Carol Reese recalls her family’s journey cultivating Asian persimmons on their Mississippi farm.
The Holsteins were gone, and watching our hayfields and pastures being reclaimed by the wild offered a sad reminder that dairy farming was no longer economically viable in north Mississippi. The land called for new purpose, which led to years of fruit growing experimentation, searching for a crop that had, as my mother put it, “maximum profit for minimal sweat equity.”
Eventually we found that crop in Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki), but for years, our quest was not always fruitful (and yes, the pun is intentional). Our running joke was that our most valuable lessons were learned by killing plants, usually because they were not suited to north Mississippi. Plant death was not always the issue, however, as sometimes failure comes by other means—as it did with our first project, a blueberry U-Pick venture.
The local extension service had suggested rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium virgatum) could supply huge profits with minimal inputs. They were right about little input. On some of our ideally acid soils, those rabbiteye blueberries planted some forty years ago still produce ample fruit with minimal care. Other factors denied profitability: while U-Pick blueberries were popular, locals usually only picked a few gallons and were done for the summer. And despite our efforts to acidify those places in the field that had unsuitably high pH, large swaths of the orchard simply did not prosper.
Realizing that blueberries weren’t the answer, we set off on a series of jaunts to investigate other fruits and learn from other growers. We joined the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) organization, attending the annual meetings that moved each year to different regions of the country. This generous community provided lifelong friends and mentors, from whom we learned to become decent grafters, with only minimal blood loss.
We also learned, the hard way, that Mississippi has the perfect climate for growing disease. Plants we saw thriving in California, Michigan, Oregon, and New York swooned in our heat and humidity. My father, however, was a civil engineer, and adept at finding solutions. When it became obvious that southerners needed their own group, a drawling band of commercial and amateur growers came together to form Southern Fruit Fellowship. Like NAFEX, the meetings moved around to different regions, but always in the south, and it was in Florida that my parents bit into their first Asian persimmons (Diospyros kaki). My father said it was love at first bite. They took a picture of the smiling moment.
This fruit fit the bill for a U-Pick business: it ripened in mild, beautiful October, and customers filled five-gallon buckets in a matter of minutes. The trees required little maintenance beyond pruning to develop low spreading trees, shaped to accommodate strolling fruit-pickers. Mowing between the rows was a task maintained intensively only during harvest season.
There was still a learning curve. Our farm lay in Zone 7, the hardiness limit for most Asian persimmon cultivars, with wildly fluctuating temperatures in seasons of transition. We learned to plant in spring, giving trees time to settle in well before a challenging winter. We also had survival issues with trees grafted onto Diospyros lotus rootstocks, so began using American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). They occurred naturally on our farm, so we collected and planted several seeds directly into the desired spot, selected the most vigorous of the seedlings to graft, and left a couple of ungrafted seedlings in place for a year or two alongside the newly grafted trees. These would serve as backup rootstocks, should the grafted plant come to ruin, and they helped shield the tender new graft from wind gusts or racing dogs. Later, these extras were transplanted into pots and grafted for orchard expansion or sold to local nurseries.
Our first year of significant production found us in a new dilemma. Our delicious, beautiful Asian persimmons attracted very few customers! This was before the days of social media, and in an era of less cosmopolitan palates. Even more to the point, an aversion to persimmons was common among our usual clientele. As children, many had been tricked into biting into a firm American persimmon, which is astringent until it has softened. The memory of the lingering pucker caused by that unripe fruit made them understandably reluctant to be suckered (puckered?) again. Our first plantings were all non-astringent cultivars, however, and delicious even when hard as an apple.
Could they be convinced to try one? Each fall, my parents set off for local farm markets and horticultural field days with cutting boards, sharp knives, and bushels of just-picked persimmons. For hours, they sliced the beautiful orange persimmons and challenged total strangers to try the crisp wedges. I helped occasionally and enjoyed seeing the expression of doubt change to delight as they gingerly bit into the crunchy sweetness. Converted! Faces went from wary to warm, and soon our booth would be buzzing with questions and conversations.
Nearby Starkville had another customer base, eager and ready-made: its vibrant Asian communities. These excited new customers taught us proper pronunciation of the cultivar names, and the resulting friendships brought to our farm an unexpected and rewarding cultural exchange.
Thanks to those early efforts, the crop now consistently sells out as fast as it ripens. The only advertising done is to announce opening day for picking season and hours of operation.
My parents are buried not far from the orchard, and my little brother now runs the operation, but some of their early customers still come, as well as the children and grandchildren of those first customers. The tradition of picking brilliant orange fruit on a beautiful autumn day spans generations, and our farm’s soil has become part of their growing families.
Several years before their deaths, my parents told their seven children the only gifts they wanted were memories of time spent happily with family. I smile to think that Reese Orchard still provides that opportunity for so many, long after they are gone. It’s a different measure of success, beyond an orchard’s profitability, and is their enduring legacy.
Carol Reese is a speaker, writer, and extension horticulture specialist in Jackson, TN.
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