California farm eager to reintroduce sweet, nutritious mulberries to America – Twin Cities
“All fruits are beautiful, but the mulberry is the king of fruits.”
– Persian Proverb
Move over cherry, there’s a new berry in town.
Thousands of cherry lovers throughout the Bay Area make their way each spring to one of dozens of U-pick farms in Brentwood for the plump, juicy round fruits, but now – for the first time – there’s another option that is arguably just as sweet: the Himalayan purple mulberry, which looks a bit like an elongated blackberry with tiny clusters of fruit.
Not only is Habitera Farms the only one allowing visitors to partake in the picking of the tasty, dark-colored fleshy fruit — the season lasts about eight weeks — but it appears to be the only business selling mulberries on such a large scale commercially in the United States.
Habitera’s organic Very Mulberry business opened for its first U-pick season on May 13, and by all accounts, it has been a great success, according to Harvest Time spokeswoman Nancy Mai. Mai’s marketing company helped promote the unusual fruit and also promotes the other farms in the nonprofit farming organization.
“Opening weekend was phenomenal,” Mai said. “It was beyond the owners’ expectations.”
Farm founder Anil Godhwani of Fremont counted some 500 visitors the first day and another 700 on Mother’s Day, including a 100-year-old Chinese grandmother who recalled climbing mulberry trees in the 1930s and 1940s in China, where the fruit originated.
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Godhwani thinks the mulberries were a hit because many people from around the world are familiar with them from childhood.
“People have had mulberries, whether it’s in the United States from a tree in the backyard or a neighbor’s yard,” he said. “Be it Turkey, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Europe or even South America.”
Godhwani said on the first weekend they met visitors who hailed from some 30 different countries all waxing nostalgic about the glorious mulberry and “how much they had missed it.”
Co-founder Smita Sadana encouraged Godhwani to follow his dream to reintroduce mulberries to the public. A financial investor in the farm, along with Godhwani’s brother, Gautam, who also is a co-founder, she said she understands why the mulberry is so popular.
“Mulberries, the way I look at it, are a very easy-to-love fruit,” she said. “It has a really nice taste, it has a very incredible texture and it has a consistent taste.”
A native of Punjab in Northern India, Sadana grew up eating mulberries or “shahtoot” as they are called in Hindi – the same variety at Habitera – plucked fresh from the tree. Godhwani, who grew up in Delhi, also recalled pilfering the tasty berries from his neighbor’s tree. And while there are many ways to eat them – in baked goods, smoothies, chutneys, jams and more – both of them recall simply enjoying them fresh.
“Every year when these mulberries would come, we would share it with friends … it is the most incredible fruit,” Sadana said. “We would stop eating all the other fruits just to accommodate the mulberries for the eight to 10 weeks they are here.”
Godhwani liked mulberries so much that 15 years ago he planted his first tree in the backyard of his Fremont home. He would later plant six more as well as three Himalayan white mulberry trees along with other fruit-bearing trees.
A lover of fresh fruits and vegetables, Godhwani often traveled to Brentwood farms on spring weekends, mainly for cherry and apricot picking, even sometimes renting 55-passenger buses to transport family and friends – just for fun.
“Brentwood was an area I was familiar with; I had gotten to know the farmers,” said Godhwani, who works as a serial entrepreneur.
The Fremont businessman said he was thinking about starting a farm and began researching options with Sadana and others in 2015. That took them to UC Davis, where they tasted some of the 100 varieties of mulberries that exist.
“We got a chance to taste a lot of mulberries and let me tell you, all mulberries are not alike, from cotton puffs – tastes like you’re eating a puff of cotton – all the way to Himalayan mulberry that tastes incredible,” Sadana said.
“So, we wanted to get a mulberry, which has nutritional benefits, but it also has a taste benefit,” she said.
A few years later, Godhwani learned that 84 acres “with really good soil” was up for sale in Brentwood in 2018. He was hooked but before he could plant anything, he had to choose the variety.
“This is the one we fell in love with,” Godhwani said of sweet purple mulberry. “Because it’s exquisite, its taste and flavor. It’s known as the Himalayan Mulberry.”
Also called the Pakistani mulberry – it appears on both sides of the border between India and Pakistan – the Himalayan proved to have a pleasing sweetness yet a hardier skin so it is easier to transport than some other varieties, the cofounders said.
As for the nutritional value, the mulberry is known for its high levels of iron and Vitamin C, and high concentrations of the antioxidant anthocyanin, thought to combat coronary heart diseases.
“It’s also full of resveratrol (antioxidant), like red grapes, but have way more resveratrol, which is great for anti-aging,” Sadana said.
Godhwani planted the first 10 acres of Himalayan mulberries in 2020, added 60 acres the next year and more in 2022 to fill out his 84-acre ranch, as well as six additional acres he leases nearby. The trees, which are largely drought-resistant, start producing small amounts in the second year but don’t become economically viable until year three, Sadana said.
The bulk of the trees were propagated from cuttings off the original mulberry tree in Godhwani’s backyard, and they “are doing fantastic,” he said.
“It takes about four or five years for the tree to be fully mature,” Sadana said. “When our trees are fully mature, we are probably looking at a million-plus pounds every season.”
With few farmers out there growing mulberries, most doing research and development — and none to the extent of Habitera — the Brentwood entrepreneurs had to get inventive with much of the operation, including deciding how to get the juicy fruits off the trees, which can grow more than 50 feet tall.
Their innovative techniques to harvest the berries include a pushcart they loosely modeled after the Rehri cart Indian street vendors push around. The farm’s carts are pushed close to the trees and one person gives the branches a shake with a pole, causing the ripe fruits to fall down into an attached netting.
“The beauty is that when you shake the tree during the two-month season and give it just the right amount of shaking, 90% of the mulberries that drop on the nets are ripe ones, which is wonderful,” Godhwani said, noting they are shaken manually every other day during harvest.
Last year, the farm also hired Luis De la Garza as general manager, a 10-year veteran of the berry industry. “He brought with him a wealth of knowledge not just about farming, but specifically about berries,” Sadana said.
In addition, they hired 10 high school students to serve as U-pick guides and assist visitors in finding ripe fruits.
“We’ve got lots and lots and lots of mulberries on those 60 acres,” Godhwani said. “So, when people came this past weekend, they absolutely loved it.”
The entrepreneurs said they have begun sharing recipes on their website, VeryMulberry.com, to use berries in everything from pie and jams to smoothies, mojitos and more. They are also working with Sunnyvale’s Pints of Joy to develop a mulberry ice cream, he said.
In addition, their mulberries, including both purple and a limited number of white mulberries, are sold at area farmers markets and soon at online direct-to-customer sites, GoodEggs.com and SayWeee.com.
With the difficulties of shipping the delicate fruits long distances, for now Godhwani considers 99% of his market to be the greater San Francisco Bay Area, but he said he might consider going to other areas down the road.
“It’s early days for us right now because we want to learn more about how to grow mulberries commercially — successfully and profitably — but our longterm goal very much is to really be a catalyst to reintroduce mulberries to America,” he said.
Habitera Farms, at 501 Hoffman Lane, is open for U-pick on weekends, with the mulberry season usually lasting through late June. For more information, go to www.verymulberry.com.