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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

August 24, 2018  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

The pomegranate: From the Promised Land to the Sunshine State

By BRUCE LOWITT Jewish Press

ZOLFO SPRINGS – There’s a bit of the Middle East here in the middle of Florida, where pomegranates – one of the seven fruits named in Deuteronomy as representing the bounty of Israel – grow in abundance.

It’s called Green Sea Farms, 31 acres, six devoted to 130 varieties of pomegranates, two more acres to a pomegranate nursery, some of the rest open to cattle they breed, chickens and vegetables. David and Cynthia Weinstein bought the property in 2004 after 25 years of living and working on boats and cruising the Caribbean, when St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands was their home port.

“We were in our 50s and didn’t know anything about land life, farming, anything,” David said. “We bought a conversion van, lived in that and leased out the property to a farmer for cattle grazing while trying to decide what we could do with it. Animals? Solar? Windmills? Fruit trees? In 2011 we decided on pomegranates.”


David and Cynthia Weinstein, who grow pomegranates on their farm in Zolfo Springs, 50 miles east of Bradenton. 
Photos by Bruce Lowitt David and Cynthia Weinstein, who grow pomegranates on their farm in Zolfo Springs, 50 miles east of Bradenton. Photos by Bruce Lowitt Cynthia is 61 and manages the farm. David is 67 and owns a mobile marine service business in Punta Gorda, installing electronic gear on yachts. She is not Jewish; he is, but he’s not religious. He knows, though, that the pomegranate is a traditional part of Rosh Hashanah, and that “in biblical times (in the Middle East), apples didn’t exist.” David conjectures the apple in the story of Adam and Eve was actually a pomegranate.

Jewish tradition tells us that the pomegranate has 613 arils (seeds), representing the 613 commandments in the Torah.

Well, maybe. Depending on the variety of pomegranate, there can be a few hundred to more than a thousand seeds.

There are several references to the fruit in the Bible and pomegranate symbols have been found on artifacts dating back to biblical times.


A parfianka pomegrante A parfianka pomegrante When Moses was leading our ancestors through the desert, he asked God, “And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates.” (Numbers 20:5)

The pomegranate are part of what is known as the Seven Species, the seven fruits and grains singled out in the Torah as examples of the Holy Land’s fertility.

It is also a symbol of fertility, which is another reason why we eat them as part of our new year’s celebration.

Images of woven pomegranates adorned the hems of priests’ robes (Exodus 28:33) and were on ancient shekels. An ivory pomegranate, believed to have been the head of a scepter from King Solomon’s temple, resides in a Jerusalem museum. Pomegranates are praised by King Solomon in the Song of Songs (4:3) and it is the only fruit with a top shaped like a crown.


The Weinsteins’ pomegranate orchard The Weinsteins’ pomegranate orchard But the pomegranate isn’t just a Jewish thing, so to speak. For starters the first pomegranates can be traced back to about 3000 B.C.E. in what is now Basra, Iraq. King Tut was buried with pomegranates, hoping he would be reborn, and in Islam they symbolize wealth and health. The Chinese consider it, along with the peach and citron, to be blessed fruit.

Pomegranates came to the United States thanks to Dr. Gregory Levin, a botanist born in Leningrad in 1933, who had devoted 40 years to research of the plant in Turkmenistan. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, funding dried up and the Turkmenistan government uprooted the pomegranate trees and replaced them with vegetables – but Levin had the foresight to send cuttings to Ben-Gurion University in Israel and the University of California, Davis.

California has more than 32,000 acres of pomegranate farms, and trees have made their way to the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia. Here in Florida, about 50 small farms, 300 acres’ worth, grow pomegranates but none of them is a commercial operation.

Florida pomegranates can’t be sold for human consumption, only for animal feed and decorative purposes because the state has yet to complete the testing of pesticides on them and approve them for labeling.

“To get approval,” David said, “you first have to identify what critters you’ve got, working in petri dishes, to establish which chemicals will work, then work on plants to see what controls the problem. That’s the efficacy stage. Then in the residual stage you grow fruit and spray them again, then test the fruit. That’s a fairly expensive proposition.

“Normally chemical companies do it for bigger crops,” he said. “They’re not interested in smaller ones like ours. … The chemicals we use now are approved for use on blueberries but we don’t have approval (to use them on pomegranates).”

The Weinsteins – she is president of the 100-member Florida Pomegranate Association, he’s the treasurer – have about 10,000 pomegranate plants. They’d have to at least double that to become commercially viable. Now they donate most of their crop to the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center near Lake Alfred, which is endeavoring to create a pomegranate industry in the state.

The couple met in the Florida Keys; she was vacationing with a friend and he was on another boat, two slips away. While in ports in the Caribbean they’d take any job to make money – pumping gas, cleaning boats and so on. They had a canvas shop on their boats where she made sail covers, seat covers and awnings.

“We bought the property as an investment,” he said. “We drove all over the states, narrowed it down to Florida – we spent a lot of time in the tropics – and decided anything north of I-4 was too cold.” They chose Zolfo Springs because it was between their parents’ homes in Sebring and Sarasota.

“We don’t like cities,” Cynthia said. “We like our space and peace and quiet that we were used to on the boat. This reminded us of the sea, vast and open, so we named it Green Sea Farms.”

They closed on the property in August 2004, the day before Hurricane Charley came through. It destroyed much of Punta Gorda, 45 miles to the south, but the Weinsteins were still living on a boat in Sarasota and escaped the worst of Charley by sailing up the Caloosahatchee River.

Once they decided on pomegranates, they contacted the research center at UF, Cynthia said. “They were starting a pomegranate project and were looking for people to take on a study to develop a market.” They imported their first plants from gene banks in California and Georgia.

“Most of the rest of the world grows them in what’s called a Mediterranean climate,” David said, “and we have the opposite, so our issue is we get into the humid and rainy season when they’re fruiting and flowering. The rest of the world doesn’t have that.

“We have some varieties (from southern states) that seem to have a natural resistance to our problems but most of them, unfortunately, don’t have big fruit, red fruit. They’re seedy, they’re sour, so right now we have a grant from the university on cross-breeding.”

Basically, the Weinsteins have gone from learning how to grow a pomegranate to trying to learn how to grow an industry.

“We like the farm life,” David said. “It’s a great learning experience. We didn’t realize how long a road to hoe it would be at our age. We’re thinking, ‘Well, just about the time we’re ready to retire is when this’ll be prolific and doing good.’ ”

They have three daughters and a son, all grown, plus four grandchildren and three great grandchildren – none of whom is interested in a pomegranate life. “Hopefully we’ll find someone who’ll love it as much as we do,” Cynthia said.


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