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Exotic Fruits: A Small-Scale Agriculture Alternative

Published January 1989

United States Department of Agriculture
Cooperative State Research Service
Office for Small-Scale Agriculture

Certain potentially high-demand tropical or other exotic fruits growing in Florida or California also have varieties that will bear fruit farther north. But potential small-scale northern enterprisers should not buy seeds or seedlings from anyone until checking them out carefully with a horticulturist at their county or State Extension office.

Even in Florida, which produces many kinds of exotic fruits, there are a few unscrupulous promoters who try to market unsuitable tropical fruit tree. "Enthusiastic amateurs," says Dr. Robert J. Knight, Jr., of a Florida branch of the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), may unwittingly buy cultivars of fruits such as rambutan (Nephelium lapaceum), durian (Durio zibethinus), and others with no chances of success producing fruit commercially in that State.

The growing demand for specialty fruits in most large cities means skilled small-scale entrepreneurs may compete with strong competitors from New Zealand and Central and South America if they select varieties carefully and master their marketing homework. The fruits discussed here may come from many parts of the world. Most aren't commercially feasible in the United States other than parts of Florida, California, or Texas and sometimes in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

However, there is a move along a southern belt of South Carolina and on the west to risk planting some hardier varieties of fruits such as kiwi. But the kiwi situation is "very iffy, commercially," according to L. D Holmes, whose 16 acres may be the biggest kiwi orchard in the east that is north of Florida. He has at least $160,000 invested in trellises and irrigation equipment for the Hayward variety. So far, too many freezes have cost him too many crops to consider his acreage a success.

He markets through Seald Sweet Growers, Inc., with headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Kirk McCreary of Seald Sweet says marketing is not easy because the firm is not able to get enough volume to supply most chain stores. And the competition from California is formidable.

Dr. Judith Caldwell (Department of Horticulture, Clemson University, Clemson SC 29631) and Janice McGuinn, Extension agent in Charleston County, are still wary about recommending investments in kiwi vines in their State. They also note that prospects for controlled atmosphere storage are in the offing, which could make California producers even more competitive.

Frieda Caplan, U.S. pioneer in marketing the kiwi fruit (also once known as Chinese gooseberry) in the early 1960's notes that kiwi was not an overnight success. Caplan, founder of the Los Angeles family specialty produce firm known as Frieda's Finest, said it took 14 years for her and other marketers and growers to acquaint food journalists and consumers with the fruit and another 6 years to reach the point where California kiwi growers have 11,000-plus acres.

Despite the fact that U.S. per capita fruit consumption has been rising, the experts caution any small-scale entrepreneur who might want to emulate kiwi success and launch some other little known fruit, such as the feijoa.

"For other specialties to develop like kiwi fruit has," Kaplan told a trade publication writer, "growers must know how to manage their crops so that they can achieve a reasonable profit even at lower prices."

While some fruits do well in one State and not in another, a few, like the feijoa, a native of South America, have also been adopted successfully by New Zealanders, Floridians, and Californians. With some protection, it too can be cultivated farther to the north; but according to latest reports it hasn't, possibly because damaging fruit flies love it so.

U.S. growers have an advantage over overseas producers in that many fresh fruits are barred from entry in the United States because of the fruit fly problem. Many fruits may be imported from some countries or the State of Hawaii only if frozen or processed, as in puree. If frozen, they are given an initial quick-freezing at sub-zero temperatures, with subsequent storage and transport at no higher than 20 degrees F.

Market experts emphasize that growers must understand how to harvest, pack, store, and transport their crop so the consumer will receive a product of high quality 7 to 10 days after harvest. Retailers must not experience excessive spoilage or moisture loss while displaying new items. All know customer satisfaction is the key to repeat sales.

Talk With Marketers

Potential growers of any fruit are advised to talk with retailers and intermediate marketers before starting to produce.

Entrepreneurs actually growing quality fruit can contact marketers such as the mail-order house known as Bear Creek Operations, Inc. (P. O. Box 9000, Medford, OR 97501); Caplan (P. O. Box 58488, Los Angeles, CA 90058), or Roland Chicas, Chicas and Associate (P. O. Box 788, New York, NY 10035), a New York specialty-produce distributor looking for a few good exotic fruit producers.

For other marketing ideas, growers might also check information from Dr. Booker T. Whatley, or Nancy Lee Bentley. Whatley produced the book, "How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres." (Rodale Institute, 222 Main St., Emmaus, PA 18049. $17.95 softcover, $24.95 hardcover.) And Bentley authored "Windows of Opportunity: The Market for Specialties and Organics." ( The Food Circle, P.O. Box 62, Cabery, IL 60919. $25.) A useful book, possibly found in some libraries, is "Handbook of Tropical and Subtropical Horticulture," published by the Department of State in 1970.

In selecting marketable fruits, potential producers should check with their local Extension agents on what to grow. Floridians, for example, will know that some Asian fruits with "no possibility of serious cultivation in Florida," as Knight noted, are breadfruit (Artocarpus communis), mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana L.), pulasan (Nephelium mutabile), and probably rambi (Baccaurea dulcis), duku, tampoi, and champedak (Artocarpus interger).

In Puerto Rico, on the other hand, bread fruit may well have great commercial potential, and mangosteen and rambutan can also thrive, according to Ismael Reyes Soto of the University of Puerto Rico. Other tropical fruits in order of potential in Puerto Rico, he says, are guanabana or soursop (Annona muricata L. ); Jobo de la India (Spondias dulcis-Parkinson ); quenepa, also known as quenep, kenep, mamon, mamoncillo, limoncillo, and in English, Spanish lime (Melicoccus bijugalus- Jacq. of Melicocca bijuga, L.); nispero, also known as sapote, chicozapote, chile, sapotillo, zapote colorado, and naseeberry (Manilkara sapotilla Gilly); and tamarindo. He also has a list of others possible potential importance.

To compete with big Florida and California growers now dominating tropical fruit production, growers elsewhere must study matters other than market potential. They may also have to form, or at least join, a marketing cooperative for the advantage of being able to market enough to interest chain stores, which buy in large lots.

Tropical Reference

Potentially saleable fruits of the tropics number in the hundreds. One major reference, the 247-page Perennial Edible Fruits of the Tropics: An Inventory, by Franklin W. Martin, Carl W. Campbell, and Ruth M. Ruberte, desciribes many. (The handbook, available at some libraries, may be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, for $12 plus 94 cents for the fourth postage.)

Timely sources of information include the rare fruit councils. The Rare Fruit Council International, Inc., of Florida publishes an 8-page monthly newsletter from 13609 Old Cuttler Road, Miami, FL 33158.

The California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc., at Fullerton Arboretum, California State of University, Fullerton, CA 92634, has about a dozen chapters and 2,600 members.

Another data source is the specialty crop program of Claude Sweet of the Horticulture Department of Mira Costa College. One Barnard Drive, Oceanside, CA 92506. Sweet authored the 96-page All About Citrus & Subtropical Fruits, published in 1985 by Ortho Books, 6001 Bollinger Canyon Roas, Bldg. TB 120, San Ramon, CA 94583. (It costs $7.95, including postage, plus State tax if any.) It tells how to grow more than a dozen subtropical fruits, and includes a chapter on container plantings for northern growers.

Sweet also is building a national computer data base on plants, especially the tropicals. He has considerable data stored, and hopes to collect marketing data so growers can compare profit and risk potentials of various crops.

Exotics of Potential

Alphabetical according to scientific name so as to reduce confusion, below are tropical or 'exotic' fruits that certain distributors might handle.

Annona Cherimola Mill. ("Cherimoya" in English; "anon" and "chirimoya" in Spanish.) A high-value crop, it demands great management skill to produce the uniformly shaped, high quality fruit the market demands. Grading and packing requires full attention. It must be handled gently and properly stored to reach the consumer good shape. Production id likely to be confined to California.

Annona squamosa x A. cherimola. ("Atemoya" in English and Spanish.) Atemoyais a hybrid cross developed by Floridians as an alternative to the Cherimoya. Just coming into production in Florida, it may have good potential, according to Dr. Campbell, tropical fruits specialist for the Florida Extension Service with the University of Florida. It is one of few exotic fruits sold by mail order.

Annona squamosa. ("Sugar apple" or "sweetsop" in English; "anon," "rinon," or "anona blanca" in Spanish.) Sugar apple may have only local commercial production potential but may be useful for home gardens in hot tropical lowlands. It will survive a light frost.

Averrhoa carambola L. ("Caramola" in English and Spanish, and also "starfruit " in English.) Carambola acreage is growing in Florida, according to USDA Scientist Knight. A tree will bear fruit two or three times a year. Some see it as the next kiwi.

Calocarpum sopota Merr. ("Mamey sapote" in English or Spanish.) The Campbell book says this is one of the most notable and talked about fruits, with a rich and distinctive flavor. Its popularity grows in Florida.

Casimiroa edulis La Llav. et Lex. ("White sapote" in English and "zapote, matasano, sapote blanco" in Spanish.) While very perishable, the taste and flavor of white sapote compares well with the cherimoya. It is more adaptable to California that to Florida, tolerates a variety of soil conditions, seasonal dry periods, and frost.

Feijoa sellowiana Berg. This pineapple guava, Caplan says, has potential "much smaller" than that of the kiwi.

Litchi chinensis Sonn. ("Lychee" or "litchi" in English and "lichi" in Spanish.) Although this fruit is very perishable, it can command a premium price. Domestic varieties bear irregularly in Florida; new ones brought from Australia and Hawaii by Miami researcher Ed Johnston of the Fairchild Tropical Garden's Tropical Fruit Program may be better.

Passiflora adulis Sims or Pasiflora edulis Sims f. flavicarpa Deg. (The first is "purple passion fruit" and the second is "yellow passion fruit." in Spanish, both are named "maracuya," "granadilla," or "parcha.") Demand rises; purple passion fruit promises much to California but not to Florida, where the mean temperature is too high. Disease-resistant varieties are needed.

Psidium guajava L. ("Guava" or "common guava" in English and "guayaba" in Spanish.) Guava is highly perishable. Growers need varieties that are tastier and can be marketed with proper promotion.

Tamarillo. Grown in a limited way in California, Tamarillo does poorly in humid, hot areas like Florida. It merits consumer education.

Health, Labor Problems

All fruits, of course, require much work to keep vines or trees healthy. Then, there is the problem of harvesting hands. They are not easily found, but migrant labor can sometimes be available through a larger organization that a grower cooperative.

To keep up with fruit prices, operators may want to check with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Its Fruit and Vegetable Division has a Market News Branch, headed by W. H. Crocker, Room 2503-S, AMS, USDA, Washington, D.C. 20250. AMS may be able to provide a recent listing from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York of latest prices for certain fruits regularly supplied. To calculate what the farmer's price will be, deduct 30 percent from the quoted price, Caplan advises.

USDA's National Agricultural Library (NAL, Beltsville, MD 20705) has a Reference Division that can provide a bibliography of information about fruits.

Another source for a bibliography is the Produce Marketing Association (PMA, 1500 Casho Mill Road, Newark, DE 19714-6036).

To help growers, shippers, carriers, and receivers learn the standards and to reduce postharvest losses and expand the markets for highly perishable, high-value fruits (and vegetables), the Export Services Branch of USDA's Office of Transportaion (410 McGregor Building, Washington, DC 2025-4500) has a Tropical Products Transport Handbook available at no charge. A Spanish version also is available.

by George B. Holcomb of the Office of Information, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for USDA's Office for Small-Scale Agriculture (Howard W. Kerr, Jr., Program Director).

Mention of commercial enterprises or brand names does not constitute endorsement or imply preference by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Published January 1989

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