Before Nikiko Masumoto picks a peach she lightly squeezes it.
“We want it to have some give and not be hard like a baseball, but we want it to be firm enough that it will travel to wherever it needs to go,” says Masumoto.
The fruit she’s picking now is large, sweet and will be sold in the Bay Area. But a few weeks ago they were picking another variety, a tiny peach called Gold Dust.
“We’re standing right now in the Flavorcrest orchard and as you can see these fruit have much more red in them,” says Masumoto. “The Gold Dust when it’s ripe is very glowing, yellow, amber, gold color.”
The family planted three acres of the variety 10 years ago on their 80 acre farm in Del Rey. They knew the fruit was going to be smaller than normal, but they planted the crop anyway because the flavor is so rich and sweet. They even helped create a program with Bay Area companies and grocers to promote the fruit and were hoping that would be enough. It worked when sold directly, but a different story played out at the grocery level.
“They had trouble selling the Gold Dust,” says Masumoto. “It was so painful to hear that after all of this effort, great coverage in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle and still there weren’t enough people who would take a chance on this small peach.”
So let's take a step back. Why is Nikiko Masumoto unsettled? The family decided to try something unconventional. They told the story of this tiny peach by launching a campaign online and by working directly with a handful of Bay Area tech companies, a food collaborative and restaurants.
“I thought maybe the people angle, the ability to connect directly with people who care about the story food, maybe that’s the angle to explore,” Masumoto says.
The Bay Area group Real Food Real Stories partnered with the Masumotos to make this happen. The group’s mission is to humanize the food movement by connecting people and farmers.
“We’ve been picking food based on shelf stability, size, durability and yield,” says Pei-Ru Ko with Real Food Real Stories. “All of those things have become more important than flavor.”
They created the hashtag #eatsmallfruit and found buyers like Google and Airbnb. Small fruit ambassadors traveled to the farm, picked the fruit themselves and then brought it to the buyers.
“The first bite I had out of the peaches with the juice dripping down my arms, I felt very confused, like, this delicious of a peach is what we want to throw away or what our market has deemed not valuable,” Ko says.
Ko says Google served the fruit whole and at Airbnb employees biked around the office handing out the peaches. A collaborative in the Bay Area called KITCHENTOWN that helps people form food startups held a preserve class with the peaches as the main ingredient.
“I spoke with one of the bakeries about doing special peach pastries,” says Daniel Nevers with KITCHENTOWN. “Amazing peach pastries coming out of the oven. Then we’re also doing a peach workshop for the public to come in and meet with one of our makers who does Indian chutneys.”
Nikiko Masumoto says she’s still unsure if the pilot project was a total success because she thinks they may have just broken even financially. She says they’ll probably do the pilot program again with a few tweaks, but because Americans have been trained to like big peaches she says they really have to consider whether it’s worth it.
“If someone has never had an amazing peach and they go to the grocery store of course they’re going to look for the visually stunning peach, because they don’t know any better,” Masumoto says.
She says the time it takes to organize this program might outweigh how much it costs to run it and grow the peaches. Dana Frasz is the founder of Food Shift. The group works to reduce food waste and she says campaigns like the Masumotos are part of a larger effort to change views around what good food looks like.
This is about fundamentally shifting the way we value food,” Frasz says. “These efforts are so much bigger than what they seem like on the surface.”
She says other companies have done well by giving tiny fruit value. Think mandarins like Cuties and Halos. But for a small farm with three acres of fruit the uphill battle is steep. Frasz says even for incremental change it’s going to require a large-scale effort from all parts of the food industry.
“It’s really hard because habits are hard to break and again you have a society that reinforces convenience, waste and perfection,” says Frasz. “People are getting smarter about working together on this. Everyone’s doing their part.”
One Bay Area company has managed to utilize small and ugly fruits and veggies grown in the Valley. Imperfect Produce takes funny looking or discolored products and sells them in a weekly box delivered straight to your door. They have about 15,000 customers statewide. Ron Clark with the company says the Masumotos pilot project could be successful if they continue to intentionally sell these tiny peaches.
“We find once people taste it, they’re really sold,” Clark says. “Our hope is that it won’t just benefit us, what we want to see is that this changes consumers tastes far beyond what Imperfect offers.”
He says if the pilot program doesn’t work the Masumotos could possibly market their tiny peaches for kids or even sell them to his company where his buyers already value ugly and tiny fruit.