Tropical Fruit in San Francisco?
Just a quick look at the produce displayed at The Guacamole Farm stand on the western side of the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market should be enough to make you wonder where their produce comes from?! Throughout the year, you'll predictably find many varieties of avocados (Haas, Zutano, Bacon, etc.), depending on what variety is in season. Avocados, after all, are the namesake of The Guacamole Farm. But you'll also find an exotic assortment of tropical fruits including cherimoyas, starfruit, sweet limes, kumquats, fresh macadamia nuts, guavas, pomellos, persimmons and sapote. Most of these tropical fruits don't grow in the northern California. So how and why do we find them at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market every Saturday?
Mike Dempster drives them up from his father's farm 65 miles northeast of San Diego! On a year-round basis, he makes the 8-hour, 1,500-mile journey every other week to bring up a 2-week supply of whatever is ripe. It's a lonely and grueling drive, but Mike has been doing it on a part-time basis since 1987 and on a full-time basis since 1992. He's dedicated to helping his father earn enough income to sustain the farm.
Dreaming of Retirement
In the early 1970's Larry Dempster, Mike's father, saw the idyllic retirement life his friend was leading as a gentleman farmer in San Diego and decided to acquire 40 acres of land in Fallbrook. Following his friend's footsteps, he immediately planted 2,000 avocado trees with the intent of retiring there himself one day. Twenty-seven years later, Larry still hasn't retired and lives full-time in the Bay Area. He leaves the farm work to hired hands. Although the farm is thriving, the property still has no house on it and in the intervening 27 years Larry has decided not to retire down there because it's too much work. But he still loves to visit his grove and to have a hand in tending the trees when he has time.
Diversifying from Avocados
When the initial planting of avocado trees began bearing fruit, Larry sold all the produce to packers. However, avocado trees proved to be unpredictable producers. As Larry was soon to learn, an avocado tree does not reliably produce fruit every year. Some years it produces in abundance and other years it produces no fruits or fruits too small to sell to packers.
So as the initial plantings began dying off, he decided to diversify, gradually replacing the dead trees with exotic tropicals, which he found to be well-suited to the hot climate in Fallbrook. The Guacamole Farm is now home to 35 varieties of tropical fruits.
The diversification meant that he was no longer producing the types and quantities of fruits of interest to packers and had to find other outlets for his fruit. The emergence of farmers' markets provided an ideal outlet for the small quantity of his exotic produce, but it also meant finding a way to sell at the markets since most farmers' markets require that produce be sold by the grower or family members and he had another full-time job. Fortunately, his family members (all Bay Area residents) were ready volunteers - Mike now covers 3 markets: Marin, the Ferry Plaza, and the Civic Center while Larry's wife and daughter cover the Pleasanton and Walnut Creek markets.
Don't Miss the Macadamia Nuts and Cherimoyas
Avocados are still primarily what you'll find at The Guacamole Farm stand every week, imparting a benchmark dark green glow to Mike's stand. But interspersed among the avocados, you'll find small baskets of complimentary accent colors: bright orange kumquats, light yellowish-green sweet limes, and burnt orange blood oranges. Among the most "exotic" items are fresh, unshelled light brown macadamia nuts (the size of ping-pong balls) and light green cherimoyas (the size of softballs).
Growing macadamia nuts is probably the easiest part of the process that brings this nut to your table. The trees take very little tending and the nuts naturally fall to the ground in the late fall and winter when they are ripe. They are easily gathered from the ground and dried. Then the hard part begins. A tough outer shell harbors the nut and cracking the shell takes a small hammer. Fortunately, with a sharp hit, the shell makes a clean break and liberates this crown jewel of the nut family. Unfortunately, Mike sells only unshelled nuts -- so caveat emptor.
Cherimoyas, on the other hand are easy to get into. Beneath a leathery green skin, you'll find a succulent white-flesh that has a custard-like creaminess. A cherimoya can be turned into an ethereal fruit salad dessert when combined with fresh strawberries and served with a glass of demi-sec champagne.
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