Spring is an exciting time for fruit in the field. Here in the U.S., trees start to emerge from their winter dormancy – blossom sets starting first in the southern parts of the country and gradually moving northwards. For berries and field crops like melons, the ground that was very recently barren and brown (or white with snow) also begins to show early signs of greening — blooms emerging with the promise of the fruit to come. Everywhere there are signs of spring and a reawakening, along with dangers too, in the form of aggressive storm systems and late frosts that can severely damage or even destroy crops scheduled to harvest months from now.
The first chapter of the 2011 summer fruit season was a sad one. The freezing January temperatures that crossed the border into Mexico all but wiped out some early summer peach blooms on an organic farm we look forward to every year. February and the first part of March was kinder to the U.S. apricot and cherry growers, though. There has been a lot of rain and some high winds in California but we are past the point where the crop is in danger of freezing. On the east coast, the winter chill hours necessary for a good dormancy period were nearly perfect this year and the early spring weather conditions have been excellent. In a few days, the danger of frost will have passed and the Southeast peach and blueberry growers will be off to a great growing season.
In contrast to all the activity in the field, the fruit offerings ready to eat start to get a little leaner in March and April. There is still a lot available but the variety of apples, pears and citrus begins to shrink as early season varieties finish. South and Central America exports a lot of fruit into the U.S. at this time and while production is very low in the U.S. there are a few high points this time of year.
Here are three of my favorites:
Strawberries: Perhaps the only fruit that sees a marked increase in availability this time of year. By late March, Florida will be past peak production and demand will be filled by two of the three growing districts in California (Oxnard in the south and Santa Maria further north). The largest production areas around Watsonville will not start producing for another month or so but the active growing districts are producing enormous amounts of fruit (baring the occasional spring storm). This year we have also seen far more early availability of organically grown strawberries – something we don’t generally see until Watsonville kicks in.
Mangoes: I have often referred to mangoes as a “bridge” fruit because they seem to come on and have great flavor just as we lose a lot of my favorite apple or citrus varieties. The texture and particularly the fragrance of the fruit also remind me that apricots and peaches are not too far away. Mango harvests have just begun in Mexico and the available supply and quality this year is exceptional. In a few weeks we will also see the start of the short (but intensely sweet) Haitian mango season. I look forward to this fruit not only because I believe it to be the very best mango produced in the western hemisphere, but also because every trade dollar we return to the growers there helps provide a hand up towards improving the quality of life in that blighted nation.
Seedless Muscat Grapes: April brings us to the end of the Chilean grape season and as is the case here in the U.S., the best fruit is always the last to come off the vine. The one variety I always look forward to is the seedless Muscat. This seedless version of the centuries Old Italian Muscat is worth the wait and is only around for a few short weeks.
Sure there are lots of things to worry about this time of year: rain, wind, hail, late freezes. The spring growing season is fraught with dangers, but it is also a time of awakening and intense beauty. For me spring is a time of promise – one that grabs the imagination and compels us to see the wonders of the seasons and our world.