Sunday, December 2, 2012

How pomegranates grow: POM Wonderful harvest tour

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Giant pomegranates

Disclosure: POM Wonderful invited me as a guest on the trip described in this post. No other money changed hands. All opinions and any factual errors are my own.

Attention food lovers: Pomegranates bigger than babies' heads are growing in California's San Joaquin valley.

POM Wonderful, the division of Los Angeles-based Roll Global that is credited with making the pomegranate an object of culinary desire in America, has figured out a way to grow its Wonderful variety pomegranates as big as grapefruits.

These mega-pomegranates are so big that POM has to send them to its juicing line. Why can't they ship the huge ones to stores? Because they haven't yet fabricated packing inserts to hold the giant pomegranates. Next year, perhaps.

How do I know this? I saw POM Wonderful's pomegranate orchards and processing facilities for myself, up close and personal, with a team from POM Wonderful and a handful of fellow food writers. First we got on this:

Our ride to the San Joaquin valley

Yes, it was my first time on a private plane. No, it was not ultra-luxurious. Yes, it was a little scary for those of us accustomed to flying on big jets. And heck yes, it was cool to see my house from 1,000 feet up.

Cozy quarters inside the POM Wonderful plane

Roll Global, which also grows almonds, pistachios and citrus, actually has more than one plane, with pilots on call during the work week. It sounds extravagant, but think about it: Their orchards are in the middle of nowhere. Their executive offices are in Los Angeles. People need to go back and forth pretty often. Commercial flights don't get close enough to the Roll operations. A few small propeller planes, combined with private landing strips at their processing facilities, actually make sense.

A fresh Wonderful pomegranate right off a tree - er, bush

Our first stop: the pomegranate orchards, up in the flat, dusty west San Joaquin valley between Bakersfield and Fresno. Pomegranates grow on bushes, really, not so much trees. And POM Wonderful has a lot of them - they're the biggest grower of fresh pomegranates in the U.S. The harvest season starts in mid-fall and finishes before Christmas. All pomegranates are hand-picked; the picking crews go through each section of the orchard multiple times, leaving the smaller fruit for the next pass.

One of the POM Wonderful ranch managers pulled off a few beauties, broke them open, and handed around sections of fresh pomegranate. The arils (edible seeds) were still cool from the desert night. They were huge, ruby-red and so juicy we were all covered with red splotches in no time.

The fresh pomegranate tasted as good as it looks

There's no denying it: Pomegranates are very, very visually appealing. Even POM Wonderful brand manager Jason Osborn, who lives, sleeps and breathes pomegranates year-round, spent a good long time taking photos of his babies.

POM Wonderful brand manager Jason Osborn snapped photos of his babies like a proud papa

As we walked through the orchards we saw bushes that were supported by long trellises. The POM Wonderful growers, like all commercial farmers, are always looking for ways to do more with less - and in the Central Valley, that means growing more fruit with less water. Water is the single most valuable resource in the west, and growers like POM Wonderful depend on it. Training the bushes on trellises may help POM's growers plant more densely without needing more water - or it may not. It's an experiment.

The interesting thing is that when you're a farmer, your "test and learn" cycle is pretty long. You don't know the true effects of your experiments for a whole season, sometimes more. The POM team says they probably won't know whether the trellises really help for five years.

[A note on Roll Global and water: The owners of the company, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, have come under fire for their water management tactics, which some say have given them an unfair advantage when it comes to crop irrigation in the western San Joaquin valley. See this 2010 article from Bloomberg Businessweek for more information on this topic. I haven't done the investigative reporting required to take sides on this issue, and I'm not planning to. Water management and allocation of water rights among big growers, small growers and residents of the Central Valley are hugely complex topics.]

A pomegranate bush loaded with fruit

We hopped back on the little plane and landed in Del Rey, where POM Wonderful processes all its pomegranates to be sold as whole fruit and juice. We were only allowed to take one picture inside the processing facility, where the company has invested in high-tech equipment and proprietary processes that let them clean, sort and package their pomegranates.

In-store display boxes waiting to be filled with ripe pomegranates

I'm fascinated with Big Ag. I must have asked plant manager Tracy Fornwalt a hundred questions as she took us around the facility, all of which she answered patiently. The fresh pomegranate processing was interesting, the POM Wonderful juice plant even more so.

One thing many people don't realize is that Roll Global was really the first company to "brand" produce. How many of your kids call those little orange fruits "Cuties" instead of "tangerines" or "clementines" or "mandarins"? It was Lynda Resnick who decided to put the name "Cuties" on their mandarins and market them directly to consumers to drive demand. And it was Lynda Resnick who pretty much singlehandedly decided that Americans needed to learn to love pomegranates and created the brand name, packaging and marketing campaigns that made it happen. If you've eaten a fresh pomegranate or drunk pomegranate juice in the U.S. within the past 10 years, chances are you've had a POM Wonderful product.

Roll is a company where marketing and branding prevail. Lynda Resnick conceived and then insisted on the signature shape of the POM Wonderful juice bottle (it looks like two stacked pomegranates, even down to the crown markings on the bottle's neck) despite the fact that this shape was significantly more difficult - and thus expensive - to fabricate, fill and pack. It was more important to her that consumers instantly recognize the bottle on the shelf. In the end, POM Wonderful opted to make its own bottles right there in the juice plant so they could control the quality and get exactly the end result they wanted. Expensive, perhaps, but POM Wonderful points out that they save money on shipping, since the bottles are made in the room next door to the bottling operation and don't have to be trucked in from another location.

The signature shape of the POM Wonderful juice bottle

We also got a peek inside the new "PomPom" facility, where POM Wonderful is extracting pomegranate arils and packaging them in ready-to-eat containers. The single-serving cups are meant for lunchboxes and come with their own spoon clipped inside the lid. And it's not just any spoon - it's a Lynda Resnick spoon, where the end is shaped like the crown of a pomegranate. Again, branding.

Extracting the pomegranate arils is fraught with peril, as the juicy little seeds burst easily under pressure. The PomPom process isn't perfected yet. They've had some spoilage challenges, and when you open a container you can see some of the seeds are smashed. Still, opening a container is a lot easier than opening a fresh pomegranate. POM Wonderful's margin is highest on the whole fruit, so the decision to sell arils is another "grow the market" strategy: Show people how delicious fresh pomegranate arils are and maybe they'll be motivated enough to do the work themselves next time.

Yeah, I'm kind of a geek when it comes to stuff like this.

Growing the market for pomegranates has also included funding a lot of scientific research, which has led POM Wonderful to make some big claims about how good pomegranates and their abundant polyphenol antioxidants are for us. These big claims, in turn, have gotten the company in hot water with the government, specifically the Federal Trade Commission, which accused the company of making false health claims about POM Wonderful in 2010. The litigation continues and POM Wonderful's ad campaigns have been adjusted, but it's clear that the company still firmly believes pomegranates offer significant health benefits.

After the tour we stopped in the on-site employee restaurant for a delicious pomegranate-laced lunch. Some of the recipes they served us, as well as many others, are available in the Recipes section of POM Wonderful's website.

Turkey sliders with pomegranate relish and cole slaw

Quinoa salad with goat cheese, mint and pomegranate

Grilled fruit with pomegranate glaze

Korean barbecue tacos with pomegranate cucumber kimchee

Do you have more pomegranate questions? How do you like to use pomegranate arils and pomegranate juice in your cooking? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.

1 comment:

Brooks at Cakewalker said...

Erika, This is a terrific travelogue...engaging from start to finish! I like the intricacies of Big Ag too. We are fortunate to live in the Golden State and have it all around us. Thank you for sharing this up close look at Pom Wonderful.

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