Pitaya Farms growing in Raymondville
Exotic in looks and name, dragon fruit is grown on structures similar to those found in vineyards. Chuck Taylor, owner of Pitaya Farms of Texas LLC, west of Raymondville, said dragon fruit is actually the domesticated version of the pitaya, a native cactus which originated in Mexico and central America and was transported to Asia, where it acquired the dragon fruit label.
Pitaya Farms harvested its sixth crop between May and December 2016. “This past season was a big improvement, with over 15,000 pounds. God willing, we will triple that this coming this year, because the plants are more mature and so are we,” said Taylor. He and farm manger and part-owner Chinnling Wang are aiming to produce 25 pounds of the tropical fruit per cactus. “We are not there yet, but we’re getting near.” They have become adept at dealing with surprises while growing and marketing dragon fruit.
Pitaya’s dragon fruit is grown (on vineyard-style framework) inside electric-fenced enclosures topped with bird netting to keep raccoons, possums, coyotes, and birds away from the succulent fruit. “Everything likes to eat it, and they are a lot quicker than we are. If you want to grow a crop like this, you’ve got to ward off varmints every day,” Taylor said. In addition, as a tropical fruit, pitaya is cold-sensitive, so the farm has developed procedures to protect the crop and the plants from the occasional blue norther.
Taylor, who has a MBA from Vanderbilt and a PhD in “barnyard” economics, worked for years as an agricultural researcher in Central America, Taiwan and the United States. He said the popularity of dragon fruit with its chewable seeds is due as much to its healthy properties — high vitamin C levels, antioxidants, its effects on blood pressure and digestion – as well as its taste and appearance.
“I’m growing this fruit because it helps me stay healthy,” said Taylor, who admitted he is a big consumer of dragon fruit. But he snacks on blemished culls instead of eating up the profits. “You don’t get anywhere without customers who are as passionate about the fruit as you are.”
Pitaya Farms has been selling dragon fruit at the McAllen’s farmers market for five years. “We’ll often sell out in 15 minutes.” Noted chefs, including Larry Delgado of SALT, feature dragon fruit in season. “I’m producing a specialized product,” Taylor, explained. “We have a brewery in Austin Jester King that makes pitaya ale, among others brewing it.” Pitaya sells dehydrated chips and various drinks, as well as the whole fruits, which some customers turn into beer and wine.
The company has encountered barriers to market entry, including nutrition labels and liability insurance related to food safety. As an offshoot of that experience, Taylor is working with Dr. Juan Anciso of TAMU Agri-Life Research Center in Weslaco on a food safety manual that deals with specialty crops. “You don’t accept what comes at you across the fence. You go in and develop what you need. You’ve got to be prepared. You can’t be passive. ”
Two years ago, Pitaya Farms put another 2.4 acres in production and has more room to expand. Taylor, in passing, pointed out the extremely long barbs on a wild pitaya growing near the gate of the new field. With the farm poised to increase output (older cactus produces more pounds of fruit), Pitaya is opening up commercial outlets. “Krogers in Houston can take almost everything we produce.
“You’ve got to make your markets. That’s an art. We’re moving beyond the Valley now and getting the word out,” said Taylor who takes time to educate local customers and has done store demos. “You have to give people a chance to try it.” He has a commitment this year to expose Krogers’ produce departments to the delicious fruit. “How are they going to answer questions if we don’t help them. We beat the imported, tasteless fruit hands down in a taste test.” At farmers market and in large stores, Taylor goes one-on-one with consumers. “I get the biggest kick from interacting with customers,” said Taylor, who finds the feedback motivating. “Mondays are fun because employees come in with testimonials from the pulgas where they went to sell the smaller fruits.” Many abuelas remember eating pitayas as children.
Pitaya Farms next plans to tap into the juice bar niche. “They have good rapport with their clientele, and a willingness to try new healthy drinks.”
Taylor enjoys working with young farmers, too. “They love to grow stuff, but don’t want to have anything to do with marketing. I tell them ‘You’re depriving yourself by not interacting with customers.’” For Taylor, it’s more than the miracle of growing food. It’s about introducing people to a healthy and tasty fruit.
For more information, call 227-3840.
This story by Eileen Mattei appears in the February 2017 print edition of Valley Business Report.