The blood drive was back again this month. Every year we look forward to donation day as individuals at HMC Farms line up at their onsite opportunity to donate blood and save a life. These drives play a crucial role in ensuring a steady supply of blood for medical emergencies, surgeries, and patients battling various illnesses. Beyond the immediate medical benefits, hosting a blood drive fosters a sense of unity and altruism, emphasizing the power of collective goodwill to make a positive difference in the lives of those in need.
Western Growers believes that women are essential to the future of agriculture, which is why they developed WG Women, a program that prepares women for positions of leadership within the fresh produce industry. The initial conception and brainstorming meeting took place at HMC Farms and Sarah McClarty (our CFO) was among one of the first graduates of the program. The program includes media training, political advocacy, mentorship, and much more. Recently Sarah was featured as a panelist at the Women‘s Event and given the opportunity to share her experiences and the benefits of such an uplifting and supportive program.
Harvest continues in our vineyards, and pruning continues in our orchards. This month will more than likely be the last days of 90-degree summer weather we‘ll see until next year. The warm days and cool nights have been ideal conditions for table grape maturity. The dew point and humidity have also been optimal for this time of year with zero foggy days to date. If not for hurricane Hilary, this fall would have been perfect table grape growing conditions for the season. As you can see below, the vineyards remain covered until the completion of harvest. If things continue on the current path, we will be harvesting for weeks to come.
Our grape program at HMC Farms is one of a kind. We are the only vertically integrated company with an entire department dedicated to portioned and washed and ready-to-eat foodservice grapes. Our Lunch Bunch® grapes are the original 2 – 4 ounce portioned clusters of grapes. They are perfect for school lunches, restaurants, garnishes and more. Our Grape Escape® grapes are washed and ready-to-enjoy. They come in an array of pack styles to fit every need, from bulk to individual bags, to small trays, to large bags. If you are looking for ways to expand your grape category, please visit hmcfarms.com/value-added/.
It was an August we won‘t soon forget. Our hope is for things to settle this month and to have more answers than questions in the near future. We are still evaluating fields and changing plans on a daily basis to do what is best for our tree fruit and table grapes. For now, we will focus on the good. The plum crop faired very well through the storm, and we will have red and black plums available late into the fall.
While the table grape situation continues to shift on a daily basis, we do have some positive news to report from the field. This month we were able to distribute farm worker aid payments provided by the USDA for all farm workers who worked in the field in 2020 and beyond. We are currently providing glucose testing in our orchards, making it easier for individuals to check in on a health issue that may be of concern.
In honor of National Farm Safety this month, we would like to highlight what we do to keep workers as safe as possible in the field. We have field specific safety trainers who regularly train employees on correct harvest and pruning techniques, heat illness prevention, and poisonous insect and animal awareness, to name a few. Each of these topics are broken into specifics, for example, we hold training for ladder safety in orchards that are harvested traditionally and another for platform harvesting. Throughout the summer we organize tailgate topics in the field, where we emphasize specific areas that may be of concern that day. These tailgate topics are increasingly helpful during the hotter days in the summer when heat illness is one of our highest priorities.
We are managing the crop and quality of table grapes out in the field to the best of our abilities. While the cleanup can be tedious, we are encouraged by the end result we see from the vineyard. If everything continues on the current path, we should have grapes into December. Harvest is wrapping up on Krissy, Scarlet Royal, and Timco red seedless and harvest is just getting started on Great Green and Autumn King green seedless. Our early Allison vineyards have been picked and we will get into the bulk of that variety over the coming month. We will continue to watch the weather and do our best to prepare for any future storms.
As you know, California had a historic amount of rain and snow this winter and spring. The Sierra Nevada mountains in our region recorded 237% of normal snowfall, which is now generating an excess of water that growers can utilize as it melts. Instead of pumping groundwater, we are able to take water directly from the mountain reservoirs via canal systems. Our irrigation districts have also been able to fill their recharge basins to percolate water and recharge groundwater aquifers. Having full reservoirs on is a wonderful thing, and the abundance of last winter’s precipitation will even have a beneficial carry over effect into the 2024 season.
A lot of the time when we mention the weather it is in regard to the heat, but the cool nights can play as much or more of a role in fruit maturity. Studies have shown that overnight lows below 68° F are what actually help to accelerate color and berry ripening in table grapes. With a forecast of cooler nights part of this month, we could potentially start to see the fruit moving closer to normal timing as opposed to the two-to-three-week delay; we’ve been seeing this summer. It usually takes a couple of weeks to really see the full effects of the weather, whether it is hot, cold, or ideal temperatures, so only time will tell.
The tree fruit season has quickly caught up to last year’s timing. Infact, nectarines, white nectarines, and white peaches are going to end earlier than last season. There was a light rain recently in certain spots and it is affecting the fruit in those areas. We had hoped that the timing of grape harvest would move up with the onset of cool nights, but that hope hasn’t come to fruition. Color is the main hold up on our red varieties and unfortunately color up does not have the same effect on grapes as it does on tree fruit.
We had an unexpected storm this month. The issue is not only the amount of rain, it is also how quickly the rain came down. Someplaces in the valley registered over half an inch in 30 minutes. This is unheard of in our area and is uncharted territory for August (which was unlike any this valley had seen in over 85 years); and it is manifesting itself in all the negative ways we predicted. We are getting some clarity of the damage and product lost in both grapes and stone fruit. Pack outs on tree fruit, which is how we measure the number of boxes packed from fruit received from the field, are less than half of what they were before the rain. In some cases, we are choosing to abandon the fields rather than pick, especially nectarines. This month will probably be the end of our rescue attempts on nectarines. We will limp through peaches until we get to the later varieties which begin in late September. In our vineyards we are cleaning the grapes. This process involves clipping out individual berries and bunches that are not suitable to be packed. The packing costs have risen about 20% as a result of all the cleaning required.
We appreciate your patience and understanding during a very difficult time.
Harvest continues in all tree fruit commodities, both organic and conventional. While the fruit may not have known there was a recent holiday this month, we did, and were happy to celebrate with fresh Peach cobbler, a stone fruit salad and a few more of our favorite summer tree fruit recipes (after we finished picking and packing). We hope all who celebrated had a happy and safe Fourth of July filled with fresh fruit and a few fireworks!
This month a heat wave with temperatures peaking at 114 degrees Fahrenheit hit the central valley. This requires earlier and shorter harvest hours for tree fruit, so crews can pick in the morning when it is cool and avoid the exceedingly high heat in the afternoons. The fruit tends to stall at these temperatures, meaning it goes into a state of lower activity, with minimal growth and maturity during peak temperatures. For grapes, the risk of sunburn is still worrisome, especially in later varieties that have not yet completed verasion.
Traditional “sunburn” happens wherever the sun touches the fruit at those high temperatures and is fairly obvious right away. Recently, we started noticing some berries that were protected from the sun and in shade were beginning to shrivel. The good news is we left more fruit on the vine than in previous years, hopefully it will help compensate for the shriveled berries.
With forecasts lingering above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, heat awareness is increasingly important. People are encouraged to take additional water breaks, are reminded of the warning signs for heat illness, and work in a buddy system. This is when we see increased benefits in our ag technology. All picking platforms have built in shade canopies, to provide relief from the heat and the burden of carrying a heavy ladder. Drone or robotic harvesting can be utilized in the future on these exceedingly hot days. Pictured below is an advanced farm harvester that can pick tree fruit in day or night conditions. Click here to see them in action.
Even though it seems like we have been at this for months, we are only halfway through our stone fruit season. It has been a quality eating year and some of the best varieties are yet to come. Fortunately, the heat did little damage to the existing fruit, and we are all looking forward to a slight cool down. This is the perfect time to get in extra stone fruit ads before the season begins to wind down. Grapes are starting slow, much like stone fruit did. In about a week or two we will get into full harvest volumes and are hoping to have ample volume for the entire season. The season harvest dates are remaining later than “normal”, and we are still unsure if that trend will continue for the remainder of harvest.
The highly anticipated harvest of Plumsicle™, is finally ready! Exclusively available at HMC Farms, Plumsicles hold the key to a sweet summer experience. They are renowned for their exquisite flavor and have become an instant favorite people eagerly await throughout the year. Indulge in the excitement by exploring our enticing teaser videos. Simply click on the images below to watch our vibrant new ads. Discover more about this refreshing treat by visiting our website, HMCPlumsicle.com , or follow our Plumsicle journey on Instagram @hmcplumsicle. To learn more, reach out to your HMCFarms sales representative today. Don’t wait too long, as HMC Farms Plumsicles are only available from late June to early August, making them a limited-time indulgence.
California Grape Update: Our grapes have experienced optimal weather conditions. Shatter, the way grape bunches are shaped and the spacing of the berries throughout the bunch, is the best we’ve seen in recent years. This is optimal for growth as well as helpful for our springtime tasks like bunch tipping and thinning, which are normally some of the most tedious jobs of the year. Berries are continuing to size up every day. Veraison is just beginning on our very earliest varieties. This is when the berries begin to “soften” and mature. During this process the grapes will slowly start converting acid into sugar. This is also when the red and black varieties will begin to change color. The crop looks great, and we are excited for the season. Initial harvest is still 8 to 12 days behind last year, but as the warm summer weather arrives in the coming weeks those time frames may adjust.
Temperatures are unseasonably cool for the Summer Solstice. We almost made it through the entire month of June without a single day over 100 degrees, which is almost unheard of in the San Joaquin Valley. Fortunately, our farm crews and the fruit are loving the cool weather. All varieties have been brixing above average on all commodities. Pictured below is the optical grader and sorter at one of our facilities. Follow our Tech Tuesday updates on Instagram to learn more about the exciting technological advances at HMC Farms.
The wait is over. Harvest has begun for tree fruit in peaches, white peaches, nectarines, white nectarines, and organic peaches this month. The fruit looks good and is brixing well with great color and flavor for the first of the season. This will only continue to improve with time. With temperatures in the 90’s, the fruit will continue to mature in a timely fashion. Peak season fruit in both flavor and volume is right around the corner. By the week of June 5th, we will have promotable volumes available on all commodities except plums and plumcots. We are also training the juvenile trees and will complete trellis installation soon.
Shoot thinning in the table grapes is complete and grape bloom is finished. It was one of the most accelerated blooms in recent memory. We are currently waiting for bunches to fully shatter out, which will give us a better idea of the shape of the bunch in the fall. The berries on the lead bunches have already begun to size up. Leafing is wrapping up this month, and we have begun hanging bunches. This is the process of untangling bunches from canes, leaves, or other bunches to ensure they are hanging freely and that the berries have adequate room to grow.
Today HMC Farms is welcoming back Tevel. This will be the second consecutive year in our orchards for the Israeli ag tech company. While here, Tevel will continue to fine tune their flying autonomous robots for mechanical harvesting. Being immersed in harvest and our fields throughout the summer is a key component to fine tuning the software for farm and commodity specific tasks such as detaching the fruit correctly from the limb, variety by variety variations in color and density, specific release protocols, and more. These robots will eventually allow us to optimize our harvest by giving us the ability to pick fruit on afternoons with high heat, at night, or other windows of time that are currently unavailable. Our high-density planting system makes HMC Farms an ideal partner in this endeavor.
The current warm weather forecast is ideal for fostering growth in the fruit’s current stage of development. However, we are currently two weeks behind last year’s progress, which suggests that our anticipated harvest start date will also be delayed by two weeks. At this point, it is difficult to determine the size of the fruit. Despite the uncertainty surrounding future development and field conditions, the warm weather provides a promising start for a healthy harvest. To provide context for the timing difference between this season and last, the image on the left shows the Spring Princess peach at this time last year, while the image on the right depicts our current Spring Princess.
Thinning in our peaches and nectarines is finally underway. Thinning removes excess, under-sized, or damaged fruit from our trees while it is still in its juvenile stage. This ensures that nutrients are directed to fewer pieces of fruit, resulting in better size and flavor. It also protects the tree from damage due to too much weight on the limbs. Our official start date for thinning this year is 12 days later than 2022. Thinning is indicative of harvest timing, so we are still anticipating a start date two weeks later than last year. In fact, the closest year we’ve had to our current projected start date is 2010. Now the only concern is sizing. Warm weather can move the fruit up a few days, but sizing may be affected if that happens. All in all it looks to be a good crop, and we are optimistic for the 2023 season.
Even though it would seem our fears for historic flooding are finally at ease, they are not. Parts of the valley are still flooded, and a majority of the water is coming this summer. This is officially the largest snowpack on record for the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada mountains. The Department of Water Resources electronic readings from 130 snow sensors placed throughout the state indicate the statewide snowpack’s snow water equivalent is 61.1 inches, or 237 percent of average for this date. To put this into perspective, there is enough water in the mountains to completely fill our already full reservoirs anywhere from two to four times this summer.
With temperatures in the 90’s, timing may move up a day or two, but we still predict the crop will be 12 -14 days later than last year. There is an adequate stone fruit crop with some inconsistent sets that vary block by block. The freeze in January did affect some of our early season varieties, but it is very sporadic. The image above shows the difference in the amount of fruit on the top of the tree versus the bottom where the freeze affected the set.
Ag is always in the news for one topic or another. While some tend to focus on the negative, we like to bring to light all of the positive aspects of agriculture. Please click here to listen to a podcast with Hernan Hernandez, the Executive Director of the California Farmworker Foundation. HMC Farms has been a proud supporter of CFF since the beginning, which was developed to provide concrete solutions for many community-wide issues such as housing crises, food insecurity and healthcare. They believe in helping farmworkers become leaders, and empowering individuals to become advocates for themselves and their communities.
Congratulations to Harold McClarty. This month he received the prestigious Mentor Award from the California Fresh Fruit Association. This award is bestowed upon individuals who have demonstrated exceptional dedication to the fresh grape, berry and tree fruit communities through their leadership in the industry. Those of you who know Harold know he is an outspoken advocate for California Agriculture. He is not only a leader but also a friend to many, and his exceptional character and contributions make him truly deserving of this honor.
We have received a historic amount of rainfall so far this year. At this exact time last year, we had logged 2.53 inches of rain for all of 2022. We are currently registering double our average annual rainfall and current snowpack is over 230% of normal. Future forecasts are calling for more rain and cooler temperatures than normal. Blossoms are progressing in the trees, and bud break is progressing in the grapes. Once the fruit sets, hail will be our biggest environmental concern.
With our tenth atmospheric river on the horizon and temperatures remaining in the 35 – 60 degree range, we need to look into options to assist natural pollination. Pollination is an essential process for the production of plums. Plums are not self-fertile and need pollen from another tree to produce fruit. When we plant our plum orchards, we will plant or graft two to three compatible varieties within the same block to encourage cross pollination, which in turn produces a healthier and more abundant crop. Bee boxes are brought in to aid in the cross pollination, but during cold winters like this, bees aren’t very active below 55 degrees. To provide an extra boost when we have a variety that is difficult to set or abnormally cold weather, we manually extract pollen from our own plum flowers and apply the pollen with a blower as shown in the picture above.
Bud break is a critical stage in the growth cycle of table grapes. It refers to the point in time when the dormant buds on the grapevine start to open, grow and develop into new shoots. Bud break is triggered by rising temperatures and longer daylight hours. Given the cold, wet weather we’ve been having, bud break is running behind this season. As you can see in the pictures above, the buds are more closed up than the past six years. Although a warm spring can compensate, a delayed bud break is typically indicative of a later start to the season.
We had the opportunity to instruct a group of 530 curious fifth graders about the vital role that technology plays in the field of agriculture. The students enthusiastically engaged with the material and posed insightful questions about farming practices, the role of robots in agriculture, and potential careers in the field. Overall, it was a rewarding experience that highlighted the importance of educating the next generation about the evolving landscape of agriculture.
Science fiction stories about the future generally go one of two ways: A dystopian hell where robots attack us (“The Terminator”) or a dystopian hell where robots attack us in space (“2001: A Space Odyssey.”) But now it’s time to separate science fiction from fact. As the labor crisis continues in agriculture, with common-sense immigration reform at a standstill and an aging workforce threatening the future supply of skilled labor, technology will be one of the saviors of the industry. In recent agricultural industry events—from FIRA USA, the first American version of the international ag robotics expo that was held in Fresno, to the Alliance for Food and Farming Safe Fruits and Veggies farm tour across the Central Valley, to the Organic Grower Summit held last month in Monterey, Calif.—the excitement about agtech was tempered by one recurring question: Does automation mean farmworkers will lose jobs? It’s a humane question, one based in the very worthy concern that individuals’ livelihoods would be eliminated by technology. It’s a variation on the dystopian theme that has populated our pop culture for decades.
The answer, thankfully, is no. In fact, in a scenario that might be counter-intuitive for a layperson— automation doesn’t replace workers, but it will actually improve workers’ quality of life by making their specific jobs easier and giving them better paying opportunities down the road. At FIRA, Hernan Hernandez, the Executive Director of the California Farmworker Foundation, gave a presentation on exactly this topic, noting that technology collaboration is the key to farmworker economic mobility as well as a way to improve safety on the job.
“When we were asking farmworkers ‘What do you think about these new machines? What do you see? What is the future?’ many of them were a bit scared—but the majority of them said these machines are great and all, but they will never replace us,” he said. “We’ve seen this in our data—a lot of farmworkers support technology. They think it is going to help them….In the Central Valley, the farmworkers’ average age is 45 years old. This is a workforce that, five to 10 years from now, is going to need technology to help them with their day-to-day activities.”
Hernandez says his organization is striving for a “free, fair, prosperous society” and he believes farmworker education to assist with career development is key. To that end, CFF is working with the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation (F3) coalition, which in 2022 received a $65.1 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration—the largest grant ever received in the Central Valley—to accelerate the integration of technology and worker skills.
“One thing that I do want to emphasize is the workforce that we have today knows the fields,” he said. “They’ve lived in the fields, they’ve worked in the fields for 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, 50 years. They know exactly what the terrain looks like and how to do the work. The one thing I would want to see is more farmworkers being included in the discussions so we can produce better technology that is safe.” That is exactly what is being done at HMC Farms in Kingsburg, Calif., according to Vice President Drew Ketelsen. “We will always need people—we cannot function without them,” he said. “But technology changes our ever-shifting landscape. Just like in many other industries, some job [categories] are lost and others are gained. There are new positions available in specialized areas in ag because of technology, allowing people the opportunity to pursue careers that didn’t exist five years ago.” The best comparison to make is to think of what
happened to switchboard operators as communications technology improved. Do those kinds of jobs exist in this day and age? Rarely. But did the mobile phone open up a whole new world of better-paying jobs in the same sector? Absolutely. Yesterday’s switchboard operator is today’s app designer.
Ketelsen’s team now operates everything from flying autonomous robots to optical grading and sorting machines to Burro self-driving wheelbarrows to field moisture probes to help HMC’s operations run more efficiently. “Ag technology is present in every aspect of our operation, from field preparation to harvest, packing to shipping, and everything in between,” he said. “Agtech doesn’t always look like a scene from the future, it can be as simple as adding a power system to reduce the manual human effort required of an activity—think of using a power drill rather than a screwdriver. Agtech is not about taking jobs away, it’s about making jobs better for employees.”
And while the cool factor of ag robots is undeniable, there is a very serious business motivation for Ketelsen’s push for technology at his operations.
“If agriculture does not innovate, the job loss will be astronomical. In contrast with slowly losing some jobs to innovation, all jobs will be immediately lost if farm acreage is replaced with non-labor-intensive crops, or pulled out of agriculture altogether,” he said. “The concern is about more than jobs; it is also about food security. Two-thirds of all the nation’s fruits and nuts come from California alone. If we cannot find a way to provide healthy and affordable food, everyone will suffer.” For Chris Rotticci, General Manager at Taylor Harvesting LLC, the fight for automation is on two fronts: toward off the future inevitable collapse of the ag labor system—and to make sure today’s industry workers stay safe. Why use a ladder when workers can harvest from a mechanized raised platform that moves along the orchard row?
“Here, our emphasis and goal of automation is to improve our ergonomics,” he said. “How do we improve that work environment for the person that is actually doing the work? If we can build convenience into their working environment where they can improve their throughout, that’s a win for everyone.” (Article Courtesy of Western Growers. Click here to view.)
Trees are now blossoming in many Central Valley tree fruit farms, with about half of our orchards in some stage of bloom. As blooms emerge, so do the first worries about the upcoming season’s crop. Blooms are very susceptible to being damaged or killed by below freezing temperatures. This month our area saw temperatures below freezing for a substantial amount of time, with some weather stations reporting lows of 27 degrees, we prepare our mitigation efforts. This mostly involves running irrigation to bring up warmer water from underground to provide a couple of extra degrees to the growing environment. In a few select areas, we have wind machines that we will run to bring warmer air down closer to the orchard floor. Some of the early varieties had a fairly high flower mortality rate, but as a reminder, we only need a small percentage of fruitlets to achieve a near full crop. Crop potential will depend on how evenly distributed viable flowers are on the tree. We remain optimistic that the damage to the early varieties will be minimal and we are thankful that the forecast has removed freezing temperatures as many more varieties have come into bloom.
This month California was in a drought and a flood at the exact same time. We are ending the year with 40% more precipitation than last year, but unfortunately our state does not have the infrastructure to capture all the water that is rapidly falling upon us. On average, a “normal” rain day in California is 0.25″-0.75″, but these atmospheric river storms are bringing 2″+ of water at a time. While our vineyards and orchards are equipped to handle the weather, many places are not. The reservoirs are currently at half capacity and snowpack is already up to 200% of average, and we still have several months of weather ahead of us. Even though a lot of water will be lost to the ocean rather than being captured, the reservoirs and groundwater will get a much-needed recharge which is a big positive.
Pruning continues in our California vineyards. All acreage is pre-pruned with a machine that removes top half of the last season’s growth mechanically. The final pruning cuts are then made by hand with crews that have been trained to leave the precise amount of wood to ensure the optimal health of the vine and growth for future crops. These cuts form “spurs” (the positions on the vine from which this year’s growth will come) along the “cordons” (the main lateral limbs coming from the trunk). Because grapes are a vine, the growth each year is rapid. A fully
mature vine will be pruned back to essentially the same place every season.
Grape shipments from Peru have resumed at normal levels. Last month’s social unrest created a delay in shipments, which caused tight supply conditions this month. As we move into February, we should see the situation change, with ample supply of both Peruvian and Chilean grapes.
The storms have ended for the time being and bloom is right around the corner. Things here are wet, but the fields need it and the sandier soils in our area are draining nicely. The charts above show that while we received a historic amount of rainfall, a lot of the water was unable to be captured in reservoirs and instead drained into the ocean. In 2014 Proposition 1: The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act, a $7.5 billion bond dedicated $2.7 billion for the public benefits of new water storage projects, was passed. Since then, nothing has been built to improve our water infrastructure. The drought combined with the floods are shedding a new light on the legislative issues that have contributed to our current water crisis.
The conditions this winter have been ideal for growing tree fruit. Our orchards are currently tracking at 963 chill hours for the season. This is a 190-hour increase from this time last season. Chill hours can have different definitions, but we calculate our hours by measuring the time the temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Fruit trees need a specific number of chill hours each winter to regulate their growth. If a tree doesn’t experience enough chill hours in the winter the flower buds might not open at all in spring, or they might open unevenly Fortunately, we have already received plenty of chill hours for the season and any cold weather is appreciated until the buds break and blossoms emerge.