February 12, 2013

Sumo Mandarins:
A Story of Smugglers,
Secrets and Sweetness

When we talked Jan.  7, the onset of an Arizona freeze was bringing predictions of doom and gloom to the winter veggie crop. And since then, we’ve had a wild ride with short supply, quality issues and rising costs for bagged salad, lettuce and row crop vegetables in general.

But now, into the second week of February, nearly everything has recovered with the exception of the lettuce category. We expect to see the supply steadily improve and costs slowly drop in lettuce over the next few weeks while we transition from the winter growing area into the new spring areas in California. The good news is that supply and quality are back on track in most other row crops as the Santa Maria growing area fills in the gap created by the Arizona freeze!

The best news of all is the arrival of the Sumo Mandarin this week. The Sumo made its first appearance in our markets last year and it was so popular that this year’s crop couldn’t come soon enough! We expect to see the kind of volume over the next several weeks that will allow us to really promote them, but don’t wait or you may miss out. This is a relatively short season and the opportunity to enjoy this fruit will be over as we move into April.

The story of the Sumo mandarin involves smugglers, secrets and – importantly – sweetness.

 

In 1972, a government fruit research station in Japan developed a hybrid mandarin that was sweeter and larger than any other mandarin orange in existence. Named Dekopon, its rugged skin and big bump at the top was initially a turn-off for Japanese consumers. But by the 1990s, they were paying up to $10 apiece for this extraordinarily flavorful fruit.

Because of the potential risk to American farms, Dekopon budwood – branches that could graft new trees – could not be brought into the United States legally without being quarantined and cleaned of exotic pests and diseases. Nonetheless, it was smuggled into California by a some people who could not resist the potential fortune to be had in this obscure citrus. In one instance, a company illegally propagated a large grove in the San Joaquin Valley. In 2000, the trees were discovered to be infected with a dangerous citrus virus and the orchard was burned to the ground.

However, one closely guarded strain of imported budwood that had been properly treated was purchased by Suntreat, a California citrus-growing company. Suntreat secretly organized 13 farmers to grow Dekopon orchards and had them sign confidentiality agreements. This was a top-secret project, and the growers were told the trees were “variety XP1.” Suntreat’s owners didn’t want anybody – particularly their competitors – to discover that the prized Dekopon fruit was being grown until the crops were ready for market.

Renamed Sumo mandarins, a more memorable name for American consumers, this miracle citrus hit select grocery stores on the West Coast in the early months of 2011. By Sumo’s second season, word was getting around – newspapers and bloggers across the US were raving about its extreme sweetness and colossal size.

In our own Produce Markets, we worked to get as many people as possible to taste the new Sumo mandarin. As a result, our stores sold more Sumos than any other grocery stores in the country. Intrigued? Try one. Someday you can tell your grandkids that you were there when the whole Sumo-craze began.

 

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