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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.