The lychees in this week’s summer fruit offering come from Green Groves, not too far from Bee Heaven Farm. Steven Green, the grower, invited me to see how lychees get picked. He had an order from Whole Foods, and hired a picking crew to help. If you were in Whole Foods last weekend or this weekend and saw pint containers of organic lychees for sale, those were the ones!
Picking work starts early. Golden morning sunlight was just breaking over the tops of trees from the grove across the road. The air was cool and full of sounds of birds. Dew was still clinging to weeds under the lychee trees. Ripening fruit hung in heavy clusters on the trees. At 7 am, the crew was already getting started. They had dropped off their cherry picker the day before. It was a simple contraption — an engine on three wheels, with a boom arm and bucket. Gonzalo, one of the workers, stood in the bucket and manipulated the controls to raise the boom and drive the picker to a different spot. When I arrived, he was already at tree top level gathering fruit.
Gonzalo held a pair of heavy duty clippers in one hand, and reached with his other hand to grab clusters of lychees called panicles. He snipped the panicle and placed it into one of the bins fastened to the sides of the bucket. He started with the first tree by the gate, and worked from top down. Then he moved to the other side of the tree, gracefully maneuvering the picker, and again clipped fruit from the top down. “Usually the whole tree ripens at the same time. The lower branches ripen before the upper. And the top gets eaten by grackles,” Steven said with a laugh. “I have enough to share.” He has 125 trees planted on two acres, and has been growing lychees since 1992, and avocados for 15 years before then.
The rising morning sun shone on Gonzalo’s face as he worked silently and quickly. Bins filled up with lychees. The picker’s gasoline engine clattered, and grackles screeched from a nearby tree. He lowered the bucket and Hidalgo came with a gardener’s cart and dumped lychees into it. When the cart was full, he walked back with the cart to the improvised packing house. A long table had been set in the carport of Steven’s house. Hidalgo dumped lychees onto the table. It had a raised lip along the edges, to keep precious fruit from rolling away.
Leticia, the owner of the picking company, stood at the table and checked each individual fruit. She has been packing fruit for 25 years and has a keen eye for the perfect ones. “This crew knows ripeness,” Steven said. They have worked for him for many years. Steven reviewed with Leticia how he preferred to grade the fruit. The perfect ones went into a green bin. The less than perfect ones, called number twos, were tossed into a box. A number two lychee was one that had a brown blemish called a coffee spot. Steven explained the coffee spots were harmless and didn’t affect flavor or quality of the fruit. Spots the size of a pencil eraser were ok, but bigger ones were not. Spotted number twos are still good to eat, but in this case would get sold to make wine or ice cream. Steven pointed out, “Buyers of number twos are price sensitive and understand that the blemishes have no effect on fruit quality except for appearance.”
The sweet perfume of ripe lychees filled the air. Steven showed me the difference between a perfectly ripe lychee and one that wasn’t quite there. The not as ripe fruit’s skin had little spines or bumps. A ripe fruit’s bumps flattened out. Steven explained that as it ripened, the lychee grew more plump and rounded, which stretched its skin and flattened out the bumps.
Picking is all a matter of timing. Pick too early and the lychees are a little sour. (I happened to eat some of those a couple weeks ago.) Wait a little for the fruit to ripen more and it gets sweeter and tastes like lychee. “If you wait too long to pick, overripe fruit tastes like sugar water and you lose the lychee flavor,” Steven explained. Picking also has to do with market timing and getting a good price. The first local lychees to hit the local market got top dollar, getting $46 for 10 pounds wholesale. When Mexican lychees came in last Monday, May 30th, the prices crashed down to $25 and are now tumbling even lower. (These are prices for conventionally grown fruit. Organic lychees can fetch considerably more.)
Steven grumbled that NAFTA is the reason for the drop. “In Mexico, growing is much less expensive, and the quality is less, not anywhere as good as locally grown. They pick earlier because they need the extra time in shipping.” NAFTA gives offshore fruit — as growers call imports — another unfair advantage. “Mexican lychees may have prohibited pesticide residues, or have been treated with sulfites to preserve their color. USDA doesn’t have the manpower or resource to inspect all the fruit coming in. Also the retailer is supposed to mark COOL (Country of Origin Label) but there’s almost no enforcement against retailers that don’t. For organic fruit, that’s no problem, because origin is part of the certification.”
Steven showed me the label that went on each pint clamshell and cardboard case. Among other information, the label had the “Redland Raised Fresh From Florida” logo and the grove’s organic certification number. Shelly stuck labels onto pint sized plastic clamshell containers, then filled one container at a time with number one lychees, and packed 12 to a case. Steven put labels on the cases. The crew would pick and pack fruit for a few more hours. A driver was coming later that afternoon to pick up their order of 40 cases. Steve’s lychees would be in local stores for the weekend selling for $6.99 a pint.
On my way back into town, I passed by a woman selling lychees by the side of Krome Avenue. It was completely the opposite of a supermarket — a tent, a bin full of lychees, and an ancient looking scale. Three cars had pulled to the side of the road and people were handing her cash for pounds of sweet fruit. Hand lettered signs nearby said LEECHEES $2.00. For that price, most likely the lychees were grown locally and were not organic. I was reminded of something I heard a farmer once tell me: “Growers are price takers, not price makers.” On that sunny Thursday morning deep in the heart of Redland, two kinds of lychees were being sold, and two kinds of prices were being made.