Paramount Farming Co. nearly dismissed growing pomegranates some 15 years ago, but today its 6,000 acres, the largest planting in the state, is feeding new markets buoyed by mounting popularity of the fruit with ties to antiquity.
Based north of Bakersfield, the company has some 120,000 acres in Kings and Kern counties, and its 25,000 acres each of almonds and pistachios make it the largest grower of those crops in the state. A separate company under the same ownership, Paramount Citrus, with upwards of 25,000 acres, is the largest citrus producer in the state.
Paramount Farming president Joe MacIlvaine is excited about the acceptance of their line of pomegranate juice products introduced last fall, as well as increased sales of fresh fruit.
Pomegranates weren't prominent in Paramount's plan when it started buying pistachio, almond, and olive orchards in 1986. An 18,000-acre parcel, known as the Dudley Ridge Ranch, near Lost Hills south of Kettleman City, was bought in 1987 from Prudential Insurance. It happened to have 100 acres of pomegranates planted in 1971.
The olives, unable to stand up to the verticillium wilt at the location, were pulled and replaced by nut crops.
“The original owner, McCarthy Land Co., planted pomegranates as an experiment, I suppose. We didn't plan on keeping them, but when we were busy with developing irrigation systems for the almonds and pistachios we didn't get around to taking the pomegranates out,” MacIlvaine said.
“That first year they made a little money, then the next year they made a little more, and then they started to look interesting. It was all fresh fruit at that point, and we planted another 200 acres. The fruit has been accepted beyond our expectations.”
By the mid-1990s the company made a commitment to the crop and started incremental plantings west of Interstate 5 that brought it to the present acreage, all in the Wonderful variety. Although other varieties exist, it has the best combination of yield and quality for the location.
The pomegranate acreage was planted, 17 feet between rows and 14 feet in the row, entirely with cuttings from the original trees grown in a nursery on the ranch.
Along the way, Paramount Farming owners Stewart and Lynda Resnick of Beverly Hills, who also own the Teleflora floral delivery network and the Franklin Mint collectibles company, saw the potential of expanding into juice production.
That took several years of focused research. “Pomegranate juice, while a fine product,” said MacIlvaine, “can be tricky to make, and we had to develop the right techniques for processing it.”
Their PomWonderful juices, in clear, 15-ounce and 24-ounce bottles stylized in the shape of the fruit, went into distribution throughout Southern California late in 2002 and will be in national retail channels by the end of this year.
In addition to 100 percent pomegranate juice, the line has mango, tangerine, blueberry, and cherry flavored versions. An 8-ounce serving contains the juice of two fruit.
As juice sales gain acceptance, supermarkets have been moving more fresh fruit. Individual stores that might have previously sold a couple of boxes per season moved as many as 200 boxes last year, according to MacIlvaine.
“This is a very small, niche crop, but we've demonstrated that stores can sell a lot more pomegranates at a good price. That and how the juice market develops will determine whether we go into additional acreage. We can't say why exactly, but it looks like this area has some uniqueness for the crop.”
Promotional campaigns key on health benefits of the juice and fruit, and ongoing medical research has shown them to contain antioxidants helpful in reducing heart disease.
MacIlvaine said their existing relationships with produce buyers for pistachios and almonds enhanced marketing of the pomegranates, which draw peak interest for eating, as well as for wreaths and other decorating, around Christmas. “COSTCO, for example, has been handling our pistachios and has also moved large amounts of the fruit. In addition to domestic sales, we export it to Pacific Rim destinations.”
The thorny trees start producing after three years, and mature trees yield more than 15 tons of fruit per acre. The best quality fruit from mature trees, typically about 700, 24-pound boxes per acre but variable by year, goes fresh and the remainder is juiced.
Ranch manager Bernard Puget says the trees are susceptible to Phytophthora and aphids and whiteflies. Pest control centers on two applications of Lannate each year, by default a minimal-use program, since it is the only product registered for the crop. They have some blocks in cover crops to encourage natural enemies of aphids, and they are experimenting with lacewing releases.
Crows and ravens peck at the base of trees, eventually girdling them, so the ranch uses a variety of alarm devices to discourage the protected birds.
Bloom of the self- and insect-pollinated trees extends from early May into July, creating multiple sets for three to five harvests during six weeks starting in early October. Cool fall nights bring on development of intense color.
“They have to be picked by hand on the basis of color and size, MacIlvaine said. “We want high color, and in some years they develop size and sweetness before they get the intense color. We've tried thinning to increase size but we have not been successful, and we've haven't found anything we can do so far that will increase color.”
The trees are topped to keep them at about 12 feet high so crews have minimal handling of ladders. They produce multiple of suckers to be removed, and bottom and side limbs that cannot support the fruit load are also trimmed.
Although drought-hardy, the trees do respond with increased size with four-acre feet of water, a bit more than the 3.5 acre feet needed for almonds and pistachios. Water is supplied, mostly by drip systems, through local districts from the California Aqueduct that flows nearby.
Fruit goes to Paramount's plant at Del Rey in Fresno County for grading and packing. Culls, along with any fruit remaining on trees at the end of the season, supply juice. A new juice plant is being built adjacent to the packing operation and is scheduled for completion in the fall.
The current juicing equipment, developed by the company after several years of experimenting, including use of a champagne press for a time, takes the whole fruit. But MacIlvaine said they are also pursuing new technology to remove the arils, the seeds laden with the tart juice, intact and perhaps developing a new fresh market for them.
A considerable amount of residue, consisting of rind, pith, and membranes, is left from processing, and he said they are testing methods of utilizing it.
Good cattle feed
“It makes pretty good cattle feed, and that's how we dispose of it after it's dried. The moisture content is about 80 percent after the pressing, so getting it dry is the issue. We tried making silage from it, but it was too wet.”
Although pomegranates are enjoying a new interest with consumers, they have shown up as symbols throughout history. Notable examples are the ancient Greeks considering them a favorite food of the gods; depictions of the fruit in architecture and clothing of King Solomon's era; Eve offering Adam a pomegranate, not an apple, in the Garden of Eden; and European coats of arms decorated with the pomegranate shape.