Seasonality doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Somebody, somewhere is growing any given crop right now, and it is undoubtedly available thousands of miles away, for supermarket shoppers everywhere, often year-round. Whether this system of food production has its merits — or not — there are ever fewer numbers of crops cultivated in the United States, which aren’t available on demand, across the nation. Finding a real specialty crop — one that isn’t widely grown on a commercial scale outside of a particular region — is a rarity.
“People in my parts know exactly what it is and how delicious it is,” Chris Clegg, a Massachusetts farmer cultivating one of those rare gems, said. “I don’t know how many other growers are out there, but I do know there aren’t many of us. I know of three other growers. We are all growing for a very limited market, and we can be tight-lipped about certain things.”
Clegg’s crop isn’t only a regional specialty: it’s a seasonal one, too. His Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts, is a 150-acre, fifth-generation family farm founded in 1900. The family began by growing wholesale crops for distribution to local restaurants and stores, as well as for sales through larger distributors, and they still do. Their retail farm stand was a late addition in the 1970s. And this special crop has been a part of the farm’s legacy.
“It is a very seasonable item used to adorn southern New England Thanksgiving tables. I think the only reason it became a very important crop in the region is because it could only be found in the region. They are tied to the local community because they were bred here and cultivated here in the South Coast region,” Clegg emphasized.
That crop is – as unlikely as it might sound – a root crop whose relatives are not exactly the most popular items on most shopping lists.
“It is a crop that many people enjoy but won’t actually cook on their own, so it is enjoyed with the holiday feast. In my opinion it is officially called a Macomber rutabaga but it also goes by Cape White turnip, Eastham turnip and Westport turnip.”
Cultivating the Macomber rutabaga
Clegg won’t divulge everything he knows about this crop but will share how his family has saved the seed through the generations, and handed down the knowledge needed to successfully harvest a crop of Macomber rutabagas.
Seeds are saved from the “best of the best” plants growing in the field each season. Clegg is careful to save enough seeds, always more than he should need to avert any concerns. The seeds do germinate well even after a few years, so seed collection isn’t always a yearly task, depending on the supply on hand.
“I was taught by my grandfather how to save the seed and prepare it for planting,” Clegg said. “I wouldn’t put everything in one spot in case there was a fire or some other unforeseen accident that could wipe out my crop.”
Seeds do have to be kept cool and dry. Clegg uses mason jars, and keeps them spread out in various locations, just in case anything goes wrong in one storage location.
Seeds are planted in a well-drained, sandy field. Heavy soils will darken the crop’s appearance, which is undesirable. Fertilization needs are minimal, although boron deficiency will render them unmarketable due to the black center that results. Clegg’s sandy loam soils drain well, and rocks are not an issue, so they are perfect for this root crop.
“It grows nicely here in our sandy soils and cool climate.”
The harvest occurs in late October and early November, when days are warm, but nights are cool. A crew of 10 hand-harvests the crop, crawling down the rows, trimming the roots and cutting off the tops with their knives.
“It fits nicely into our fall harvest schedule with carrots, parsnips, cole crops, and late-season pumpkins. They really start to flavor up after a few good frosts, similar to parsnips,” Clegg said. “I’ve tried harvesting them in late summer or early fall, and they are OK, but nothing to write home about.”
Macomber marketing and use
But writing to Clegg is exactly what misplaced New Englanders do. Requests to ship the rutabaga to those who simply can’t leave the tradition of their New England Thanksgiving feast – complete with the Macomber rutabaga – behind are not uncommon.
“Those people that love it and leave the area are the ones who made it such a desired commodity, because they want it wherever they live and can’t get it!” Clegg said. “Most of my sales are within a 50-mile radius. I’m not sure people outside of this region know what it is. The majority of my crop goes to a distributor that sells them to chain stores in the South Coast area, up to the North Shore of Boston, west to New York and south to Rhode Island. The rest of our crop is sold through our farmstand, to other farmers in the area, local restaurants and farmers markets.”
Local restaurants use the Macomber rutabaga eagerly. The crop tastes that good, Clegg said, and the chefs know it.
“Personally I wouldn’t give you two cents for a purple top or yellow rutabaga. They taste awful, bitter and bland,” he said, but the Macomber rutabaga is vastly different, with a great flavor.
Clegg’s 10 acres of Macomber rutabagas yield about 600 boxes per acre. He has consistent sales year to year, leading him to believe that the market is saturated. There are enough Macomber rutabagas to satisfy the demand, without any large amount of surplus.
“I’ve seldom had to say ‘no, I don’t have any extra’ unless Mother Nature had some negative influence,” Clegg said.
Although there may not be an abundant market for the Macomber rutabaga, and it can’t readily be found outside of a small section of the New England region, being a grower of this crop isn’t about finding a larger market, or commanding a higher price.
“It is easy to sell crops that are sought out, as opposed to commodity crops that everyone grows and you have to take what you get,” Clegg said. “Turnips will never have the ‘excitement’ that sweet corn or strawberries have, but to some it is a changing of the season and reminds us of better times with family and friends around a holiday table.”
“I never intended to get rich with mayhaws and my intentions have been realized,” Johnny Smith said. “The mayhaw is slowly gaining recognition in some circles as a viable commercial crop to be considered on a larger scale. Our main business is not fruit production, although that takes a lot of our time and energy. Our main line is producing quality trees for sale and trying to hybridize new cultivars able to satisfy the growing demand for quality fruit.”
Johnny, a.k.a. “the Mayhaw Man,” and his wife, Debbie, operate J & D Mayhaws, LLC, in Singer, Louisiana. They have a six-acre orchard with over 350 mayhaw trees, with more being planted each season, and new fields ready to go. The orchard trees range from 1 to 17 years old. There are 60 different cultivars, most of which are experimental. Cultivation depends upon collecting scion wood from “mother” trees, which have desirable traits, and cloning it through grafting.
“Certain wild mayhaw trees have been found over the past 30 years or so, which have been recognized to have one or more highly regarded characteristics. By grafting I am able to make a huge difference in the quality of fruit harvested, in color, size, ripening, reliable harvest dates, disease resistance and shatter resistance – the ability to hold fruit on the tree until it is ripened,” Smith explained. “You know what the fruit will look like and how the will shape up, based on the tree the scion wood was taken from. Some varieties will never produce more than 10 gallons of fruit, while some will eventually produce 35 to 40 gallons per season.”
Wild about mayhaws
If you aren’t from the native range of the mayhaw tree – swamps and flatlands of the southeastern United States, from central Texas to the Atlantic Coast, and north as far as central Arkansas – you may not have ever heard of this tasty fruit. Traditionally foraged from the wild, those native to this region know that only some of the trees actually produce high-quality fruit, and that mayhaw trees have a wide range of characteristics in the wild. The fruit is used for jelly or pressed into juice.
“Today, most of the forested land is leased and posted, therefore making it illegal to go out and gather wild mayhaws,” Smith said. “Mayhaws have been moved to the orchard and the demand for fruit, juice and jelly is amazing.”
Mayhaw jelly is the official jelly of the State of Louisiana, and the official fruit tree is the mayhaw. Chefs are finding ways to incorporate mayhaw fruit into marinades, salads, craft beverages and more. Festivals that celebrate the mayhaw are big yearly events in small towns throughout the area.
“It’s at these events that one begins to understand how significant the fruit is to our culture,” Smith said. “There are so many people there sharing a fond memory of spring outings with family, harvesting wild berries. There’s a sense of wholeness in having a couple of mayhaw trees in the backyard, and a few jars of jelly stashed in the cupboard. That’s what they turn out for and will every year.”
Cultivating the mayhaw crop
The trees are hardy. Soil pH of 5.6 works, but adding lime to raise the pH keeps trees healthier and more productive. These native trees aren’t that finicky, although they do like the climate of the South. Some cultivars perform better in varying conditions outside of their native habitat than do others. Pests and diseases are similar to those impacting other tree fruits, Smith said. In order of priority, and depending on weather conditions, issues include fire blight; cedar rust and plum curculio. Eight hours of sunlight are best. Staking young trees and pruning to promote an open center with limbs on a 60-degree angle works best. Borers are pests of concern. Fertilization is based on recommendations for apple orchards.
Harvesting is accomplished by placing netting under the tree and shaking the tree. Ripe fruit will fall off. Fruit is funneled into containers, cleaned of debris and inferior fruit, and bagged in gallon freezer bags. Berries are sold frozen. Steaming and pressing the berries extracts the juice, which is also primarily sold by frozen gallons.
“The demand is never close to being met with all that can be produced with the existing growers we have today,” Smith said. “Some large jelly producers are now putting in orchards of several thousand trees. They have to because the fruit is simply not available at any price.”
Simply put, the fruit of the mayhaw doesn’t need any promoting, at least not on its home turf. And, since the supply can’t yet come close to keeping up to the regional demand, it is unlikely that the fruit will be readily available outside of the region anytime soon. Growers like J & D Mayhaws have waiting lists, which are several years long, for their fruit But more fruit production can’t occur without more mayhaw trees, and more productive cultivars. J & D Mayhaws’ primary focus is finding and grafting the best mayhaw cultivars, so productive nursery stock is available to interested growers. “There are those performing scientific research on the mayhaw now, research which is probably 100 years behind that of most other fruit trees,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do as far as harvesting techniques, disease and pest control, utilization of the fruit, marketing and so on.” Today, the mayhaw remains a delicacy that even those whose heritage celebrates this fruit are hard-pressed to find. Like the Macomber rutabaga, its roots in a specific region grow deep, and aren’t likely to reach too far in the near future.