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Sweet surprise

July/August 2019 California Bountiful magazine

California-grown mangos? Yes, thanks to tenacious desert farmers




Riverside County farmer Debbie Chamberlain, one of only a few mango growers in the state, shows off her crop of Keitt mangos, the skin of which stays green when the fruit is fully ripe. Photo: © 2019 Melissa Jewel

Even today, after years of being a familiar face at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, Riverside County farmer Debbie Chamberlain still meets shoppers who wander over to her table, do a double-take and react with astonishment when they find her selling California-grown mangos.

"Every time somebody new finds us, they go, 'I didn't know there are mangos,'" she said. "They say, 'How come this is the first time I've seen these?'"

To be fair, the chance to buy Chamberlain's mangos is fleeting, as they tend to sell out quickly. Often, the fruit is already spoken for by those who've known about Wong Farms, one of only a few farms in the state that have tried to grow the tropical fruit.

Although mangos remain one of the most popular fruits in the world, U.S. production is tiny. India is the world's leading producer, followed by China and Thailand. Most mangos sold in U.S. stores come from Mexico, with some imported from Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala and Haiti, according to U.S. trade statistics and the National Mango Board.

Considering mangos typically thrive in tropical or subtropical climates, it may come as a surprise to many Californians that they do, in fact, grow in the Golden State—but not without the tenacity of farmers such as Chamberlain.


Rod and Debbie Chamberlain place paper bags over individual mangos to protect them from sunburn. Photo: © 2019 Melissa Jewel

Perseverance pays off

It was her father, Ed Wong, who first got the family into growing mangos—a feat that would take years of experimentation and determination to bring the trees to production. A tomato farmer in the Coachella Valley since 1968, Wong had long been searching for a crop that could fill the gap after his winter tomato season ended in the spring, Chamberlain said.

He got the idea to plant mangos from the late Howard Marguleas, a California produce marketer credited with introducing a variety of fruits and vegetables that were largely unfamiliar to American shoppers, including Red Flame seedless grapes, seedless watermelons, multicolored sweet peppers, vine-ripened tomatoes and mangos.

According to reports, Marguleas decided to try growing mangos in the 1980s after seeing mango orchards in Israel, the climate of which reminded him of the Coachella Valley, where he planted his first groves.

"My dad saw their ranch and thought, 'Yeah, that would be a good crop,'" Chamberlain said. "He started tinkering with it."

Wong, who died in 1998, did not live to see his trees bear fruit. Chamberlain, who now operates the farm with her husband, Rod, and two of their sons, continued the tomato business. The family also kept the mango trees, having planted more than 20 different varieties to see which ones best suited the growing conditions of their farm in Mecca—just north of the Salton Sea—and could produce good-tasting fruit with not much fiber.

"Most of them didn't pan out," Rod Chamberlain said.

With summer temperatures in the Coachella Valley sometimes topping 120 degrees, some trees didn't produce fruit, and the leaves of others simply withered and died, he noted. The region's winters could be just as punishing for mango trees, which are very sensitive to frost. Freezing temperatures have destroyed mango plantings on other farms.


Wong Farms' two main mango varieties are the Valencia Pride, left, and Keitt. Photo: © 2019 Melissa Jewel

"It took us a while to pare it down to two species that could handle the desert," Rod Chamberlain said.

One is the Keitt mango, by far Wong Farms' most popular variety. The large, oval-shaped fruit has a sweet, firm flesh that's virtually string-free and skin that stays green even when fully ripe. Harvest for the Keitt usually starts in August and goes through September, sometimes into the first part of October.

Wong Farms' mango season begins in late June/early July, with harvest of the Valencia Pride, a kidney-shaped fruit with creamy flesh, low fiber and yellow skin with a red blush. For the first time this year, the farm will also be selling a new variety called Golden Lady, which was developed on the farm. The new mango, harvest of which begins at the end of June, has yellow skin with tiny white spots and apricot-colored flesh that's low in fiber.

Due to the extreme conditions of the desert, the trees grow half the rate they normally would in the tropics, with production also reduced, the Chamberlains said. Beginning in May, the farm covers with individual paper bags all vulnerable fruit not adequately protected by the tree's canopy.


Debbie Chamberlain's late father, Ed Wong, was among the first to try growing mangos in the Coachella Valley. Photo: © 2019 Melissa Jewel

'People just go nuts for them'

Laura Avery, who managed the Santa Monica Farmers Market for 36 years until her retirement last December, remembered the first time Debbie Chamberlain mentioned her family's mango orchard.

"I was shocked when she said she had mangos," Avery said. "(The market) never had mangos before. That was brand new and we were really excited that she wanted to bring them."

Because they're grown locally, Avery said Wong Farms mangos are not treated with irradiation or hot-water baths that imported mangos must go through to kill pests before entering the country. Best of all, Wong Farms mangos "have none of that string that gets stuck in your teeth," she added.

"They're a real seasonal treat. People just go nuts for them," she said. "I just eat it out of the skin with a spoon. It's like eating mango custard. It is absolute heaven."

Chefs are among the farm's most loyal customers. Jeremy Fox, a chef at Santa Monica's Rustic Canyon and Tallula's restaurants, said he stumbled upon Wong Farms mangos while shopping at the farmers market six or seven years ago.


Debbie Chamberlain shows how she cuts mangos and how her fruit has virtually no fiber. Photo: © 2019 Melissa Jewel

"I hadn't really worked with mango much before, because in most cases it's not a California ingredient," he said. "It was pretty surprising to find out that there is California mango and it's amazing, however short the season is."

He said he likes to eat mangos dressed with olive oil, salt, chili and lime. At his restaurants, he's served them charred and chopped beneath squid sautéed in red chili butter, with arugula on top.

Husband and wife Tristan Aitchison and Amy Wolf, both chefs at Providence restaurant in Los Angeles, said they've been buying Wong Farms mangos for nearly a decade.

"It's wonderful to get something tropical from California that people think wouldn't be growing in the desert," Wolf said.

Aitchison said he's used fresh mango in a crab salad or to accompany sorbet. In some savory dishes, he's served them with dried mango seasoned with lime juice, lime zest and chili flakes. Dehydrating the fruit slightly intensifies the flavor, he said, and makes the flesh a chewy, jerky-like texture.

"I try not to manipulate them too much—just trying to do things that aren't going to take away from the natural beauty of the mango," he said.

Ching Lee

Recipe

Mango salsa


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