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.
It is no secret that California is in dire need of rain and snow this winter. The current drought from 2020 to 2022 is now the driest three-year period on record, breaking the old record set by the previous drought from 2013 to 2015. At the beginning of this month, we recorded 1.21 inches of rainfall out at our farms which brings our rainfall total for the year to 3.36 inches. Unfortunately, we are still 9.47 inches below the historical yearly average. To ease the need for water in 2023 we will need to receive several inches above our 12.83-inch annual average. Fortunately, rain is in the forecast again and our hope is the storms will continue & replenish our depleted reservoirs.
The recent political turmoil in Peru has created uncertainty in the California to Peru table grape transition. With seven presidents in the past six years, this most recent political crisis has seen highways and airports seized, making the movement of fresh produce from farms to ports impossible in the southern growing region of the country. The situation in Peru’s northern growing region remains normal. A higher-than-normal number of Peruvian grapes have already arrived in the U.S or are in transit. Coupled with ample supplies of California storage fruit, we are optimistic that with careful coordination we will minimize any impacts the situation in Peru has on the transition.
Happy holidays from our family to yours! We hope you have a wonderful time celebrating with family, friends, and loved ones. This winter at HMC Farms, we collected gifts for the Marjaree
Mason Center Tree of Hope. These gifts will be given to families affected by domestic violence in Fresno County. The Center’s goal is to support and empower adults and their children who
have been affected by domestic violence, while striving to prevent and end the cycle of abuse through education and advocacy. Last year, the Center provided services to over 9,600 adults and children including over 89,000 nights of safe housing, 4,800 hotline calls, and 3,900 counseling sessions.
The fall rains are upon us. At the beginning of the month, we received over ¾ of an inch, which is substantial for our area. The storm was cold enough for snow in the mountains, and hopefully this is the start of some form of drought relief. Once it dried out, we continued pruning tree fruit orchards and wrapped up harvest on the grapes for the year. Overall, the weather has been nice and cool, which helps the trees enter dormancy and accumulate chill hours. Dormancy is important during pruning because it allows the trees to drop their leaves, giving the pruners a better view of the tree structure and make better cutting decisions. Chill hours are important because it allows the trees to enter their “resting” stage, and a more rested tree is a tree that will wake up happy and ready to go in 2023!
As we learn about and incorporate Ag technology into our farming methods, the goal is not to remove workers or jobs, but rather to improve jobs so that our employees can manage the same amount of work with less physical stress. Ag tech also helps us ensure that we can continue to grow and sell fresh produce as our environmental and political environment continues to shift. In reality, adding technology to our fields will end up saving jobs in the long run by ensuring that we are able to operate for generations to come. Tevel Aerobotics and HMC Farms are working together to create this future.
A huge part of being a family run business is contributing to our community. We live where we work, and coworkers are friends as well as neighbors. Pictured above are one of the many HMC Farms teams, full of family members, coworkers and our community. A life in farming is not simply trees and vines, it is not just what we do, it is who we are, and we are proud to provide for the community whenever possible. We are thankful every day for the opportunity to grow food for our families.
The week before Thanksgiving, HMC employees gathered to volunteer at the Fresno Food Bank. The Fresno Food Bank is an organization that we feel very strongly about. We know both our financial and personal efforts are well directed, as the Food Bank provides crucial support to those that are less fortunate in our community. Each year we donate produce as well as our time. In 2022 HMC Farms donated over 500,000 lbs. to the Central California Food Bank.
California table grapes are still in full swing, but the import season is swiftly approaching. Shipping flow and port delays have been issues in the past. While we don’t anticipate large volumes of Peruvian grapes to arrive until mid to late December, more Peruvian grapes are headed to the US this year. Some companies have already begun shipments, which is historically earlier than normal. In regards to grape volume, this is the first year Peru is set to eclipse Chile in total table grape production. For California, the California Table Grape Commission has dropped their estimate from 97 million total boxes to 92.5 million. Even though the overall volume has dropped, the remaining volume is higher than previous years. This means we should see no shortage of availability through most of December the same as in previous years.
We are officially into our late season varieties on grapes, Allison and Autumn King. The fruit is looking great and we are continuing to harvest a bit ahead of schedule. Planning is already well underway for next year’s planting. Varieties have been selected, plants have been ordered, the new irrigation systems are being designed, and trellis install is in process.
With the tree fruit season winding to a close, now is the time we focus on replenishing the soil for the season to come. Earlier this year, when flowers and leaves were present, tissue and soil samples were taken from the orchards and vineyards. This gave us a snapshot of the plant nutrients status. Samples were studied so that each block could receive a custom blend of fertilizer to keep it healthy and performing at its peak. Now that harvest is almost complete, we continue to replenish the soil with compost. Compost enriches the soil with carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, while also improving soil pH and the biological properties.
HMC hosted our annual blood drive. Blood donations are in short supply. We found by providing an opportunity to donate on site, many who would not have the time are able to contribute to the ever-present need for donations. It is always exciting to see people come together from every part of the operation and support such a great cause.
HMC Farms recently had the opportunity to attend the IFG Field Day. IFG is one of the prominent table grape breeders based out of California. The field days are designed to provide growers and retailers the opportunity to view and sample new grape varieties. The feedback and dialogue will help shape the future of the grape breeding program. The most exciting part of the Field Day included touring the new Fruitworks facility, their new research and breeding center. The planted experimental vines are grafted on to several different rootstocks which allows us to analyze each vine’s characteristics and help us decide which variety and rootstocks combination will work best in our soils.
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.”
Imagine what would happen if your Hawaiian pizza took a trip to Italy… Meet the Spicy Pancetta Grape Pizza. The sweetness of bright, juicy red grapes balance out fiery Calabrian chilies and salty pancetta in this Italian twist on Hawaiian pizza.