The makeshift tram came to a halt in the orchard, the visitors jumped off and scurried to the tree, picked yellow-tinged plums and sank their teeth into them. They munched thoughtfully, some taking note of hints of cinnamon or level of acids, others silently marking evaluation sheets.
"This is the Disneyland of fruits," said Robert Mizuno as he eased back onto the padded plywood benches pulled by a souped-up golf cart and bound for the next tree.
Mizuno, a Reedley fruit grower who runs a fruit stand in Clovis, was at Zaiger's Genetics test orchard in Modesto recently for a taste evaluation of hybrid stone fruits. Led by patriarch and pioneer of modern fruit crosses Floyd Zaiger, the company has been turning out fruit for a half-century, including the occasional novelty mashup, such as the pluot, a cross of plum and apricot.
Zaiger, 85, is one of the world's leading commercial fruit breeders, working to produce not only attention-grabbing interspecies crosses, but varietal hybrids that yield improved taste, color, texture and marketability.
Zaiger is one of a handful of private and university breeders painstakingly creating better and new fruits and nuts for the worldwide growing, packing, shipping and processing industry over at least half a century.
Picking up where Luther Burbank left off, the business is different from gene splicing, relying on hand-pollination for controlled production of hybrids. "Breeding fruit is like playing cards," said Tom Gradziel, a UC Davis geneticist and plant breeder. "You keep reshuffling the deck, and looking at how they come out. There are about 100,000 genes to play with."
Zaiger has been in the card game longer than almost anyone. A 1952 graduate of UC Davis, he planted his first hybrids in the moonlight with his wife, Betty, about 51 years ago at their farm in Modesto. A high school ag teacher at the time, Zaiger had to pursue his hobby of hybridizing azaleas, rhododendrons and fruit trees at night.
"I caught the dreaded disease," said Zaiger of his passion for crossbreeding. His addiction has brought more than 100 fruit and nut varieties to market, a process that typically takes anywhere from seven to 15 years of cross-pollination and tweaking.
Zaiger works with his daughter, two sons and a few grandkids in the orchard. They basically find plants that are genetically compatible, emasculating one and pollinating it with the other and waiting to see if desirable traits of both are expressed.
"We pray a lot," Zaiger said. He said the process is different from the more controversial technique of genetic engineering, where genes are directly inserted into plant cells by humans. "We do it the hard way, because of public acceptance. The consumer is the dictator."
Hybridization occurs in nature when fruit trees are pollinated by a flower of another tree, typically when honeybees carry the pollen from flower to flower. Most of the time the progeny of these mixes are not productive or useful. But Zaiger's Genetics takes the process further, re-crossing the hybrid back to one of the parents or with another tree, adding years to a process that sometimes produces a tastier, juicier or otherwise improved fruit.
"We grow about 50,000 seedlings and may have five that become commercial varieties every year," said Leith Gardner, Zaiger's daughter. "It becomes a numbers game. The more seedlings you can grow, the better chance at potential of something that can become a variety."
Zaiger's Genetics in 1990 introduced the pluot, which combined the texture of the apricot with the juiciness and sweetness of the plum. Since then, Zaiger's has released 22 trademarked varieties of the pluot and continues to tinker with it.
Zaiger is currently excited about his "pluerry," a cross between a plum and a cherry, which is being test-marketed in Taiwan and England. "I think people will like it," he said like a proud parent.
The company also has produced varieties of peaches and nectarines, and experiments with many other stone fruits, creating cross-species hybrids such as the "peapluerry," a combo of peaches, plums and cherries, and a "peacotum," which combines peaches, apricots and plums.
Zaiger's recently introduced the Independence almond, a variety that could revolutionize the industry because the trees self-fertilize, saving money for growers who don't have to hire honeybees.
"The Independence almond deal is huge, and it's getting real traction from growers," said Robert Woolley, president of Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman. The nursery is the private propagator and exclusive licensor of Zaiger's Genetics products in the United States.
The nursery has test plots in Hickman and Reedley to tend to Zaiger's trees and sell to growers. Between the two sites, about 400 acres are 99 percent dedicated to testing and marketing Zaiger's varieties.
Like the Independence almond, there are other successes from hybridization that are hidden to the average shopper, such as fruit that's easier to grow in different places in the world, fruit with just the right tang or color, and fruit that can be shipped without damage.
Improving fruits and nuts is part of a big business both in California and globally. In California, fruit crops were an $11.8 billion industry in 2009, while almonds alone were worth $2.3 billion.
Dennis Tarry, general manager and chief executive officer for Dave Wilson Nursery, said the bottom line in hybrids is consumer appeal.
"We are competing with candy bars and potato chips at the supermarket level," he said. "Our challenge is to make fruit more exciting and appealing and getting a lot better fruit to the customer in the grocery store."
Tarry said the fresh fruit industry was jolted several years ago by the success of farmers markets and fruit stands, and even grocery stores wanted better quality fruit displayed in a produce stand setting. Nowadays, the nursery sees the fruit stand market as a good place between the home orchard and supermarket segments, making it ideal to test hybrid fruits.
Zaiger's markets to other countries, learning the tastes of each culture. The company sells trees to growers in Australia, France, China, Spain, Israel and South Africa, among others.
Zaiger's is one of the few private breeders operating on a large commercial and worldwide scale, said UC Davis' Gradziel. U.S. universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are typically the powerhouses behind finding successful hybrids, because the process is laborious and time-consuming, exposing a small business to financial risk.
Gradziel works mainly crossing peach varieties with almonds, which surprisingly are from the same family, with the goal of giving processing peaches the disease-resistance of almonds.
Every Wednesday morning in summer, Zaiger's Genetics hosts a fruit tasting, inviting researchers and growers from all over the state and world to try some of the company's products, many of which are years away from market, if they ever make it to the final cut.
Grant Zaiger, Floyd's son, picks fruit off the trees, cuts a slice and offers it to his guests, who try to decide if it will be a winner and whether to place orders for the trees.
Eric Wuhl, director of research and development at Family Tree Farms in Reedley, comes to virtually every tasting. As a grower, packer and shipper of stone fruits and blueberries, his company can't afford to miss what Zaiger is coming out with next.
"We couldn't live without him," Wuhl said. "Our mission is to consistently produce, pack and market the most flavorful fruit, and Floyd Zaiger is responsible for most of it."
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