Pomegranate phenomenon: Most of America’s supply of this popular fruit comes from Kings County. What makes it so hot?
Kevin Badasci stands next to pomegranates harvested from his 26-acre ranch Thursday afternoon.(Apolinar Fonseca/The Sentinel)

The harvest is over.

For the Badascis, it's time to start squeezing the glistening ruby red juice out of the year's pomegranate crop.

As October came to a close, the family was undertaking a messy, laborious process to meet the local demand for the upcoming holiday season and beyond.

"Almost everything we do now is juice," said Kevin Badasci, a partner in the family farm business, as he incessantly wiped and buffed each leathery-skinned, softball-sized fruit to a shine at the back of his ranch house east of Hanford. "That's how people want it."

This time of the year, the Badascis gets 10 to 12 phones calls a day asking for pomegranate juice.

The Hanford family has done this for 20 years "as a hobby," said Penny Badasci, Kevin's mother and a business owner.

"We've always liked pomegranates. It's easy to grow and harvest," she said. "And they are a really healthy fruit."

The word is now catching on.

From Beverly Hills to Manhattan, pomegranates are now the hottest commodity. Packed with antioxidants, pomegranates — a fruit of ancient origin marked with its scarlet leathery skin and turreted crown reminiscent of the Star of David — is flying off supermarkets shelves.

On their northeast Hanford ranch, the Badascis grow about 26 acres of this popular high-value fruit. It's a drop in the bucket in today's burgeoning pomegranate industry.

The true success story lies 20 miles to the west toward the hills, where Paramount Farms — the nation's largest fruit and nut operation — grows about 13,000 acres of pomegranates.

As J.G. Boswell has with cotton, Paramount has created a sprawling pomegranate empire.

Over the past five years, the company has more than doubled the size of its pomegranate orchards, which now stretch many miles west of Interstate 5 between Kettleman City and Lerdo Highway in Kings and Kern counties. About a third of the acreage is within Kings.

Almost all of the nation's commercial pomegranate crop comes from the Valley's west side, and Kings County sits right at the epicenter.

Pomegranate craze

Back in 2000, only 4 percent of Americans had actually tasted pomegranates.

POM Wonderful — Paramount's sister brand that sells pomegranate juice in hourglass-shaped bottles — has changed all that.

Since the debut of the juice in 2000, backed with an aggressive marketing campaign, the pomegranate's popularity has exploded.

"It's such a versatile fruit, and it's also a very healthy fruit," said Pam Holmgren, POM Wonderful spokeswoman. "There's nothing else healthy that also tastes good."

Pomegranates are turned into a wide array of food products, such as tea, salad dressing, vodka, jelly — plus an avalanche of non-edibles such as soap, lotion, body wash and lip balm.

According to Mintel, a market research firm in Chicago, a total of 251 new pomegranate products hit the U.S. market during the past two years.

The popularity of all pomegranate-related products has sparked the success of POM Wonderful juice, said Lynn Dornblaser, a senior level analyst at Mintel.

"It's an example of one product really spurring the whole trend," Dornblaser said.

Besides its exotic appeal, pomegranates' popularity is also based on the recent shift in terms of how healthy benefits are communicated to consumers, she said.

"In the past, we heard the negatives. We heard about the fat and cholesterol, but the shift we've seen is the presence of the positive — vitamins, calcium and something that's inherently rich in nutrients," she said. "That's where pomegranates come in."

During a recent conversation, officials at the Sonoma-based Pomegranate Council, an organization barely 10 years old, talked about the success of the industry.

"We've had a lot of fun with it," said Tom Tjerandsen, president of the Pomegranate Council. "Our challenge was moving the consumption from 5 percent to 7 percent, trying to get a broad spectrum of consumers."

Juice producer Odwalla currently markets eight beverage products containing pomegranates. That's up from three in January 2006, said Carlos Pagoaga, spokesman with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which owns the Odwalla juice brand.

"They have met our expectations," Pagoaga said. "We'll continue to expand the selection of items containing pomegranate in response to consumer surveys and demand."

But the popularity of the fruit goes beyond food items.

"We've had pomegranate products for four years. Pomegranate is by far the most popular fragrance," said Danielle Flores, U.S. spokeswoman for Australia-based MOR Cosmetics, one of the first cosmetics companies to capitalize on the pomegranate craze.

The company sells a full line of bath products with pomegranate fragrance.

"It's hydrating and refirming to your skin. More and more people are looking for something natural and healthy," Flores said. "For our end, pomegranate is great because a) it's good for you; b) it smells great; and c) it's pretty."

History of pomegranate

The fruit originated in Persia, where they have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years. The vibrant red dye used in the making of Persian rugs come from pomegranates.

In many ancient cultures, pomegranates represented love, beauty and prosperity. According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, planted the fruit on earth. Pomegranates are mentioned prominently in the Bible: King Solomon had an orchard of pomegranates; and the high priest of the day wore robes embroidered with images of the fruit.

When allowed to grow naturally, the bushy trees can grow to 25 feet high. The trees blossom in the spring, and the bright orange-red flowers yield to red bell-shaped fruits covered with red leathery skin. Inside is a mass of glistening garnet seeds filled with juice.

Fresh pomegranates are in stores from August to December, but their availability peaks in October and November, just in time for the holiday season.

There is an art to cutting open a fresh pomegranate, which is best done under water.

First, cut off about half an inch off the top (crown). Do this in a large bowl of cold water. Then make a shallow cut in the pomegranate skin and repeat the process until you have five evenly spread cuts. While holding the fruit under water, pull the fruit apart and gently push out the seeds with your fingers (holding it under water will minimize the chance of squirting juice).

The seeds (called arils) will sink to the bottom and any membrane and pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith and drain the water by pouring into a sieve. The arils are then ready for use.

Health benefits

What made this once anonymous fruit so popular is the refreshing winey flavor of its juicy seeds as well as its health benefits.

Behind the secret of health benefits is that red purplish color, according to Elizabeth Applegate, director of sports nutrition at UC Davis and a leading expert in antioxidants' health benefits.

"The compound which gives the deep color often seen in fruits such as red cabbage, blueberries and pomegranates have quite a few potential health benefits." Applegate said. "Research encourages us to incorporate more red, purplish color into our diet."

It's ellagic acid, a naturally occurring plant phenol antioxidant also found in strawberries, that gives that rich color to pomegranates.

What's more, she said, the fruit contains a compound to repel parasites and fungus.

"It's the fruit's natural protective mechanism that we benefit from," she said.

Antioxidants can potentially lessen the level of bad cholesterol, known as LDL, and also have a relaxing effect on blood vessels. It's good news for people with heart disease and high blood pressure.

The health benefits of antioxidant are a growing area of research because of their implications to many age-related conditions, including Alzheimer's disease.

Still, pomegranates are no fruit panacea, Applegate said.

"We can't say that if you eat pomegranates every day, you're going to live until 110. Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of information," she said.

New opportunity

Meanwhile, the pomegranate's popularity shows no sign of slowing down.

Smaller growers are jumping onto the pomegranate bubble bandwagon, trying to carve a share for themselves.

For example, Tony Azevedo, farm manager of Stone Land Company of Stratford, has planted 60 acres of the Wonderful variety this spring on the west side, and plans to add 140 acres more next spring.

"We're looking for an alternative to wheat and cotton," Azevedo said.

Azevedo sees a window of new opportunity in the exploding popularity of the fruit, but there's a practical side to the undertaking.

"It's pretty easy to farm compared with, say pistachios, which we also grow," he said. "I did a couple of years of research before we planted. This fruit really has no pest problem."

Charles Meyer, another Stratford farmer, said it's a matter of survival.

He, too, is looking to diversify his 3,000-acre operation, which has traditionally been cotton and wheat. Meyer hasn't planted any trees yet, but has a plan to plant 36 acres of the fruit in March.

"Cotton has not been doing well economically, but pomegranates have been doing well," Meyer said. "We need to try something that pays the bills."

Meyer also knows that the fruit grows well in the climate and soil of the west side.

"I've had pomegranates in my backyard for years. They bear a lot of fruit each year, but I never paid attention to them until recently," Meyer said. "Ornamental bushes grow really well here, so I thought I'd give it a try."

There's a sizable number of growers in Kings County, like Azevedo and Meyer, who plant pomegranates but, apart from Paramount Farms, they are usually small acreages.

Meyer's hope is accompanied by fear for the pomegranate market, which is dominated by a giant like Paramount.

"I don't know if we'll have a glut, but I do have a concern about the monopoly they might try to gain," Meyer said. "With the influence they have on the market, they could squeeze out small farmers like us."

The next big thing

The ambitious Pomegranate Council thinks the pomegranate has yet to fulfill its potential.

Despite the success, the work is far from over, said Tjerandsen.

"We've still got a great deal of work to do," Tjerandsen said. "We want to not only promote the fruit domestically, but also build an international market for pomegranate."

Market researchers like Dornblaser say pomegranates' potential is still strong, but this superfruit already has its rivals.

"I think as you can see by the number of products introduced into the market, pomegranate has a lot of potential which is still quite strong," Dornblaser said. "But there are other fruits with exotic appeals that are becoming popular as well. They might dim the popularity of pomegranate in the future."

The two latest super antioxidant fruits soaring in demand today are Acai (pronounced Ah-sigh-ee), purple palm berries grown in Brazil; and Goji berries from the Himalayas, according to Dornblaser.

Acai faces a couple of challenges, however.

It has even a stronger taste than pomegranate, and the supply is limited because it is only grown in Brazil. Goji berries also have their own share of supply issues, Dornblaser said.

"Pomegranate still has the unmatched power to infiltrate into all parts of the industries," she said.

The reporter can be reached at 582-0471, ext. 3059.

(Nov. 4, 2007)

Recommended for you

Load comments