I have always advised beginning farmers, “Grow those crops that you like to eat, you’ll do a better job.” The persimmon requires that I amend that advice.
In all honesty, I don’t particularly like the taste and texture of persimmons. It’s not that I have a bad memory of having my mouth painfully puckered from eating an unripe one, or that I’ve never had a well-grown one. I’ll eat them dried or frozen but rarely would I choose to eat one fresh. I love this fruit and the trees that produce them for other reasons.
The tree is beautiful at every stage from first leaves, flowers, and new set fruit to the falling of autumn’s burnt orange and red foliage, which reveals fat day-glow globes hanging like ornaments on leafless trees. Whether it is the large, plump, and pointed Hachiya, or the flat segmented Fuyu, the persimmon is such a pleasure just to look at, no need to touch or sample.
I’ve heard the stories of perfect persimmons, harvested with stem and a few leaves, purchased in Japan for $30 or even $50 each to be given as gifts, part of a tradition that now includes square and heart-shaped watermelons, $6 strawberries, and Buddha-shaped pears. I so appreciate that culture’s love of fruit. In Japan, fruit is not just something to grab and inhale, but food that ought to be enjoyed slowly, visually, aromatically, and only finally gastronomically.
My amended advice: Grow those crops you like to eat, but also grow those that you simply like to look at.
Cultivated for thousands of years, the Asian persimmon originated in China and includes hundreds of cultivars. The botanical name for this fruit is Diospyros, which translates to “food of the gods.”
The persimmon is typically grown in subtropical climates, but I planted twenty-five trees in our Sole Food orchard. And while our Vancouver climate is considered to be relatively moderate, it is definitely not subtropical.
There was doubt, hand wringing, and even consternation when I planted persimmons, figs, and lemons in that orchard alongside the more typical apples, pears, cherries, and plums. Our funders, neighbors, and even some of our staff thought that maybe I had gone too far.
And so I felt a defining “I told you so” moment (never verbalized) when in the fall of 2015 we harvested over 400 pounds of these fruits from trees that were barely three years old. There were still naysayers, a few farmers who saw our persimmons on the dock of a local restaurant were heard suggesting that we had “purchased” them in Chinatown and “repacked and sold them.”
Jealousy and competition in the farming community can be a wonderful thing; it stimulates fresh discoveries, innovations, and new crops. I expect to hear that those same farmers are now planting persimmon trees on their land.
But in truth that first “bumper” crop of persimmons may be an anomaly. The summer that bore them was unusually hot and dry, and one year’s harvest is not proof of lasting success.
Even so, after that first harvest I delivered several of these fruits to the mayor and city manager’s office, in part as a thank you for their friendship and support, in part to demonstrate what is possible in the city, and on some subtle level as a warning that the presence of these fruits, while incredibly seductive, may be a sign that climate change is well underway.
During our year-end staff gathering I held up a Sole Food persimmon and referred to it as a miracle, one of many we have witnessed on our farms.
Excerpted from “Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier” by Michael Ableman
Street Farm is the inspirational account of residents in the notorious Low Track in Vancouver, British Columbia―one of the worst urban slums in North America―who joined together to create an urban farm as a means of addressing the chronic problems in their neighborhood. It is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.
Michael Ableman is a farmer, author, photographer and urban and local food systems advocate. Michael has been farming organically since the 1970′s and is considered one of the pioneers of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. Ableman is a frequent lecturer to audiences all over the world, and the winner of numerous awards for his work.