This month, HMC Farms held a two day COVID-19 vaccination clinic for employees of HMC and several nearby ag businesses. At this point, we have successfully distributed vaccines to more than 450 agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley, in partnership with the California Farmworker Foundation and Heart of Ag (the free-to-employee clinic we sponsor) – both relationships built before the pandemic. Sarah McClarty, Chief Financial Officer at HMC stated at the event, “To watch every employee in our organization who wants a vaccine receive one over the last two days has been the biggest win in what has been an extremely challenging twelve months.”
Research and development are crucial to our success as a farming business. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our farming methods by studying a wide variety of topics. One of our Plumsicle™ orchards is pictured above. This is one example of the results of years of research and development to improve the maintenance and growing processes, while planning ahead for the use of future ag technologies. While we often show you these trees during harvest time, the blossom stage gives a clear view of the high density setup.
This month, we’ve had both rain and hail in the Central Valley. Hail can pose a significant threat to our crops if it occurs at the wrong time. Right now, our stone fruit is in three different stages: blossoms, developing fruit with the jacket (base of the blossom) still attached, and juvenile fruit outside of the jacket. Blossoms essentially have no vulnerability to the hail we’ve had – even if we lose some blossoms, that can be chalked up to thinning. The developing fruit with the jacket still attached still has some protection against the elements. The most vulnerable of these stages is the juvenile fruit that has just shed its jacket, and the growth process moving forward. About 20% or less of our crop is in the post-jacket stage at this point, and we will evaluate any hail damage in the coming days.
Bud break is happening in our early season table grape vineyards. This means that tiny buds on the vine have begun to swell up and give way to leaves using energy stored up during dormancy over the winter. Pictured above is a Flame red seedless table grape vineyard, our first variety to harvest. We generally compare the timing of the growth cycle with previous years, but bud break itself is not a solid benchmark for harvest time because the weather after it occurs has a significant impact on timing for the rest of the growth cycle. While bud break began about the same time as last year, the cooler weather over the past couple of weeks has slowed down growth across our vineyards.
We are now thinning our early season stone fruit varietals. During the thinning process, we remove excess immature fruit, leaving behind only about 2-4 pieces per hanger (shoots from permanent tree branches which bear fruit). This time consuming job is labor intensive, and can only be done by hand. The amount of fruit we leave behind varies based on the specific variety. Thinning will continue for months as our mid and late season varietals reach the appropriate point in the growth process.
We received a total of 3.39″ of precipitation in the month of January. Compared with the past two years, this January had significantly more precipitation. January 2019 had a total of 2.83″ of rain, and January 2020 saw just 0.77″ in the entire month. We hope that this is a good sign for this year’s annual rain total in the Central Valley.
HMC Farms had the honor of partnering with the California Farmworker Foundation to begin to provide COVID shots to our farmworkers this month. Speaking about the event, Harold McClarty commented, “We have all struggled during these very difficult times. We are very grateful and supportive of all the work this organization has done for farmworkers. It gives us some hope that we will persevere and continue to move forward with our work to support the nation’s food supply.”
Blossoms are opening up in our stone fruit orchards and along the rest of the famous Fresno County Blossom Trail. This is arguably the most beautiful time of the year in the Central Valley, drawing people from near and far to drive or bike along the trail and take in the beautiful pink and white blossoms filling orchards for miles. For more information on the Fresno County Blossom Trail, visit their website here.
We are grafting in some of our stone fruit orchards. If you’ve ever driven past an orchard that looked like a bunch of stumps with only one limb, chances are you’ve seen grafting in progress. Grafting is the process of adding a new variety to existing rootstock. This allows us to harvest the new variety in a shorter timeframe by utilizing the rootstock that’s already in the ground instead of starting from scratch with completely new trees. Look closely at the photo above and you will see what appear to be sticks coming out of the cut portion of the tree. Those sticks are actually called scion wood, and are the June Time peach variety that will soon grow in this orchard. The remaining limb, called the nurse limb, is left on the tree to help keep it alive until the grafted scions are growing well, and it will eventually be removed.
We are pruning trees in our stone fruit orchards to prepare them for winter. Pruning allows us to shape the trees in order to prepare for next year’s new growth and harvest. Pictured above, the left side of this high density stone fruit block is pruned and the right side hasn’t been pruned yet.
Block prep is happening on our farms. Before new plantings, we perform multiple steps to prepare the land. Pictured above, a large machine called a ripper is digging 5+ feet into the ground with a long shank to break up any hard or compacted streaks in the soil, which provides a better environment for roots to grow.
This is the time of year for reflection and giving thanks. Despite many challenges this year, we still have much to be thankful for. Those challenges gave us the opportunity to adapt and grow, and we successfully made it through an unprecedented summer. While Thanksgiving may look different this year for many of us, we hope that you can spend some quality time with your loved ones – whether in person or virtually.
The grape industry is approximately 50% shipped through the industry estimate of 106,500,000 boxes, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the industry come up short of that number due to the peculiar growing conditions this season. HMC is not quite that far through the season. We are looking forward to our Allison red seedless harvest, which is our biggest volume variety of the season. Red grapes should be available through December, but it is expected that the industry will run short of green grapes before then.
Each year after harvest is complete, we replenish nutrients in the soil of our orchards and vineyards. We take soil samples to determine which nutrients need replenishment and then select from different compost options based on their nutritive values. This year, our post-harvest organic orchards need more nitrogen and our post-harvest conventional orchards need more phosphorus and calcium, so we selected two different compost options to meet each of these needs.
Our Allison red seedless table grapes are finally in harvest! As we shared a few weeks ago, the smoke from California wildfires slowed the maturity of our late season table grapes. That pushed back the harvest window significantly for one of our favorite varieties. Contact your HMC Farms representative for more information on availability and pack styles.
As we look into ways to make table grape harvest more efficient, we are testing out a self-driving cart called Burro. Our employees can harvest grapes and place them onto trays that the Burro drives out to the end of the row for them, eliminating the need to push a heavy cart full of grapes to the end of the row. Not only does this make grape harvest less strenuous on our employees, but it makes the time spent on harvest more efficient by eliminating time spent pushing the carts back and forth in the vineyards. Tune in to this week’s Farm Friday on our Instagram page for more details.
The Holidays are here! Holiday plum harvest will begin soon. This proprietary plum variety is one of our favorites, and we wait for it all season. This late season plum features a speckled red and green exterior, and a variety-specific PLU sticker. Ask your HMC Farms® salesperson for more details.
Just as with stone fruit, this is proving to be a great year for grape quality. Grapes were a little slower to start than normal and have been a bit more difficult to pick than in years past because of some delayed maturity, but the finished product looks, and more importantly tastes, great. With new varieties pushing the overall volume later in the season, September is now the heart of the table grape harvest. While grapes will be great for ads for all of fall (and even into early winter), September is the perfect time to set the stage for a great autumn grape season.
As smoke and ash persist in the Central Valley from nearby wildfires, the impact is noticeable in our table grape vineyards. The smoky skies have acted as a giant shade net over the Central Valley. This results in much lower solar activity, and has led to reduced water needs and slower berry maturation. The overall flavor and brix are not impacted once the berries reach maturity, but it’s taking longer to reach that point.
It’s time to start thinking about new plantings on our farms. In the locations where new trees will be planted, we are removing old trees as the first step in preparing the blocks for new planting. Traditional stone fruit blocks, like the one pictured, will be converted to high density planting. When we choose trees or vines to plant, we consider many factors from flavor to harvest timing. Our goal is to create a consistent flow of the best tasting fruit throughout the stone fruit and table grape seasons. Another thing we consider with harvest timing is workload. Keeping the workload fairly steady allows us to staff our teams properly and avoid labor shortages.
Our mid season table grape harvest is starting to wrap up. We are beginning to scratch around a little in our late season table grape varieties that were delayed by the wildfire smoke that blanketed the Central Valley for weeks. We should be in full harvest for those varieties soon.
Smoke from the multiple wildfires around California settled in the Central Valley this month. We are carefully monitoring the air quality to ensure that our employees working outdoors remain safe, and are deploying additional safety measures as needed.
We’re in the final stretch of the stone fruit season. Though we are closer to the end of the season than the beginning, there is still a lot of good fruit in our lineup over the coming weeks. We are about 80% through peach and nectarine harvest, and about 70% through plum harvest.
It’s hot! Record temperatures this month challenged our crops and people. It’s always hot in the Central Valley in August, but these extreme temperatures require us to take precautionary steps to ensure the quality of our product and the safety of our people. We applied a protective reflecting spray to the tree fruit, while constantly regulating moisture in the ground. We also stopped all field operations at noon when temperatures were too high. While this a big hardship on our time sensitive commodities, the health and welfare of our employees is our top priority. It has been an unusual summer, and this is just one more challenge we’ve dealt with.
We continue to enjoy many of the newer plum varieties that were planted recently. When picked tree ripe, with a bit of give, we have seen sugar levels much higher than traditional plums of the past.
The Fourth of July not only celebrates the independence of our country, but it also marks the “spiritual” half way mark of the stone fruit season, and is the historically referenced start date for grape harvest in our area. The first six weeks of the season definitely require the most effort. We are generally still thinning through early June while picking the most temperamental and time sensitive varieties of the season. The Fourth of July is a point in time at which we reflect, look forward, and take a quick break with our families. We hope you had a moment to relax and celebrate over the holiday (hopefully with a peach in hand).
This month, we used Cane Cutters in our table grape vineyards. This equipment cuts excess growth in the centers of the rows with blades that form an upside down V shape in order to increase sunlight and air flow. Increased sunlight helps our red and black seedless grape varieties gain color, and extra air flow helps to prevent disease pressure in grape clusters and vines.
HMC Farms table grape harvest is now underway in our vineyards, kicking off our table grape season! Overnight lows have remained under 70°F, which is great for color development in our red and black seedless table grape varieties.
HMC Farms regularly monitors soil moisture to ensure that we are providing the proper amount of irrigation to our trees and vines. We combine several sources of information from physical examination to sensors, and even the weather forecast, to determine the proper frequency and duration of irrigation. This topic was featured in our Farm Friday Instagram story, a weekly behind the scenes look at what’s happening at HMC Farms. Find us on Instagram here, and follow along with our Farm Fridays!
It’s been a vintage year so far for California stone fruit. We have received more than normal complimentary letters about the great tasting stone fruit. Newer varieties and a discipline to only pick the most mature fruit has put these summertime favorites back on top. We are half way through the season and should have good eating well into September.
Our platform equipment is now being used for harvest in our high density stone fruit orchards! This is an exciting moment for us, since this concept has taken three years of hard work and dedication to come to fruition.
We recently installed an optical grader to the packline in our plum packing house at HMC Reedley. The optical sorter not only improves our efficiency by automatically removing fruit with defects before it reaches the pack tables, but it also provides detailed statistics about each lot of fruit that help us improve our practices out in the field. Our plum team is pictured above (Raul, Paula, Nick and Greg).
Veraison is just beginning in our Flame table grapes, which is the point at which ripening begins. Red and black varieties begin to change color, and green varieties lose some opacity as natural sugars begin to accumulate in the berries. These particular grapes will be ready to harvest next month.
We are excited to begin harvest of our proprietary Plumsicle™ later this week. This piece of fruit was selected purely for flavor reasons and we think it is unequivocally the best tasting plum or plumcot of the season (don’t tell the Holiday plum, Honey Punch, or Ebony Rose that we said that). They will be available this season in 1# clams and 2# bags, with the variety name itself proudly featured on the package.
Harvest has begun in our stone fruit orchards! At this point, the fruit is a little smaller than normal due to the decreased amount of time between bloom and harvest, and the timing is a little ahead of last year.
It’s hot! Last week we experienced rain and peak temperatures around 72°, this week’s record projected heat is as high as 109°. Grapes and stone fruit don’t like this heat any more than people. In stone fruit, extreme heat slows everything down and halts growth, causing some heat damage to the fruit – especially dark colored plums. In table grapes, any of the exposed berries not covered by foliage will burn.
A few months ago, we increased efficiency and eliminated the need for ladders by using platforms in our high density stone fruit orchards. Since then, we have started to experiment by attaching an artificial light to the same equipment to perform “night thinning.” Beginning before the sun comes up, crews are able to finish this crucial process in the cool morning hours. Going forward, we will modify our picking by transitioning this process into harvest, resulting in an optimal product by removing the afternoon heat. This is an efficient operation that benefits the workers and product by eliminating the summer heat.
We are moving rake wire in our table grape vineyards. This process opens up a wire in the middle of the trellis that helps guide and organize the canes and their growth to conform to the V shape of the trellis. There are multiple benefits of rake wire use. It helps get all of the clusters to hang out in the “fruiting zone” underneath the trellis, making maintenance and harvest more efficient. Sunlight is allowed in to hit the bottom of canes, which helps with fruitfulness in next year’s crop. A pocket forms for air to flow and escape, reducing chances of humidity getting trapped underneath the canopy.
Take a look at a before and after of tree fruit thinning in one of our peach orchards, pictured below. Thinning is a process in which we remove under sized or over crowded pieces of fruit from our trees. This allows our trees to provide better nutrients to the remaining fruit for better sizing and flavor. It also protects tree limbs from breaking due to the heavy weight of too many pieces of fruit. During this process, our crews are also able to remove unnecessary new growth to save time and costs by not taking another pass through the orchards to prune this growth later.
We are in the midst of planting new grape varieties on our farms. Once the ground is prepped and the irrigation lines are set up, planting locations are marked and new vines are planted. It’s important for the irrigation to be set up first in order to irrigate the land before and after planting, allowing the vines to ease into their new environment. As you can see here, each new vine is given a bamboo stick for support and training purposes and a carton for protection. After the vines are planted, we work on installing our V-trellis system, which has begun with the stakes visible in the photo below.
Our stone fruit orchards are coming along nicely. The early-season peaches pictured above, which are right outside our office, are just about the size of ping pong balls. As you can see, they are already gaining a blush color. Over the coming weeks, they will grow quite a bit as they prepare for harvest, which will begin soon in our orchards. With temperatures in the mid 80s, we should have a very good quality and taste to start the season. Last year, we had lower than normal temperatures and rain for much of May, which impacted our quality. This year’s crop looks exceptionally good, and we should have great tasting fruit by mid-May, with a harvest schedule similar to last year.