By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
One of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world, and one of the most misunderstood, is making an amazing showing in California agriculture. In 1917, there were only 150 acres of pomegranates grown in California. Grown as an exotic curiosity and not a cash crop, pomegranate production rose to 3,000 acres in 1985. When health experts noted the beneficial effects of pomegranate juice, production rose to 30,000 acres by 2012. In Kern County the crop had a $115 million farm gate value in 2021.
California is still lagging behind the Middle East and Asia, where pomegranates have been grown for thousands of years. Often seen as a dessert surprise or even an aphrodisiac, the ruby red fruit with the leathery skin has been celebrated in myth and legend as the fruit of the ancient gods. What separates the California product from its cousins in other countries is the superior size and quality. Hence half of the California pomegranate production is for the export market. What is not hand selected, washed and waxed for the export market, is used for juice, jelly, and syrup. There is even a viable market for dried poms in the craft trade using them in floral arrangements.
Local grower Dee Slayman had been touting the health benefits of the ruby fruit for years from his 500-acre orchard in Kern County. The juice of the pomegranate’s garnet-red seeds is high in potassium and vitamin C. Slayman described the juice as a “cholesterol cutter” and touted the positive effects online. He claimed the juice cut his own cholesterol by 40 points.
One of the biggest boosters for Western pomegranates has also been the Wonderful Company headquartered in Los Angeles. The four-billion-dollar company heavily markets its Pom Wonderful juice on an international scale and boasts two million pomegranate trees in Central California. They tout the juice’s antioxidant properties and potassium. Each 16-ounce bottle holds the equivalent of four pomegranates and is also used in teas and soft drinks.
The Wonderful Company has been recognized for its high standards of production, including handpicking the pomegranates and then using custom designed extraction methods. Their marketing and appearance on national television programs like Dr. Oz, has really moved the dial on the fruit’s future and growth in the Central Valley. While still small compared to other orchard crops, the future appears to be bright for the ancient red fruit.
Thank you to the Wonderful Company and the University of California Extension for information.