Tastes Good, Like Veggies and Fruit in a Drought Should

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Guess what happens when you take the water out of fruit? Well, after four years of drought, Californians don’t have to guess.

“Whenever there is a drought, flavor compounds can become more dominant and foods can have more pungency,” Irwin Goldman, a horticulture professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Time magazine. “Most plants that have high moisture content will now have sharper flavors, like peppers and tomatoes.”

Goldman told that to Time reporter Alexandra Sifferlin—in July 2012. Better flavor did not serve as sufficient inspiration for farmers, who use 80% of California’s water, to experiment much with using less of it. But having less water might.

Mother Jones wrote about a study (pdf) this week from researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) who grew the Wonderful variety of pomegranate trees using “deficit irrigation” on experimental farmland south of Fresno. After two years of up to 35% less water, the fruit “tasted sweeter because there's less dilution,” USDA soil scientist Gary Banuelos said. “The sugary taste is enhanced because there's less water.”

The fruit were smaller and more were cracked. But the overall crop yield was not affected and in some instances increased. There was no loss of healthful antioxidants. But pomegranates are not peaches. They are an ancient fruit grown in arid and semi-arid regions around the world. The USDA considers them “extremely drought tolerant.”   

Mother Jones called the study a “rare piece of good drought news,” meaning this isn’t happening much, in academia or the marketplace.

Geoffrey Mohan at the Los Angeles Times did a Q&A with Fresno-adjacent farmer David “Mas” Masumoto about the “organic, ugly, fabulous” Gold Dust peaches and Rose Diamond nectarines he grows employing sustainable methods that use up to 50% less water.

Masumoto was as passionate about insisting that size doesn’t matter as he was about environmentalists brainwashing the public into thinking farmers use 80% of the state’s water. (“It’s 80% of the developed water.” Masumoto favors counting water used by nature; slicing that number in half.)

Marketing his tinier products remains a challenge as he searches for consumers with loftier values. “We're calling them petite peaches, because if I called them drought-tolerant peaches, or water-deprived peaches, it doesn't sound the same,” Masumoto said.

Correspondingly, farmers using conventional growing methods do not call their products extra-heavy, water-sodden, tasteless, mutant fruit and vegetables. “Size is just driving it all,” Masumoto said. “We don't think of that in terms of what it’s costing us. What are we paying for to get that size? And I contend that a lot is water.”  

Smaller size isn’t good for the seller of a product sold by the pound. But 35% water savings is a lot and might change the calculus.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

The California Drought Is Making Some Fruit Taste…Better?! (by Maddie Oatman, Mother Jones)

Why California's Drought-Stressed Fruit May Be Better for You (by Sasha Khokha, KCRW)

Farmer David “Mas” Masumoto’s Drought Insight: Less Water Yields More Flavorful Peaches (by Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times)

Are Your Fruits and Veggies Bursting with Flavor? Thank the Drought (by Alexandra Sifferlin, Time)

Deficit Irrigation: Is It Impacting Yield and Nutritional Quality of Fruits? (by Tiziana Centofanti, Gary Banuelos, Christopher M. Wallis and James E. Ayars, California State University Fresno) (pdf)

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