Interview with Dr. Richard Campbell, Tropical Fruit Curator at Fairchild

* * *Fairchild Tropical Fruit Curators Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell (in the brimmed hats) in India. /Courtesy of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden* * *

Dr. Richard Campbell loves his job. This is a man passionate about mangos, as evidenced by his recent cover photo for Edible South Florida magazine.  Campbell is one of the Tropical Fruit Curators at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. That means that, among other things, Campbell is responsible for helping prepare for the International Mango Festival, and for helping supply the mangos displayed and sampled at the annual tastings during the festival.

For the first time grower, Campbell suggests planting varieties like  Cogshall,  Angie, and Jean Ellen.  These are good starter mangoes that will grow successfully in Florida, but he also says that it depends on your taste. “That’s the great thing about mangos–you can get any flavor you can think of.”

Here’s more from Campbell:

Is this a good time to plant mangos?

Yes.   In July, we normally have a mini dry season, but it’s normally not very long.  It’s a very good time to plant mangos in the middle of summer.  June is normally the best month, but August is also a very good month.

I was at Whole Foods and a woman was asking about local mangos, because all they had was mangos from Mexico. Why we don’t see more of these local mangos in our local supermarkets?

It’s a product of a modern cold chain in the United State supermarket system and you know, we can either condemn it or whatever but the bottom line is that it’s very hard to meet their standards for what they consider a mango,which is something that can stay in refrigeration and travel a long distance.  There’s a zero tolerance for any blemish.

Now at Fairchild, at our farm, we’re growing mangos as a boutique product.  We have a five-acre property [Williams Grove] where we grow all these different varieties,  and we’re learning a lot about how to do it.  One of the things we’ve been doing is kind of dancing around with Whole Foods about supplying their mangos to them, but frankly the restrictions they would put on me  wouldn’t really work for us.  We just do better supplying them to the public.


It’s logistics.  As you know, we have a small staff.  We’re a botanical garden–that’s our first job.

We do a very good job now of supplying very good quality mangos to the public [at Williams Grove] and we’re learning how to do it well.  As of now, we don’t have enough of a volume of any specific variety.  One day we hope to  be able to get to that level where we work with Whole Foods.

Whole Foods is very open to the whole idea.  They are very good in general about trying to meet that need and one day I’m sure we’ll get there.  It’s just as much our inadequacy as much as theirs to meet that goal.

The other issue for local mangos is very few people have any of these new varieties.  Most people have the old varieties from when South Florida had a general mango business–the same things that are being imported into the U.S. now were being grown here. And we have a general price disadvantage.  People can get better prices out of Mexico than they can out of South Florida.

The good thing is for the first time in a couple of years, we have seen pricing for local mangoes that makes it a good business again, which is exciting for the local consumer, because as long as the farmer can stay in business, he’ll grow it.

That’s another thing for people to understand: farming is a way of life, but it’s also a business to people. Everybody has to stay in business in order to do it.  Sometimes that’s not so easy.

Are there very many mango growers in South Florida?

There’s a lot of them.

At Williams Grove, we’ve been trying to learn by experience because there are varieties of mangos you can and can’t grow.  You can do research,  but when you grow them week in, week out, put them in a cooler, [that’s the real way to learn which ones work.]   For example, you have to make real soft mangos into smoothies.   So there are certain mangos that are more useful than others.  But yeah, there’s a lot of interest from growers .  We’re talking about small acreages. We’re not talking about  a hundred acre planting.  There’s a lot of five, ten acre growers. There’s a real future and that’s exciting.

Do all of the mango dishes at the Mango Brunch come from Williams Grove?

The chefs have been coming in all afternoon and getting mangos from us.  That’s also the fun part.  They come in and get very excited about all of the varieties.  I try to give them a good group that they can not only use for their dishes, but they can also sample and get excited about.

What I would love to do is to start to supply the chefs with mangoes throughout the year and again that’s just a logistical issue.  But you know, it’s nice to know there is a demand there, it’s nice to know we have the quality.  So we’re working on creating a supply situation for culinary trade in specialty mangoes sometime in the future.

Tell me a little but about the mango tasting this year.

One of the biggest challenges of the mango tasting is to get the proper maturity on the mangos.  I take a risk on some varieties that we have never done before. It’s fun to take risks, but it kind of freaks me out because I’m a perfectionist.  Another thing that holds us back is you’ve got to have enough mangos for a thousand people.  But I think we’ve got it.

We’re going to have Alphonse and Mallika at the tasting.  Alphonse and Mallika are, of course, top grade  Indian mangos.

They just started letting the Alphonse and other Indian mangos come in to the US a few years ago,  right?

Right.  We work very closely with one of the guys who organized that whole thing, Bhaskar Savani–he got the introduction of those mangos into the U.S.  He’ll be at the festival this weekend. And Bhaskar sends boxes of mangos to us [from India.]  I’m particularly gunning to blow him away this weekend with the exceptional quality in our Alphonses and Mallikas.

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