Thursday, November 03, 2016

2016 Texas Fruit Conference

Monday and Tuesday, I attended the 2016 Texas Fruit Conference, put on by the Texas A&M University Extension Service, now known as AgriLife Extension (which is goofy as all get-out, but whatcha gonna do?). I found out about it a few weeks ago, and as it was held in New Braunfels this year (previous years have all been in College Station) there was no way I was going to miss it. The first day's programming seemed geared more toward commercial farming and orchards, and I ended up skipping the reception in the evening to take the kids trick-or-treating, but my interest was piqued. I saw some researchers I'd only ever seen as names online, and met Dr. Larry Stein, who I'd discussed the possibility of planting Carpathian walnuts about a decade ago (the A&M research station in Uvalde was testing some blight-resistant cultivars. I eventually opted for pecan, which Stein informed me was a good choice--the resistant selections turned out to be not resistant at all, and A&M gave up on the great walnut experiment). I ended up picking up several interesting books:

The second day opened with the discussion I was most excited about, Dr. Stein's discussion on growing cold-tolerant avocados in Texas. He discussed the preferred rootstock and origins of the current Mexican-race avocados from San Antonio and South Texas that make up the bulk of the commonly available cultivars, and said that avocados in Texas are generally self-fertile enough that worrying about pairing A and B types for cross-pollination isn't necessary. He then showed that all avocados are not created equal, as some are much more fleshy than others. One example had a pit that made up maybe 80 percent of the fruit, with just a thin sheath of fruit beneath the skin. Alas, there was no objective analysis of the fruit qualities of the common Mexican types (all online sources are cut-and-paste descriptions interested only in convincing the prospective buyer that the 'cado in question puts Haas to shame). I'd have liked more objective discussion of the available cultivars, but I suppose it was a good overview. Monte Nesbitt followed with a fascinating discussion about growing olives in Texas (tempting, but I'm not going to go there), and Jim Kamas talked about growing grapes in Texas, with special emphasis on the new table grape release Victoria Red. Now I'm jazzed about putting up the pergola The Wife and I have discussed and getting some of those grapes started. Wes Mickel of Austin's Argus Cidery seemed at a bit of a loss during his talk, wandering off into a "It's really hard to grow apples in Texas, so we get ours from out of state" tangent. The Q&A rescued the section, however. I've long been interested in testing the viability of traditional cider apple types in Texas, and asked him if any work was being done with those varieties (most currently-available commercial cider is currently made from dessert apples, resulting in inferior cider). He explained there's a lot of interest in cider apple types in the coops of the Pacific Northwest, but nothing in Texas, because, again, it's hard to grow apples in Texas. Other people jumped in and the discussion moved into providing various fruit types to area distilleries, as fruit infusions are currently very popular, and the fruit used can be "ugly," with blemishes, bruises and the like which would preclude its sale to consumers. After the talk, quite a few people (myself included) gathered around Mickel to continue the discussion.

During lunch, a dozen crates filled with various pear type were set out. They all came from one of the A&M test plots and the attendees were ordered to take them all home, because the conference staff didn't want to haul them back to College Station. I've loved pears forever, and it broke my hear to leave the moonglow back at the old house, so I didn't need much convincing to scoop up a bag full to take home. I grabbed some orient, because I'd never had that type and it was recommended as a good pollinator for the moonglow. It was about the same as billed, mildly gritty, mild flavor, mild sweetness. Not great, but certainly palatable--nowhere near the sweet, juicy, smooth flesh of the moonglow. The Le Conte pears here were kind of mealy and left me unimpressed. The big surprise was the Shin Li Asian pears. I've never been much of a fan of the crunchy-crisp Asian pear types, as I've always found them to have watery flavor and apples do the whole texture better. But these, well, there was a bright, juicy pear flavor to them, with maybe a hint of pineapple. The crispness wasn't overdone. Looking back on it, I wish I'd have grabbed more of them, because they're definitely the best of the bunch.

There was also a box of various persimmons and satsumas on the registration desk. We weren't able to sample these, but they intrigued me. I'd never seen persimmons so red--they could easily have passed for tomatoes were they not marked clearly. I'm definitely going to look into Honan Red and Suruga persimmons.

Most of the time, I was seated next to Dr. Dave Byrne, an expert on rose breeding and peaches. He's a friendly guy, and confirmed that the La Feliciana I'd grown at the old house was not a good choice for this area. His discussion on peaches and stone fruit was interesting. Afterward, we had a brief discussion about the newer low-chill cherries available. He hadn't seen much about them, but wanted to get some and run some trials. The last formal presentation of the day was Tim Hartmann, who discussed growing exotic fruit. He touched on star fruit, dragon fruit and papaya, but what caught my attention was his brief detour into passion fruit territory. Whoo hoo! I wanted to talk to him more about this (turns out he grows p. edulis var. Purple Possum) but the presentations were running late by that point and the conference was almost over--and we'd yet to get to the pomegranate tasting.

Ah, the tasting! This is what I'd looked forward to more than anything else. I am a big fan of pomegranates, but have only tasted "Wonderful," and really wanted to get a sample of other cultivars before making a decision on additional types to plant in the back yard. Currently, I have sweet varieties "Austin" and "Sumbar" planted, and want to round that out with some tart varieties and maybe a sour type. Unfortunately, because of the running lateness of everything and the large number of people eager to sample the various pomegranates, I had to rush through the tasting. I didn't have an opportunity to savor them, and only jotted down my superficial impressions:

Ambrosia: Very sweet, but bland. Very bland. I'd been considering this one, but absolutely won't get it now.

Salavatski(?): This was a tough one to identify. The card looks to me like "Kala Vatsui Anor," but apparently no such pom exists. The closest I can find is Salavatski. Regardless, it had pretty red arils and was tart with a hint of sweetness. The seeds were somewhat hard.

Spanish Sweet: As its name says, it's very sweet. It also had good flavor--by far the best of the sweet poms tasted. Hard seeds.

Al-Sirin-Nar: I'd seen this one down at Fanick's in San Antonio but wasn't sure about it, as online descriptions seemed inconsistent. I found it nicely tart with moderate sweetness and good flavor. I'm inclined to get it now.

Karabala Miursal: Can't find anything about this one online. Misspelled name, perhaps? No matter. It's sweet with hard seeds, an okay flavor. Nothing special, won't be seeking it out.

Ganesh: The most common cultivar in India. Supposedly a sweet fruit with soft seeds, but this one was tart with hard seeds. Mislabeled?

Big Red: Juicy and tart, semi-soft seeds. Didn't make much of an impression.

Kara-Kalinski: Mildly sweet. I found it to have an unusual, almost apple-like flavor, very distinct for a pom. This is supposed to be a good juice variety with medium-hard seeds that have a nutty taste. I don't recall noting the seed taste, but I did hear others commenting on that aspect. This one's a possibility.

Vkusnyi: Sweet-tart taste with soft seeds. This is supposed to have a "complex" taste, but I didn't note much complexity. A long-keeping variety said to produce good juice.

Kazake: Sweet with hard seeds. Supposed to be a sweet-tart type, but I detected no tartness. Meh.

Parfianka/Garnet Sash: The reining taste-test champion, this is supposed to be the greatest, most complex pomegranate for flavor. Imagine my disappointment when I tasted watered-down Wonderful with small, soft seeds. Terribly, terribly underwhelming. Afterward, I spoke with others who'd had Parfianka before and they expressed their disappointment as well. Maybe this was just a bad crop? I dunno. This was on my must-have list, but I'm dubious now.

Sireneuyi: Bland with soft seeds. Supposed to have a "complex, sweet taste," but I found it unremarkable in every way. My least favorite of the entire tasting.

Kajacik Anor: Sweet-tart with hard seeds. Very sweet. Very tart. Really, this one is like Wonderful turned up to 11. I mean that in a good way. This was easily my favorite of the tasting--I sampled it a couple more times to be sure. This is supposed to be super-cold-hardy with long-keeping fruit. I want this one, for sure. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be commonly available. I spoke to one of the folks who works at the pomegranate testing farm, and she said she'll try to get me some cuttings when they go in to prune the plants this winter, so yay!

Guess what? They also brought out a couple boxes of pomegranates for us to take home. One box had Salavatski in it, which we didn't get to sample, and the other was a mix of random fruit from the test plot. I got a couple of the Salavatski, which is supposed to have a "sweet-tart fruity" flavor with seeds that snap in the mouth when bitten. I haven't tried one yet, but did crack open two of the smaller, unknown types. One had bad heart rot, but the other had pale, white-pink arils with a bright, sweet-tart flavor and hard seeds. It will be interesting to sample the other unknown types. I also got a copy of the tasting results. Nice to see my experience wasn't too far off the mark--apart from the people who thought Ambrosia and Vkusnyi were the best of the bunch (some folks only like sweet, apparently), my favorites, Al-Sirin-Nar and Kajacik Anor both scored highly, and Parfianka received no votes at all. Very interesting.

This being the first conference held outside of College Station, I wasn't sure how New Braunfels would compare with previous editions. I figure there were more than 150 folks in attendance, not counting the speakers. Afterward, I heard that this was the highest-attended conference they'd held thus far, so that was interesting. It might come back to New Braunfels in the future, or move around to other parts of the state. If it's nearby, I suspect I'll go again. A lot of what was presented was irrelevant to me, but a good amount of it was engaging. I'd like to see the pomegranate tasting moved to the first evening, so there's not the end-of-conference crunch to deal with, and it'd be great if additional fruits (persimmons?) could be added as well. I'd also like to see unusual/exotic fruit crops expanded on, because that's how I roll.

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