"We want the fruit to be more robust during the dynamic environments that exist between the farm and the consumer."
Jay Ruskey is a California organic farmer who grows finger limes, a type of citrus native to Australia that relatively few people have ever heard of, and even fewer have actually tasted.
But together with Apeel Sciences, the proprietor of Good Land Organics near Santa Barbara is pursuing a basic objective shared by growers of all produce. "My goal is to extend shelf life by reducing moisture loss," Ruskey says, "and by decreasing mold and rot on the skin of the fruit."
British settlers in the eastern Australian bush became aware of the finger lime plant (Microcitrus australasica) during the colonial period. Commercial cultivation of the fruit began only a few decades ago and remains far from widespread, but that's changing as demand steadily ramps up.
Finger limes, which really are shaped like a finger, grow up to three inches in length. With a thin peel ranging in color from burgundy to greenish black, the fruit's exterior is not especially enticing. It's the "caviar pearls" inside that have foodies talking ... and buying.
Translucent juice vesicles, under pressure within the finger lime's husk, pour out when the fruit is sliced open: round, firm and intact. The vesicles pop on the diner's tongue somewhat like the expensive fish eggs, releasing a burst of unique lime flavor and earning the fruit the nickname of caviar limes.
In trendy restaurants from Los Angeles to London, finger limes are now providing an intriguing garnish for food dishes and drinks. They are also increasingly available at farmers markets and online thanks to growers like Ruskey, who encountered the unfamiliar fruit via the University of California (UC) Farm Extension Service back in 2000.
"I approached finger limes from the perspective of, Can we sell it?" recalls Ruskey. "I thought there was a high market potential."
With a degree in Agribusiness Marketing from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Ruskey packs the training and experience to back up his opinions. He's a longtime member of California Rare Fruit Growers, a group composed of backyard enthusiasts as well as full-time farmers, and in 2010 he received the UC award for Innovative Small Farmer of the Year.
A Niche on the California Coast
Ruskey's 42-acre certified organic farm in the hills of Goleta, known as Condor Ridge Ranch and located two miles from the Pacific Ocean, is the first commercially viable coffee farm in the continental United States. While cherimoyas and Hass avocados are mainstay crops for Good Land Organics, nearly 100 different fruiting plants here yield exotic subtropical produce including dragon fruit, goji berries, longans, lychees, passion fruit and white sapotes.
"Finger limes have been challenging all the way down the line," says Ruskey, one of the earliest growers of the fruit in North America. It took several years to determine the best rootstock for the plant (a dense bush-like tree with sharp thorns) and then fine-tune its care based on watering, nutritional and pruning needs.
Good Land Organics has experienced typical postharvest issues with finger limes, according to Ruskey. Committed to zero use of chemical pesticides and preservatives, he was receptive to the solution offered by Apeel Sciences and its natural plant-based approach to postharvest protection.
"We want the fruit to be more robust during the dynamic environments that exist between the farm and the consumer," he continues, noting that the "cold chain" for most produce involves no shortage of shaking, bumping and temperature swings.
Good Land Organics seeks to prolong the fresh lifespan of its finger limes while avoiding the waxes typically found on citrus in retail stores. This goal, along with the farm's general approach to sustainable agriculture, meshes well with Apeel's focus on conserving natural resources and making fresh food more widely available.
Ruskey has been very impressed with the results of small-scale trials using Apeel's Apeel product to delay the onset of postharvest decay. Though finger limes remain a niche crop today, the ability to extend the fruit's edible and marketable marketable shelf life in a natural way is sure to expand that niche.
The American harvest season for finger limes runs from May through December, the exact opposite of when the fruit is produced in Australia. This means "citrus caviar" aficionados in major European markets can enjoy the delicacy all year around, especially once the threats to freshness of time and distance are reduced.
Jay Rusky established Good Land Organics in the hills of Goleta, California to grow rare fruits, including caviar limes.
Caviar limes, also called cocktail limes or Australian finger limes, are thought to have originated in Australia.
Good Land Organics also grows passionfruit as well as other exotic crops.