Idaho Farmers Make Room for Funky Fruits

The Associated Press
Monday, March 19, 2007; 3:07 AM

PARMA, Idaho -- If Esmaeil Fallahi has his way, the home of the world-famous Russet potato may soon also welcome persimmons, pistachios, pawpaws, quinces and mulberries.

Fallahi, a University of Idaho professor, has been the state's fruit guru for almost 20 years, working on everything from improving apple irrigation to finding the best way to thin a plum tree.

Now, Fallahi wants to give the agriculture industry a little more flash in a state best known for its pedestrian potatoes, onions and sugar beets.

Fallahi's lab is researching "alternative fruits" _ those that traditionally haven't been grown in a region _ that might have potential in Idaho. They could be as simple as a Fuji apple, where the traditional crop might be red delicious, or as exotic as a jujubi, a medicinal plant that grows in India, Pakistan and Fallahi's native Iran.

"There is a huge urge for new things, for trying new tastes _ a curiosity and urge for something different," said Fallahi, who is hoping these fruits can grow into big bucks for Idaho farmers.

Fallahi grew up on a 1,000-acre fruit farm in Iran, and when he arrived, he was immediately struck by the similarities between the growing conditions in Iran and Idaho. People don't realize it, he said, but most of Iran is less Middle Eastern desert than it is mountainous farmland.

Idaho's warm days and cool nights help concentrate the flavor in fruits, making it a prime place to experiment with crops. So, Fallahi thought, why not try to grow the same fruits here?

He started working in the early 1990s with different varieties of fruits already grown in Idaho, such as pluots _ a half-breed of traditional plums and apricots _ doughnut peaches, and table grapes instead of wine grapes.

Table grapes are about a $3 million industry in Idaho, and are growing by leaps and bounds _ the head of the Idaho Table Grape Association expects them to expand into a $20 million industry within a few years.

As his first projects have begun to take off, Fallahi is starting to branch out farther. He's eyeing Asian pears as the next table grape, and then, he hopes, persimmons will have their day in the sun.

"We're not going to go citrus or dates here. We're not that extreme," he said. "But we like to experiment."

The state Department of Agriculture doesn't track how many farmers are growing alternative crops, but they're being grown on such a small scale that they wouldn't account for much if they were tracked, department officials say.

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