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.
Fall is finally upon us. With the last 100+ degree day behind us we can begin to prepare for the season ahead. Rain is not forecasted in the foreseeable future, but we are prepared. Our late season table grape vines are now covered to protect them from any precipitation we may have between now and the end of harvest. The covers are perforated in the middle so that rain can drip down in the center of the V-trellis without falling directly on the grape bunches. Our late season grape crop is looking to be of great quality, although earlier than normal. The stone fruit season is starting to wind down as we finish up on our last varieties of the year. Our grapes seem to have made it through the recent heat with minimal damage. As the weather cooled off, we experienced some sporadic rain cells throughout the valley. The forecast shows relief from the heat over the days ahead, although we may still have a few warmer temperatures in store this month before the Central Valley finally settles into fall weather.
A group of nutrition experts and social influencers visited our farms recently as part of the Safe Fruits and Veggies Tour. This annual event, organized by the Alliance for Food and Farming, is designed to give these individuals a first-hand look at the care and commitment farmers put into growing safe food. We were able to discuss our sustainability efforts, technology, and our focus on growing delicious, healthy, safe food for consumers around the world with them. We hope that these visitors will help spread the word about the safety and importance of incorporating fresh fruit into a healthy diet.
In 2018 Growing Produce interviewed Jon McClarty and Drew Ketelsen about their innovative new approach to growing tree fruit, high density planting. Four years later they checked in to report on the progress and success of the method that is now the new norm for HMC Farms. “The laughing and snickering, that changed by 2020, and now a lot of people think the whole system was planning for this year, 2022, with the $15-an-hour minimum wage. A lot of people were waiting to act, and we wanted to be proactive,” Drew says. “We’re garnering more curiosity because they are starting to experience what we all know is coming, when labor gets really short.”
A summer storm made its way to the Central Valley this month. An estimated 1/4″ of rain touched down on our farms, which is unprecedented at this time of year. Some stone showed hardly any impact, while other blocks were more significantly impacted. It appears that the rain impacted all commodities to some degree and the varieties that were just ready to be harvested and in the middle of harvest were most severely affected.
Table grape harvest remains ongoing. We’re seeing an impressive crop of green seedless varietals coming out of our vineyards this year. All commodities appear to be ahead of schedule compared to last year’s harvest, ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks.
HMC recently attended the Global Grape Summit with attendees and speakers from six continents (unfortunately no penguins or Antarctic researchers could attend) to discuss viewpoints on the evolution and future of the grape industry. One point of discussion was the impact of the explosion of new varieties, with many different opinions from growers, retailers, and the four major international grape breeders. Harold, as a scheduled speaker, explained that to stone fruit growers, a multitude of varietal options is nothing new. He further explained that many new varieties come with characteristics beneficial to the grower which also provide a better consumer experience. As a business, we not only compete with other grape and stone fruit growers, but also other fruit commodities vying for the shoppers’ dollar. Improved eating characteristics provided by some of the new varieties help inspire consumers to add our products to their shopping baskets.
We are tipping and thinning clusters in our table grape vineyards. During this process, each grape cluster is inspected and clipped to reduce the density of berries and obtain a manageable overall bunch size.
At this point, we are getting into a nice harvest groove. Peach, plum, and nectarine harvest is moving right along in our orchards, with flavor continuing to impress across our early season varieties.
Plumsicle™ harvest has begun! As expected, the crop is sweet and flavorful. Plumsicle is available only in limited supplies this year, but we continue to add more acreage to our Plumsicle orchards each year. For more information on Plumsicle, visit our new dedicated website hmcplumsicle.com.
Last week, some heavy winds and precipitation made their way to our farms. This actually kept us out of the fields for a day, which never happens in the summer. The wind blew quite a bit of fruit off of our trees, and some trees even blew over. After a week of days peaking at over 100°F, the forecast finally shows a little relief as we are expected to drop back into the 90s, and potentially a hair below that for the holiday on Monday. In our table grape vineyards, we’ve seen a little bit of burn on the varieties that haven’t entered veraison yet, but nothing compared to last year. Thankfully, this year’s heat wave came a little later, which meant that there was more canopy coverage in the vineyards to offer shade and protection to berries susceptible to sunburn. Our Sweet Bond and Flame red seedless varieties are gaining color, and Ivory green seedless is in veraison. Berries are still sizing up across our vineyards.
Harvest season is finally here! Peach and nectarine harvest is underway as stone fruit continues to mature and grow in our orchards. Pictured below is our Sangria plum, which will begin harvest at the end of May. Thinning has now wrapped up in our stone fruit orchards. The warm and sunny spring we’re having is perfect for growing great tasting fruit with high sugar content. We have seenexcellent eating quality right out of the gate.
So far fruit looks and tastes as good or better than last year’s vintage crop, and we hope that will continue for the whole season. HMC is expecting similar total volume as last year, with a bit more acreage making up for yields that are expected to be slightly less than last summer. We also expect the industry’s total volume to be down about 10% or so, due to acreage reduction, hail, and frost.Overall sizing seems to be running a bit smaller than last year, and 30 degree swings in this month’s weather created a bit of harvest inconsistency. The eating experience remains excellent with brix higher than the previous season’s average.
We are installing trellis structures in the new planting blocks, and beginning to train juvenile trees into the 2D wall structure. Grape bloom is done in our vineyards, and bunches are shattering out and entering the “berry set” stage. During shattering, unwanted berries fall off the bunch. The remaining berries are then set, and will begin the maturation process as we inch toward the 2022 grape harvest.
Take a look at the before and after of a grape cluster going through bloom shatter. During bloom, excessive flowers fall off of the stem, leaving more space for the berries to grow and develop. During this stage and up to berry softening, the berries are more susceptible to sunburn. With some hotter temperatures in the weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the crop.
April’s weather has been a rollercoaster, bouncing around 20 degrees up and down over a few days more than once. Thankfully, the forecast ahead shows weather conducive to stone fruit growth.
We are thinning stone fruit in our stone fruit orchards. Thinning removes excess, under-sized, or damaged juvenile fruit from our trees. 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. Hail damage is prevalent across the industry in scattered pockets. We’ve discovered hail damaged stone fruit on a couple of our ranches, as well as some damage to the vines in one location where the hail was most prevalent. We’ve been able to remove some of the damaged fruit in the thinning process, but there is a limit to how much that can help.
In our table grape vineyards, the crop looks very healthy. The vines are all pushing strongly and evenly, and we seem to be running a little earlier than last year at this point. Shoots continue to develop, and clusters are forming on the early season varietals in our table grape vineyards. Soon, the clusters will begin to bloom and then set fruit.
Early season varieties are beginning to show some blush. Pictured above is our Krista yellow peach variety, which is now larger than a golf ball. Thinning continues in our mid and late-season varieties, and we’ve begun training young plum trees.
Stone fruit continues to develop in our orchards as we approach harvest. Pictured above is our Zee Fire yellow nectarine variety, which is about a week behind the Krista yellow peach. After weathering last week’s storm, we are eager for the stone fruit season to begin.
This month, Reedley College held the official groundbreaking ceremony for the McClarty Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The new 24,000 square foot facility will attract talent and draw audiences from near and far. It will also provide students and faculty the much needed opportunity to showcase their talents and skills on campus. Harold gave a remarkable speech about his own life and impactthe college and the arts had on his upbringing.Click here to see what he had to say.
It got cold at the beginning of the month. There was a widespread freeze, but only various colder locations suffered any significant damage. As you can see in the picture below, the juvenile nectarines on the left are green and shiny, compared to the frost damaged nectarines on the right that are dark and dull looking. While we feel that the overall volume was not affected by the freeze, March-April is a worrisome time for us as we monitor for potential cold temperatures and hail events.
As grape vines awaken from dormancy, buds begin to form and swell until they open up and reveal green leaves and new growth. The opening of these buds is called bud break, a process that is currently happening in our table grape vineyards.
Sarah McClarty, our Chief Financial Officer, is featured in this month’s Western Grower & Shipper magazine as a WG Women Ambassador. Sarah is part of the first few graduates of WG Women, a women’s professional development program under the Western Growers umbrella. Before WG Women, Sarah worked to create a women’s group at HMC, which allows the women from across our organization to participate in networking, teambuilding, and volunteer opportunities. Because we are in the midst of Women’s History Month, this feature is extra special to us. Read the article here.
Our stone fruit orchards are moving right along. Juvenile fruit is growing on our trees, with nectarines pictured above. At the beginning of this week, we received just over an inch of precipitation on our farms, which included some hail. It’s a little early to determine the extent of the hail damage. We have not yet thinned our early season varietals, which sometimes gives us an opportunity to sort through the fruit on the trees and remove pieces that may have been damaged by hail.