Volunteer Jacky Hayward contributed to this article.
Walking by a stone fruit booth in the summer might feel a little like passing a group of paparazzi. The crowd can’t wait to get their hands on the soft, ripe fruit and much of it doesn’t make it out of the market uneaten.
But that mad rush only tells half the story. Peaches, apricots, and other summer delicacies have a year-round presence at the Ferry Plaza Farmers market. In the case of Bella Viva Orchards, for instance, fresh fruit provides a relatively small slice of annual sales. “We dry everything we don’t sell at the market," says farmer Victor Martino, “which works out to be about 80-85% of what we grow [or around 350 tons a year]."
At first pass, dried fruit may not be as enticing as its fresh counterpart, but it plays a key role in the sustainable food system. From the eater’s perspective, it offers an alternative to fruit shipped long distances and, from a farmer’s, it can sustain the business all year round.
“With dried fruit, we can [extend our selling season] into the winter months,” says Ted Loewen of Blossom Bluff Orchards. “This means we are able to even out employment, which is better for the farm and the people we have working for us.”
Bella Viva's Martino agrees. "Even when we sell out early in the year, that still means we’re in the market ‘til at least April or May,” he says.
If you haven’t tried the dried fruit from a small farm, this might just be the year to do it. Smaller farms tend to have much stronger quality control, says Loewen. “I know we are selective in what we choose to cut [for drying],” he adds.
For these farms, high quality means starting with the ripest fruit possible. Like Loewen, Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun, who named his farm after his penchant for sun-drying all kinds of fruit and vegetables, is very focused on a flavorful end product. “Drying is often more interesting than the actual growing process,” says Crepps. The challenge, however, is that very ripe fruit is so soft it has to be cut by hand, a very labor intensive process.
Most farms utilize the sun for at least some of the process. “When you first cut the fruit there’s a lot of moisture on the surface, which allows you to dry it very quickly in the sun,” says Crepps. But drying fruit too fast can bleach out its color and ruin the texture, so he stacks his trays of fruit for a second, slower phase of drying. In the winter Crepps uses a propane-fueled dehydrator but is looking into transitioning to solar power, adding to the sustainability of his drying process.
Bella Viva sells all their dried fruit both sulfured and unsulfured. Martino says, “The fruit is usually picked in the morning, cut, and then treated with sulfur that day.” They infuse the fruit with sulfur dioxide by burning sulfur nearby, and, says Martino, the process keeps the fruit’s skin from oxidizing (turning brown). The sulfur also helps retain flavor and allows him to put some moisture back in the fruit once it’s dried without causing mold.
Many customers prefer unsulfured fruit, because the additive has been known to trigger asthma and allergies in some people. So this year, Martino has developed a new approach to dehydrating unsulfured fruit so that it retains more flavor and vitamins. And although the farm still sells around 60% more of the sulfured product, he thinks that number is likely to shift as he perfects the new method.
Drying fruit also means a much lighter product that's easier to transport. That might be one reason it's especially popular with market visitors from outside San Francisco. Bill Crepps says he sells most of his dried products to casual afternoon market shoppers, rather than regulars.
Martino, on the other hand, chalks his sales up to the weather. “We definitely sell more dried fruit in the winter," he says. "We also seem to do our best sales on the coldest days."