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    Categories: CommunityEat & Drink

Grown in Utah

As soon as the weather gets warm, the signs go up on the street corners:
“Bear Lake Raspberries!” “Brigham City Peaches!” “Green River Melons!”

By Mary Brown Malouf | Photos by Adam Finkle

Call it the holy trinity of Utah summer produce. For generations, Bear River, Brigham City and Green River have had the unquestioned reputation of growing the best of their fruit specialty. Belief in these places’ superior terroir, as wine growers term it, has been a matter of faith.

But now, when food is all about sourcing, and provenance is paramount, savvy buyers might ask: Are raspberries from Bear Lake really better than those grown in Oregon? Does Brigham City grow enough peaches to go into all the products that claim them? And, are the Green River melons in the store really from Green River? Why does local matter?

The truth is complicated and consumers need to check the source. Local is best but labels can lie. Caveat emptor.

Green River Melons

The world’s first protected-vineyard designation was Chianti, established in 1716 in Italy. France expanded the idea, and the concept of appellations—called denominazione di origine controllata, or DOC, in Italy—have become standard in the wine business. Extending the system to apply to quality food products around the globe brought the 16th-century idea into the present. As much as ag schools across the country hybridize seeds in their labs to create the perfect, best-flavored, pest-resistant fruit, it still comes down to the dirt and the weather. To be called a Vidalia Onion, the onion must be grown in Vidalia, Georgia. Vidalia onions are supposedly especially sweet because of the soil of the area has low sulfur content.    

Green River melons don’t have a DOC or trademark even though what makes the melons special is the Green River Valley micro-climate and terroir, the unique sandy loam that melons seem to love. Part of the problem is that the most widely cultivated Green River melon is a common variety: Crimson Sweet. “The melons could be pretty basic, but hot days and cool nights concentrate the sugar,” says Nancy Dunham, whose family has been cultivating sweet melons in Green River for generations. “Crimson Sweet are the most popular and the best shippers.”

Alison Einerson, director of the Downtown Farmers Market in Salt Lake City, isn’t so convinced that terroir is the defining element. Part of her job is certifying that produce and goods sold at the market are truly local, not “imported” from California or other growing areas. “Every year, we hear allegations that one of our growers is importing fruit from another state,” she says. “We have not found any evidence of that. “

She says that just being grown close to the point of purchase ups the taste and quality of fruit.

“Shippability has become such a concern in farming,” she says. “Growers concentrate more on whether fruit is tough enough to travel across the country without damage, and how long its shelf life is, instead of paying attention to its flavor.” She also thinks that the farmer’s cultivation methods are as important as the soil and climate.

Dunham agrees. A vegetarian herself, she says the foodie, buy-local, know-what-you’re-eating movements have driven sales of Green River melons. “People want organic and all-natural. People want things that are grown nearby and they are more interested in things that are grown naturally.” Like many small farmers, Dunham says the process of being certified “organic” is too expensive and complicated for them. “We try to come close. A little bit of fertilizer is about all we do.”

And, she says, how fruit is harvested is as important as how it’s grown. “The secret is in the picking.” Dunham’s melons are picked when each one is ripe, not when the entire field is judged ripe. “We’ve had the same pickers for many years. You have to make sure melons are ripe when you pick.”

Green River’s reputation for sweet melons is still strong. But the best way to be sure a melon is legitimately from Green River is to go there. “We have people who drive in 200 miles from Colorado just to have our melon for breakfast,” says Dunham.

Brigham City Peaches

In the spring Thayne Tagge is apt to answer phone calls from his tractor. The king of Utah roadside stands grows peaches on 60 acres near Willard Bay and the thousands of trees take a lot of personal attention.

Like melons in Green River, the reputation of Brigham City peaches depends on the terroir, not the variety—many are standard Elberta. “We’ve got rocky soil, water from Pineview Reservoir, we’re close to Willard Bay, the orchards are on a hillside so they get sun at the end of the day and hardly ever freeze out. I’ve picked peaches here every year since 1997,” says Tagge. “It’s all about the location. I call this the ‘banana belt’ for peaches.”

Tagge, who owns Tagge’s Famous Fruit with his wife Cari, started out reselling fruit from two of the state’s sweet spots, first raspberries from Bear Lake, then peaches from Brigham City. Now he’s that rare thing, a full-time first-generation farmer, growing much of what he sells. “The cost of going into farming is getting prohibitive because in Utah, it’s best to grow near a lake, and that’s prime property for housing,” Tagge says. He grows organic blackberries not far from the peach orchards and recently planted 8,000 raspberry plants near Huntsville on a property that, he says, matches the conditions in Bear Lake.

But he agrees that part of the reason Brigham City peaches and Bear Lake raspberries are exceptional is that they are sold within 100 miles of where they’re grown. “That means  I can pick ’em riper,” he says. “They don’t last as long but the flavor of a tree-ripened peach is better than one that ripens in the market. When I started, there were only a few farmers markets—now there’s something like 44.” Tagge also has his own fruit stands and a successful CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. “We like to sell directly to the consumer,” he says. “It’s better for us and for them.”

Bear Lake Raspberries

Travis Eborn, owner of bearlakeraspberries.com, is giving up on the raspberry business.

“I’m turning it back over to my dad,” says Eborn, whose father started him in the raspberry business. “A raspberry patch only lasts about 15 or 16 years and this one is worn out.” He complains that of all the products—milk shakes to muffins—claiming the origin,  “less than half” actually use Bear Lake raspberries. (That’s easy to believe when you think of the summertime queue at Lebeau’s, the foremost raspberry milk shake purveyor in the town of Bear Lake.)

The shift came when a virus wiped out a lot of Bear Lake raspberry growers in the ’80s. “Now,” says Eborn, “just as many berries are coming out of Cache and Utah Counties.”

Maybe so. But Craig Floyd, owner of Chad’s Raspberry Kitchen, is still a big Bear Lake raspberry believer. “My father owns the farm. I own the product line,” he says. Other growers in Bear Lake, including Thayne Tagge, focus on fresh berries; Chad’s puts out raspberry syrup, jam, salsa, jelly and honey. “We started with raspberry popsicles in 1995. By the late ’90s, most growers had pulled their canes.”

The pollination-stopping virus halted berry production and a real estate boom caused property prices to skyrocket. But Floyd replanted with virus-resistant stock and invested in an automatic berry picker. “We called it the Bear Lake Raspberry Revitalization Project.”    

Raspberries, distant cousins of the rose, are not easy to grow. “You have to baby them. One out of three years, we’ll have a crop failure up here,” he says. And raspberries produce on a two-year cycle—you cut the canes that produced, he says. “They won’t produce two seasons in a row.” Out of four and a half acres, Floyd gets an average of 6,000 pounds of berries. The growing season is short in Bear Lake, but Floyd says, “Cold summer nights and hot days are what make Bear Lake’s berries famous. The cold concentrates the sugar.”

Mary Brown Malouf :Mary Brown Malouf is the Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.