Fruit Growing

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FRUIT GROWING. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America, Native Americans used cranberries, concord grapes, blueberries, and wild strawberries in their diets, as dyes, and to treat illnesses. They introduced many of these fruits and their uses to Europeans, but colonists also brought fruit of their own. Fruit growing in the Americas by Europeans dates back as early as 1493. Christopher Columbus planted lemons, limes, and sweet oranges to augment the native foods unfamiliar to colonists. Other Spaniards introduced the orange to Florida with the settlement of Saint Augustine in 1565, and, by 1566, Spaniards were planting orchards of olives, dates, figs, oranges, lemons, and limes on the coast of what is now the state of Georgia. By 1769, they had planted vineyards and orchards of fruit trees all the way from Texas to California.

The earliest English settlers in North America brought with them both seed and propagating wood for European varieties of apples and other hardy fruits. Capt. John Smith reported in 1629 that residents of Jamestown were growing apples, pears, peaches, apricots, and many other fruits. In 1638, John Josselyn reported in New England's Rarities Discovered that all the hardy fruits were growing in New England. Large orchards quickly developed. Apples from New England were being exported to the West Indies by at least 1741; Albemarle pippins were sent from Virginia to England as early as 1759. The westward movement of settlers in North America seems to have been preceded by the distribution of apple seedlings by Indians, trappers, and itinerants. One itinerant, John Chapman,—popularly known as Johnny Appleseed—planted apple seeds extensively in what is now Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and gained a prominent place in American folklore.

The nineteenth century marked the beginning of commercial fruit cultivation for most fruit crops. Commercial production of most small fruit, which includes blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, dewberries, gooseberries, and cranberries, was not possible until after 1825, when most of these wild plants were domesticated. The orange did not become firmly established as a commercial crop until Florida became a state in 1821. Southern Californians began shipping table grapes to northern California in 1839, but shipments to eastern markets did not commence until 1869. In the early nineteenth century, commercial fruit growing was seldom profitable due to lack of reliable rapid transportation to population centers.

Over the late nineteenth century, the invention of the refrigerated railroad car, the spread of commercial canning, and the growing economic reach of the United States, created an explosion in commercial fruit production, especially in California. In 1871, the Department of Agriculture shipped seedless orange-tree cuttings from Brazil to California, thus starting California's navel orange industry. Florida continued to produce a majority of the nation's oranges, but California soon captured the majority of the lemon industry when a cold wave hit Florida in 1894 and 1895. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a series of events led California to be the center of wine production in the United States. In 1863, an American louse called phylloxera, which attacks the vine roots, was accidentally imported into Europe. Massive vine-growing areas were destroyed as the pest spread; nearly 2.5 million acres of land were estimated to have been ruined in France; and in Madeira and the Canary Islands, wine production came to a complete halt. The ravages were checked eventually by the importation of louse-resistant stocks from California; the older vines were grafted onto these stocks. Eventually, the louse-resistant American vines completely replaced the prephylloxera European vines. By the beginning of the twentieth century, California was exporting commercially grown oranges, lemons, strawberries, grapes, and wine.

In the mid-and late twentieth century, commercial fruit production played a central role in labor battles. By this time, migrant and immigrant laborers were picking much of the fruit in the United States, and their itinerant status and seasonal employment often left them the victims of farms that paid inadequate wages and provided substandard housing. By 1965, a group called the National Farm Workers' Organizing Committee (later the United Farm Workers) formed to protect the labor interests of migrant farm workers. By 1968—under the leadership of César Chavez—the union had convinced 17 million consumers to participate in a national boycott of table grapes. The boycott succeeded in spurring about two-thirds of grape farms to contract with the farm workers' union. Later efforts of the United Farm Workers focused on the detrimental effects of pesticides on fruit harvesters.

During the Cold War, fruit growing—particularly banana growing—also played a major role in U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Although bananas were not produced in the United States, they were imported to the U.S. from Jamaica as early as 1870. By the 1920s, Americans were eating bananas with breakfast cereal, and a U.S. company called the United Fruit Company dominated banana production in Central America and banana importation in the United States. The United Fruit Company relied heavily on railway and land concessions in Central American countries to form banana plantations, and, in 1953, the government of Guatemala announced it would expropriate United Fruit Company lands for landless peasants and pay the United Fruit Company an indemnity. The United Fruit Company objected, and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called the indemnity unfair. When the American ambassador in Guatemala called the Guatemalan land reform policy an example of the "Marxist tentacles" spreading across Latin America, the United States joined with other Central American countries to back a successful coup in Guatemala, ending the proposed expropriation and protecting the United Fruit Company's interests. A greater number of companies participated in banana production by the close of the twentieth century, but in negotiations with European countries over banana imports, the United States continued to protect banana companies based in the United States.

By the close of the twentieth century, fruit growing continued to be a major commercial venture in the United States. In 1999, cash receipts for fruit-and nut-tree farms amounted to almost $13 billion—14 percent of sales for all U.S. agricultural crops. The United States produced about one-fourth of the world's lemons and, in 2000, the nation produced the second-largest amount of avocados in the world after Mexico. Hawaii, which had long dominated the world's production of pineapple, continued to produce the fruit for canning but lost most of the market to countries in Asia and Latin America. Florida continued to dominate citrus production, producing 76 percent of the nations navel and Valencia oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines combined. California produced 21 percent of the country's citrus fruits, and Arizona and Texas rounded out this production. Although losing out to Florida in overall citrus production, California continued to be the predominant producer of lemons. That state also produced 80 percent of the strawberries grown in the U.S. and most of the nation's wine.


Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Gray, L. C. A History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860. Washington, D.C.: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1933; New York: Peter Smith, 1941; Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.

Stoll, Steven. The Fruits of Natural Advantage: Making the Industrial Countryside in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Wilson, David Scofield, and Angus Kress Gillespie, eds. Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Ralph T.Fulton/a. e.

See alsoAgriculture ; Canning Industry ; Citrus Industry ; Food and Cuisines ; Food Preservation ; Gardening ;Nutrition and Vitamins ; Refrigeration ; United Farm Workers ; Wine Industry .