Drought conditions may produce better pomegranates

Drought conditions may prompt pomegranate producers to farm differently.

Less water to produce better fruit being tested in pomegranate production

An ongoing drought in California is changing the way pomegranates are grown. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Most of the pomegranates for sale in Canada are grown in California, a state where water shortages have become a normal part of life.

Now, new research into pomegranate cultivation in dry conditions is lending credence to an old idea: that less water could mean better fruit.

While pomegranate orchards barely covered 2,000 acres in the 1970s, now more than 30,000 acres are devoted to pomegranate cultivation in California.

To produce large, ruby-red, juicy fruit, all those orchards use plenty of water. But do they need all that water? It's a question being asked by Tiziana Centofanti. She's a research scientist looking into irrigation technology at a USDA lab in Parlier, California.

"Pomegranates are considered drought-tolerant," she said.

"They are grown throughout the Mediterranean … and Israel … where in many cases, they are only rain-fed. And there is very little rain over there."

But in California, pomegranates, like a lot of fruit, are grown with plenty of irrigation. The result is the big, shiny pomegranates we've come to expect.

In Cenofanti's experiments, reducing the water by 30 to 50 per cent produces a similar fruit, but it may be smaller and sometimes cracked.

Centofanti said the smaller, less attractive fruit tastes better in many cases, and early results even show stressed plants may produce fruit with higher antioxidant content.

"I think the American market is very oriented to very big fruit," she explained. "So the farmers have to produce that kind of fruit and therefore they have to irrigate and fertilize very heavily."

The idea that drought conditions and stressed-out plants produce better fruit is not new. Wine growers, for example, stood by the principle for generations.

In the case of pomegranates, the biggest challenge may be convincing consumers to actually buy smaller, sometimes uglier, fruit that might taste better.