2000s Archive

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

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Betty keeps track of the finances, while Gary and Grant supervise the farming of the 125-acre orchard and do preliminary evaluations of new crosses. But it’s Leith, the most ambitious and organized, who holds the title of general manager. “The boys are daredevils, excellent skiers and swimmers, but they don’t like to make judgment calls,” says Floyd. “Leith always had a special touch. She could walk up to an unruly horse that had given the boys fits and settle it down.”

It’s raining hard outside, but after doing the dishes Leith dons a long rubber coat and drives a golf cart out to the orchard to gather buds for pollen. February and March, when the actual crosses are made, are two of the family’s busiest months. She consults a list, then heads to a genetically valuable Pluot tree, identified by a number and its position in the rows. She twists off about 100 pink buds, choosing those that are at the “popcorn” stage, just before they open, and puts them in a paper bag.

“There’s a three- to five-day window of opportunity for each tree,” she says as she records her actions in a notebook, crouching to shield it from the raindrops. Once the flowers open, random pollination would skew the results of matchmaking.

When she has collected buds from a dozen trees, Leith heads into a trailer, the family’s new laboratory, and spreads them out on racks under lights to dry.

Once they’ve done so, Leith brings them to a group of workers gathered around a table in a large greenhouse. They snip the flowers into tiny pieces, then mash them in a strainer over glass bowls to extract the pollen.

Some 2,000 young trees are growing in blue plastic tubs near the greenhouse. The Zaigers’ program of mating varieties that would not naturally bloom together requires detailed choreography, as workers rotate some trees into the greenhouse for pollination and others into a cooler to delay flowering.

In the greenhouse, Floyd Zaiger watches workwomen pluck the stamens (the male flower parts) from the trees to prevent self-pollination; the thin, spiky pistils (the female parts) look a bit surreal on their own. To demonstrate the final step in the marriage of genes, Zaiger twirls an eyebrow brush in a vial of peach pollen and daubs a smidgen onto the pistils of a nectarine bride.

When such a union bears fruit, the seed is saved and planted; with some unstable crosses, the embryo within is too immature to grow by itself and must be nourished in a test tube and then transplanted to a growing medium. This standard breeding technique, embryo rescue, represents the limit of the Zaigers’ use of artificial methods. None of their hybrids result from genetic engineering. “Our hands are full already,” says Zaiger.

After planting the seeds, the Zaigers wait several years for these seedlings to bear fruit, and then repropagate the most promising ones in a full-scale orchard for evaluation. Those that don’t make the cut, get cut; many rows consist mainly of stumps.

“Fruit breeding is a combination of science and art,” Leith says. “My dad eats, breathes, and dreams fruit varieties. Me too, sometimes.”

Not everyone is thrilled with all of the brave new fruit introduced by the Family Organized to Improve Fruit Worldwide. “Fifteen years ago Floyd Zaiger said to me, ‘This is going to revolutionize the fruit industry: I can make sweet fruit hard as a rock,’” says Andy Mariani, a California grower and fruit collector who participates in trials of new Zaiger varieties. “I thought to myself, ‘Who wants to eat balsa wood impregnated with sugar?’”

Mariani, who goes out of his way to praise many of Zaiger’s Pluots and calls Zaiger’s Honey Kist nectarine superb (“It has real nectarine flavor”), prefers older stone-fruit varieties. Take, for instance, the fuzzy Pallas peach with a distinctive beak at the bottom. Developed in 1878, it has tender white flesh—so juicy it dribbles all over when you take a bite—and a rich, sweet, honey-almond flavor. “It’s as good as a peach gets,” he says.

Yet Mariani also recognizes the drawbacks of some of the varieties he loves. Of that Pallas peach, he admits, “It’s pale, it cracks easily, and it falls before it’s ripe. The only thing it has going for it is flavor. But you can’t sell flavor alone.”

And that is the problem facing someone like Floyd Zaiger. In order to become, as one grower has called Zaiger, “the most successful fruit breeder of the past 15 years,” he had to work with the forces of the marketplace. That meant delivering (in the case of peaches and nectarines) fruit that is very large, very red, and very sweet.

Ed Laivo at Dave Wilson Nursery, which licenses Zaiger varieties, observes a generational divide at the nursery’s fruit tastings: “Visitors over 35 years old prefer fruit that’s soft and juicy so that it runs down your chin,” he says. “With visitors under 35, odds are that they’ll come to their first tasting trained to expect firm fruit.”

Both a cause and a result of these expectations is the emergence of low-acid varieties. They can withstand the American distribution system’s rough handling yet deliver acceptable flavor. Old-fashioned fruit tastes tart when firm because its acidity is high; when it’s fully ripe, acidity drops, and sweet and tart come into balance. With the new varieties, however, acidity starts low and remains low, so they can be picked hard and crunchy and still taste sweet, right off the shelf.

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