Growers don’t expect selling it all to be a problem, but more substantial growth in the future would require making the kind of connection with consumers that’s been elusive so far.
Shipments could be as high as 4 million boxes industrywide, up from 3.5 million last year when rains ended production early, said Jeff Simonian, vice president of sales and marketing for Simonian Fruit Co., Fowler, Calif.
“A lot of people are still unfamiliar with the fruit,” Simonian said.
“There’s been research done that shows only 15% or so of people in the U.S. know what a pomegranate is.”
The reach hasn’t extended much beyond Middle Eastern, Asian and Hispanic populations in the U.S. and abroad, he said. About a third of the fresh portion of the crop is exported.
“We haven’t had issues marketing the crop, but we’ve been selling pomegranates for 35 years,” Simonian said.
“If you got in the last few years, it would be difficult.”
“It’s still only a small percent of U.S. consumers who have ever bought a pomegranate,” said Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the Sonoma, Calif.-based Pomegranate Council.
“They tend to be concentrated on both coasts, so there is still a lot of developmental work to be done to expand the franchise throughout the country.”
Many Americans have their first pomegranate experience in foodservice, Tjerandsen said.
“The arils are sprinkled through a salad or added to a glass of champagne,” he said.
“Those experiences then typically lead to purchases of pomegranates.”
Taste clearly matters — unless those purchases are made for decorative purposes, which is more common than the industry would prefer.
“It’s a little frustrating given the care that goes into producing such a delectable item to see it parked in front of a cornucopia and discarded at the end of a holiday season,” Tjerandsen said.
But he takes heart from novel uses for the fruit.
“We’re getting reports of people taking the juice of a pomegranate, putting it in an ice tray and freezing it for pomegranate ice cubes,” Tjerandsen said.
“You drop them in a clear beverage then watch the red suffuse the liquid. It’s a whole new, unintended use for the juice — not only delicious, but beautiful.”
Leading the charge on the marketing side is Los Angeles-based Pom Wonderful, the dominant force in pomegranates.
“They continue to field an aggressive program to support sales,” Tjerandsen said.
Brad Paris, vice president and general manager of produce for Pom Wonderful, said he expects hefty production growth in arils.
“It will be several multiples of last year,” he said.
“We have a new extraction method, new sorting equipment and a new set of cup fillers. Mechanical issues hurt us at the start of last year, and we’ve addressed those.”
A larger, earlier crop than last year will also boost Pom Wonderful, Paris said.
On the whole-fruit side, the company is offering retailers a new quarter-pallet-sized display bin as an alternative or complement to its standard half-pallet bin. The smaller bin becomes available in the second week of October, Paris said.
Pom Wonderful targets two audiences with the new bin: large retailers with room for a secondary display, and smaller retailers cautious about taking on half-pallet quantities.
California’s pomegranate production began the first week of August in the Wheeler Ridge area of the San Joaquin Valley, Tjerandsen said.
Early foothills harvest around Aug. 25; Angel Reds, or Smiths, in the second week of September; and wonderfuls around Oct. 5.
Wonderfuls make up more than 80% of California plantings, and typically continue into mid-November. Other varieties include granadas, foothills and early wonderfuls.
“The crop seems to be about two-and-a-half weeks earlier than last year,” said Atomic Torosian, managing partner for Fresno, Calif.-based Crown Jewels Produce.
He and grower Steve Barsoom of Ensher Alexander & Barsoom expected to start around Aug. 20 with early foothills. Barsoom grows about 1,000 acres of pomegranates packed under a joint label, Crown Jewels and E&A Farms.
“There was less rain in spring and summer so the product is coming on a bit earlier,” Torosian said.
“We’ll have good supplies for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Jewish holidays.”
“It’s a year of exceptional quality,” Tjerandsen said.
“Right now we’re at the stage where we need particularly warm days and cool nights to get the deep red color buyers are looking for when they source pomegranates in California.”
Sizing may be down though, Simonian said, as frost damage hit some early blooms.