Potatoes, almonds, paw paws, oh my!
PARMA, Idaho — Idaho: home of the world-famous Russet potato. Soon to be joined by persimmons, pistachios, pawpaws, quinces, and mulberries, if Esmaeil Fallahi has his way.
Fallahi, a University of Idaho professor who works at the school's research center in Parma, has been the state's fruit guru for almost 20 years, working on everything from improving apple irrigation to finding the best way to thin a plum tree.
Now, Fallahi wants to give the agriculture industry in a state best known for its pedestrian potatoes, onions and sugar beets a little more sex appeal.
Fallahi's lab is researching "alternative fruits" — those that traditionally haven't been grown in a region — that might have potential in Idaho. They could be as simple as a Fuji apple, where the traditional crop might be red delicious, or as exotic as a jujubi, a medicinal plant that grows in India, Pakistan and Fallahi's native Iran.
"Bring in a mulberry. Label it a 'Black Persian Mulberry.' People go crazy!" he said. "There is a huge urge for new things, for trying new tastes — a curiosity and urge for something different."
Fallahi's hoping these fruits can grow into big bucks for Idaho farmers.
Fallahi grew up on a 1,000-acre fruit farm in Iran, and when he arrived, he was immediately struck by the similarities between the growing conditions in Iran and Idaho. People don't realize it, he said, but most of Iran is less Middle Eastern desert than it is mountainous farmland.
The mountains, the soil and water acidity, the climate in Idaho — they all reminded him of home. Idaho's warm days and cool nights work to concentrate the flavor in fruits, making it a prime place to experiment with crops.
So, Fallahi thought, why not try to grow the same fruits here?
He started working in the early 1990s with different varieties of fruits already grown in Idaho, such as pluots — a halfbreed of traditional plums and apricots — doughnut peaches, and table grapes instead of wine grapes.
Table grapes are about a $3 million industry in Idaho, and are growing by leaps and bounds — the head of the Idaho Table Grape Association expects them expand into a $20 million industry within a few years.
As his first projects have begun to take off, Fallahi is starting to branch out farther. He's eyeing Asian pears as the next table grape, and then, he hopes, persimmons will have their day in the sun.
"We're not going to go citrus or dates here. We're not that extreme," he said. "But we like to experiment."
The state Department of Agriculture doesn't track how many farmers are growing alternative crops, but even if they did, they're being grown on such a small scale right now that they wouldn't account for much, department officials say.
But the department is pushing for more farmers to phase these plants into their orchards in the future, to hedge their bets against frost or a weak market, said Leah Clark, who heads a marketing program to promote Idaho products.
"Maybe the apple crop is poor, but maybe the quince crop or the Asian pear or the pluot is great," Clark said. "Having diversity just allows you to manage your risk."
And these funky fruits fill their own economic niche.
As Idaho agriculture continues to concentrate more and more in industries like dairy or sugar beets, where economies of scale play an important role, small farmers are squeezed out, said Garth Taylor, an agricultural economist with the university.
But specialty fruits can be grown in a someone's backyard, or on the ranchettes that are filling up subdivisions all over southeast Idaho. And their exotic qualities can fetch high prices at local farmer's markets: Asian pears can sell for over a dollar per pear at farmer's markets, Fallahi says.
"They're not gonna take over milk. Those small specialty crops — they're quite a drop in the bucket, as compared to our big crops," Taylor said. "They're just going to give smaller farmers a chance to make a living off increasingly expensive land."
The next step, Fallahi says, is to clear a path for these fruits to take off. Table grapes and different peach varieties are one thing, he says — but hand someone a hard, lumpy quince, and they won't know what to do with it.
Fallahi is working with the university's extension office on putting together a fruit education campaign, to teach people that quinces make for great jams and stews, and persimmons can be used for baking, or dried for a snack.
"When kiwis first came to the market, people didn't know how to eat them either," he said. "Now, they love them."
Ron Mann, 73, used to grow all the traditional crops — apples, plums and cherries — on his 35-acre orchard in north Payette. But after watching Idaho's apple and plum markets crumble from the competition of countries like China, he said, he started looking for other options.
He's turned to chestnuts, which he sells to organic stores for $3.00 or $3.50 per pound.
"Little guys like me, we can't compete (on apples)," he said. "We can compete big time with chestnuts. We can compete, and beat the daylights out of 'em, and keep the farmers on the farm. That's what it's all about."