Boosting plum production in Maine

University of Maine researchers are working to bring locally grown plums to farm stands around the state.

The two-year project — funded by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry — is identifying suitable plum varieties for Maine’s climate that would help diversify the state’s apple farms.

The project is a joint collaboration between Angela Myracle, a phytochemist and nutritional biochemist at UMaine, and Renae Moran, a tree fruit specialist with the UMaine Cooperative Extension.

The team is assessing locally grown plum varieties by evaluating crop yields, fruit quality, consumer acceptance and production costs.

“When farmers can sell fruit directly to the consumer, it’s a lot more profitable for them,” says Moran.

Moran is collecting yield measurements, assessing the plum trees and evaluating the economic feasibility of growing plums in Maine. She got involved with plum research after farmers began to show interest in growing another fruit crop in addition to apples.

Plums were the perfect candidate.

Currently, the team is harvesting different plum varieties — grown at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth — for sensory testing, which will allow the researchers to see how consumers will perceive the fruit based on appearance, taste and texture. The last testing had approximately 100 participants.

Leading the sensory testing is Zakkary Castonguay, a master’s student in food science and human nutrition.

Castonguay’s research project is focused on the consumer acceptability and phytonutrient assessment of locally grown Maine plums. He is measuring the bioactive constituents found in plums to determine if local, tree-ripened plums have greater health benefits.

“Plums are a very low calorie snack. They are a good source of fiber and are a very good source of Vitamin C and potassium,” Myracle says. “Beyond just the basic nutrients that you hear about, they are just a good fruit that encourages people to eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables a day.”

By assessing the phytonutrient content of the plums, the researchers are able to better market the fruit, Castonguay says.

“We don’t want to recommend a variety to a farmer that grows well, but doesn’t sell well,” Myracle says.

The majority of plums found in Maine are shipped long distances and are harvested unripe, compromising quality. Growing plums in Maine could bring in extra income for farmers, as well as decreasing transportation costs by selling the plums locally, Myracle says.

Myracle also hopes that the project will help farmers diversify their farms with fruit that could be harvested during peak tourist season.

“By the time apple season rolls around, the tourist have already left. So the potential market for apples is decreased,plums are ready during the peak tourist season” Myracle says.

“As a Mainer, I find it essential that we continue to increase the state’s economic success and we can do this by determining which plums are enjoyed by consumers as well as which plums can be grown in our local climate,” Castonguay says.