting and packing.

Leticia removes fruit from the clusters.

Jose dumped a full bin onto the work table, where Leticia, the experienced crew boss and packer, plucked each fruit from its cluster. Her job was to sort the fruit, separating the perfect ones from the less perfect. The lychees that were ripe and pretty went off to one side of the table, to be packed into pint-size plastic clamshells, twelve pints to a box.

The fruits that were split or stained went into a bin off to the other side. Those were graded number twos, and were just as tasty but not as pretty. “The brown spots on the skin of a lychee fruit are called coffee stains,” explained Steve. “They happen when the sugar leaks out that area develops a stain.”

Lychees going from the branch to the bin.

Lychees going from branch to bin.

Back in the grove, Juan, the man in the picking machine, maneuvered around a few trees that didn’t have any fruit on them. Occasionally some trees just won’t bear fruit, even though other trees in the grove are loaded. This season, Steve estimated that his harvest was below average. “A good year is when every tree is loaded,” he said. “I expect to pack out about two thousand pounds this year. In a really good year I’ll pack out fifteen thousand pounds.” On that particular day, they expected to pick 600 pounds of lychees, or 720 pint containers full.

Trees loaded with fruit ripening in the sun.

Trees loaded with fruit ripening in the sun.

Lychee trees are notoriously temperamental. They need the perfect set of circumstances in the winter — a dry winter with enough hours of sufficiently cool temperature or else they just won’t bear in the summer. The whole grove can easily go several years without bearing fruit. When lychee trees do bear, their season is short, four to five weeks on average. Picking usually starts in mid to late May. All of these factors combined make for high retail prices for fresh fruit.

Available at local Whole Foods Markets.

Available at local Whole Foods Markets.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the fruit picking and packing went on. Most of this day’s harvest was going to local Whole Foods stores, the rest to an organic wholesaler. “The Pinecrest produce manager  ordered them and  put them on display in their organic produce section,” Steve said of his pint boxes of lychees, “and the other stores can get them from their regional warehouse.” (I’ve seen Green Grove lychees at the Aventura store.) The number two fruits that were stained but not split were destined for the Bee Heaven Farm web store. (The splits are given to lychee-hungry friends who drop by at the end of harvest days.)

Green Grove lychees are certified organic, so Steve can command higher prices than growers who do not follow such strict growing practices to receive USDA certification. But the extra income goes to pay for extra labor and materials used to control weeds, pests, and diseases. Approved treatments are more expensive,  not as effective, and need to be applied more often. Weeding is done by hand rather than using any herbicide. An organic grower can’t use conventional chemical sprays or fertilizers.

Picking lychees with a cherry picker.

Picking lychees with a cherry picker.

On a walk through the grove, Steve pointed out a handful of trees that had been attacked by two different pests — one group by lychee bark scale insect, and a few others by the Sri Lanka weevil. Scale sucks sap and kills branches, and the weevil cuts notches along the edges of the leaves. The scale is kept in check with regular applications of fish oil spray approved for organic farms, and the weevil is simply tolerated.

Overall, the grove looked fairly healthy, and most trees were loaded with fruit. Steve expected to pick another crop in early June. Then harvesting would be pretty much done for this year. If we have a cool and fairly dry winter coming up, hopefully we can expect a good crop of lychees next year.

Pepper #30, by Edward Weston

Pepper #30, by Edward Weston

Many years ago, I came across the famous photo of a bell pepper taken by Edward Weston. The pepper was sensuous and and appeared to have a satiny skin. I was transfixed and flummoxed. Where did Weston find such a thing? Turns out he grew the pepper himself. But that didn’t keep me from scouring bins of bell peppers at the grocery stores. Nope, no luck. They were all the same plain boxy shape. No quirks, no twists, no character. Let’s face it, veggies at the supermarket are just plain dull.

Page 42 of the Spring issue, Edible South Florida

Page 42 of the Spring issue, Edible South Florida

It wasn’t until I started hanging out at Bee Heaven Farm taking photos of CSA shares that I came across produce with character. Hallelujah! Of course, I started photographing them! And now, a small part of my collection of wacky veggie pictures has been published on the inside back page of the spring issue of Edible South Florida. Thanks to editor Gretchen Schmidt for selecting the pictures!

Ohhhh myyyyy!!!

Ohhhh myyyyy!!!

Large heirloom tomatoes like to morph various shapes. Carrots get naughty. Daikon are more elegant and like to twist and twine. Eggplants grow noses. And bell peppers tend to grow lobes and knobs. (I still haven’t found one as elegant as Weston’s but that won’t keep me from looking.) Mother Nature is coloring outside the lines.

One man, Jordan Figueiredo, is on a mission to get supermarkets to sell veggies with character, because creating consumer demand for misshapen produce is a good way of reducing food waste. Growers and wholesalers prefer uniformly shaped, blandly “perfect” produce for supermarket sales — and us shoppers have come to expect bland as normal. We lose out on nature’s riotous creativity, which gets wasted, rotten, thrown away.

You can read more about Figueiredo and his mission in the article next to my pictures. His web site lists links for grocery chains, where you can be an ugly veggie activist too. Shoot an email to corporate. Or, ask the produce manager at your favorite grocery store, and remember to keep asking. With enough demand, “uglies” can and will start showing up routinely in grocery stores.

Don’t forget, “uglies” are fun. Over at the farmers market, I’ve seen kids reach first for eggplants with noses, and moms get a giggle at risque carrots. And of course you can start your own collection of produce pictures. Maybe you’ll be the one who finds a pepper as memorable as Weston’s #30.

Dancing daikon

Dancing daikon

CSA share: week 20

Family share: week 20

Family share: week 20

Small share: week 20

Small share: week 20

Cheese share: Hani's cheese

Cheese share: Hani’s cheese

Mediterranean share: Loubyeh bil zeit (Green beans in tomato sauce)

Mediterranean share: Loubyeh bil zeit (Green beans in tomato sauce)

CSA share: week 19

Family share: week 19

Family share: week 19

Small share: week 19

Small share: week 19

Mediterranean share: Potato salad

Mediterranean share: Potato salad

Mediterranean share: Lentils and rice

Mediterranean share: Lentils and rice

Cheese share: Hani's cheese

Cheese share: Hani’s cheese

CSA share: week 18

Family share: week 18

Family share: week 18

Small share: week 18

Small share: week 18

Mediterranean share: Stuffed grape leaves

Mediterranean share: Stuffed grape leaves

Mediterranean share: Chickpeas

Mediterranean share: Foule Muddamas

Hani's cheese: Feta cheese

Cheese share: Hani’s cheese

CSA share: week 17

Family share: week 17

Family share: week 17

Small share: week 17

Small share: week 17

Cheese share: Hani's cheese

Cheese share: Hani’s cheese

Cheese share: Za'atar cheese

Cheese share: Za’atar cheese

Mediterranean share: Dark hommos (Hommos with black tahini)

Mediterranean share: Dark hommos (Hommos with black tahini)

 

CSA share: week 16

Family share: week 16

Family share: week 16

Small share: week 16

Small share: week 16

Cheese share: Hani's choose

Cheese share: Hani’s choose

Mediterranean share: Hommos

Mediterranean share: Hommos

Mediterranean share: Stuffed grape leaves

Mediterranean share: Stuffed grape leaves

Mediterranean share: Green cauliflower with tahini

Mediterranean share: Green cauliflower with tahini

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