Posts Tagged ‘lychee’

Lychees in the morning

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.

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SFDB Post of the Month

Glory be and hallelujah! The good folks over at South Florida Daily Blog decided they liked my post, For the Love of Lychees, so much that they voted it the post of the month for June.

Thanks for the honor! I’m touched the post brought back pleasant memories of savoring backyard fruit. Place has a taste, and those local flavors tell you where you are, or where you are from. Glad I was able to help you (and hopefully others) make that connection.

Many, many thanks to lychee grower Steven Green who invited me to document picking day, and gave me lots of good information. Couldn’t have done it without his help.

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Organic lychees ripening in the morning sun.

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!

Up in the cherry picker, Gonzalo picks lychees.

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.

Hidalgo loads fruit that Gonzalo gathered.

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.

Steven shows Leticia the acceptabe size for coffee spots.

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.

Hidalgo, Gonzalo, Betty, Steven and Shelly grading and packing fruit.

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.”

A case of organic lychees destined for Whole Foods.

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.

Look carefully and you’ll see a pair of common grackles feasting on fruit.

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.

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Local fruit at Whole Foods

Donnie avocado

Farmer Margie just got back from dropping off 30 bushels of her certified organic Donnie avocados at the area Whole Foods warehouse. Look for her fruit in South Florida stores starting this Thursday. If you don’t see them, ask the produce manager to get them for you.

Here’s a picture of a Donnie that I got at last Saturday’s fruit sale. I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into it! These are mild and creamy and I can only eat half at a time. This particular fruit weighs one and a half pounds, but by the end of the season, they will grow to 3 to 4 pounds!

Mario's lychee

Margie also dropped off certified organic lychees that are Certified Naturally Grown by Mario Yanez, which will also be in Whole Foods this week. His lychees are plump and sweet and juicy. It’s getting toward the end of lychee season, so get them while you can because there aren’t going to be any more.

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Summer has just begun and it’s already a scorcher! We’ve had above normal temperatures since April 26, according to the National Weather Service. Highs have been 90 degrees or above since May 30 (except for a slight dip to 88 on June 1). The heat index has been 100+ degrees most days. Last June was even hotter. Record temperatures were set on June 22, 2009 in Miami with a high of 98. Fort Lauderdale had a high of 100, tying an all time record. This summer feels hotter because temps have consistently been at 90 or above for 59 days and counting, while last summer temps were mostly in the high 80s with a few spikes in the 90s.

The last picture I took before getting chased off by a hot and cranky bee.

This crazy heat has an effect on livestock at Bee Heaven Farm. Chickens stand with their beaks open, panting, and hold their wings out a bit to their sides to try to cool off. Bees don’t like heat and get cranky. I passed by the hives when beekeeeper Miguel Bode was working with them a few weekends ago. One bee took offense to where I was standing, buzzed around my head, and chased me for a good distance. Lucky for me, I didn’t get stung but it felt close! Even the worms in the vermiculture bin have been suffering mightily. Instinctively they’ve dived down to the bottom of the bin, seeking cooler soil, but hit bottom instead. The Worm Guy (that’s what Margie calls him) advised chilling them down with frozen water bottles buried in the bin. Wigglers on the rocks, anyone?

I asked Farmer Margie what grows well in this kind of heat. “Weeds!” she exclaimed. Those weeds completely took over vegetable beds after Gleaning Day. Margie mowed them down, and now that she’s had two days without rain, she’s out on her tractor tilling the soil, preparing to plant cover crops.

Some summer fruit is finally starting to get ready, but running a little behind schedule because of the freeze this winter. The extended period of super cold weather caused plants to go dormant for weeks. Lychees (Mauritus variety) are bearing late this year. Margie pointed out that last year, a bumper crop of lychees were harvested in late May. This year the harvest began in mid-June, and the quantity isn’t quite as much.

Mauritus lychees from last summer.

Another casualty of the cold are mango trees which were in bloom in January when the freeze hit. The long stretch of freezing temperatures damaged blossoms. Some fruit set and grew, but then aborted and fell off. I’ve seen trees that don’t have as much fruit, and if they do, they’re not as plentiful and not as big or developed.

Half-grown Donnie avocado.

Avocado trees seemed to escape significant damage from the freeze in January. Branches are loaded with fruit several inches long, about the size of Haas avocados in the groceries. If you’re not familiar with Florida avocados, and you have a tree in your yard, don’t get confused and pick early! The varieties that grow here, especially the Donnies that Margie raises, get much much, much bigger than the Haas variety from California or Mexico. Last summer many Donnie avocados weighed in at 3 pounds apiece, and one giant weighed 4 pounds. Avocado picking will start in mid-July, also several weeks later than last summer.

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