Here in California’s San Joaquin Valley, for six weeks starting in mid-February, pink and white blossoms adorn the leafless limbs of millions of trees, a floral prelude to the peaches, nectarines, and plums that will stock America’s supermarkets from May through September. And here, off a country road just west of Modesto, lies the experimental orchard of Zaiger’s Genetics. It looks like countless other farms, a cluster of buildings surrounded by rows of trees. Nothing indicates that a revolution in the taste and texture of the fruit America eats started on this land. Nothing indicates you’re about to meet—as Zaiger’s Genetics’ stationery reads—the “Family Organized to Improve Fruit Worldwide.”
I am, as even the slightest acquaintance will tell you, obsessed with the study of fruit. And so I have visited the Zaigers five times in as many years. I know that Floyd and Betty Zaiger will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year, and that their daughter, Leith Gardner, and sons Gary and Grant live nearby and actively participate in the family business. Floyd Zaiger, 74, is in my opinion our greatest modern fruit breeder. I admire his creativity and persistence. Most breeders consider themselves lucky to develop one or two successful varieties in a lifetime, but over the past two decades Zaiger has introduced three sweeping innovations: Pluots (plum-apricot crosses that most resemble plums); white-fleshed peaches and nectarines that are firm enough to ship; and new mild-flavored, low-acid yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines. He has, in fact, expanded the possibilities of fruit.
But Zaiger has also worked hand in hand with industrial-scale growers and shippers, many of whom have turned this country’s peaches and nectarines into a flavorless commodity: big, hard, red rocks. And though many of the varieties Zaiger introduced have wonderful flavor, many others are merely preternaturally sweet and so firm they crunch when you bite into one. Since when does a ripe peach go crunch?
On this chilly February morning, as I park my pickup and enter the family’s modest office, I wonder, Is Floyd Zaiger genius or accomplice?
Zaiger, a plainspoken, modest man who wears checked shirts, drives a ten-year-old car, and hunts with a bow for recreation, is still amazed that people come from all over the world to call on him. He was born in Nebraska, grew up poor in Iowa, and, at age 12, after he moved west with his family in 1938, lived in a migrant labor camp and picked strawberries. After graduating from UC Davis, he found work as a high-school teacher in Modesto, 75 miles southeast of San Francisco, and started breeding azaleas and rhododendrons.
Then, in 1956, Fred Anderson, a renowned fruit breeder who once worked for the legendary Luther Burbank, took him on as an apprentice. Zaiger quickly struck out on his own. He ran an ornamental nursery during the day to make money and at home pursued his dreams, planting experimental seedlings by moonlight.
“I’d caught the dreaded disease of fruit breeding,” he recalls.
Among Zaiger’s dreams was the desire to finish work started by Luther Burbank, one of his heroes. A century ago, Burbank, the greatest fruit breeder of his era, managed to hybridize plumcots (half plum, half apricot). But most were small and sour. They never fulfilled Burbank’s promise of a “new order of fruit.” But Zaiger’s Pluots did. His trans-species crosses are Zaiger’s Genetics’ most celebrated creations. Somehow, he succeeded where the master had failed. How did he do it?
Sitting in his office, Zaiger flips through one of the data-filled notebooks documenting some of the million or so crosses he’s made. “Breeding fruit is a game of numbers to break the links between desirable and undesirable characteristics,” he says. “The wider the cross, the greater the variability. You need to grow enough crosses so that the genes express themselves to the limit. And you need to be both extremely patient and ambitious.”
In developing the Pluot, Zaiger originally crossbred stone-fruit species, such as peaches and plums, to create new rootstocks for grafting trees, ignoring the fruits themselves. Almost all the hybrids were sterile, like mules, but Zaiger noticed that a few plum-apricot crosses bore fruit. He started saving the large, attractive, and flavorful ones, and used their genes as building blocks.
Zaiger selected the best hybrid seedlings over several generations of trees, then evaluated the results in test plantings before releasing the first commercial varieties in 1989. He trademarked them as Pluots. Compared to regular plums, which often are bland, or sour under the skin, Pluots frequently have a sweeter, richer flavor. Some varieties are a typical plum color, but others have red, green, yellow, or mottled skin and flesh; when ripe, the best, such as Flavor Supreme, Flavor King, and Dapple Dandy, are truly luscious.
Today, California grows some 3,000 acres of Pluots, less than 10 percent of the state’s plum plantings. But this portion will likely swell to 25 or even 50 percent within a decade. Once viewed as specialty items, Pluots increasingly are available at supermarkets. One major grower sells Pluots as “Dinosaur Eggs,” much to Zaiger’s annoyance, since, he maintains, he thought of the name first.
“You have to look at a fruit and see the potential 10 to 15 years down the road,” Zaiger says. “It’s like a chess game, where you need to think several moves in advance. When you finally come up with a successful variety, it’s like hitting the jackpot, but much more so, because it’s something you put heart and energy into.”
Lunchtime approaches, and Zaiger heads to the house, where the family gathers in the kitchen each day at noon. Over plates of Betty’s salmon, potatoes, and salad, they talk, like farmers everywhere, of the weather, and about work. Leith opens the refrigerator and I notice it’s filled with vials, each carefully numbered. In there, next to the mustard, lie the genes for the hot new peach and nectarine varieties of 2010. The conversation now turns to some of the wilder experimental crosses still in the Zaiger pipeline: white apricots, Nectaplums, Peacotums.... This is the family business.