A few members of the HMC Farms team recently participated in a panel at West Hills College focused on the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation AgTEC initiative. This initiative focuses on developing a skilled, next generation workforce to support advanced, sustainable food production and manufacturing. As you’ve seen through our Ag tech topics over the summer, we are focused on improving jobs and processes through the use of ag technology and this was a great opportunity to talk about an example of how we’ve made that happen.
As the seasons change, the trees adjust to their new environment. Leaves change, then drop; limbs are pruned to encourage new growth in the Spring, and soil is enriched to replenish any nutrients that were depleted during the summer season.
Around this time toward the end of harvest season and on the cusp of the holiday season, we tend to pause and reflect on things we are thankful for from the past year. Many years we have the same gratitude list: health, family, community, and a safe place to call home. This year, we are adding the extra precipitation that provided us with an abundance of water, although it arrived in an unusual way. Always at the top of our list is the opportunity to do what we love with our family and a team of employees who‘ve become our extended families. Thank you for being part of that every year.
This month was our final table grape harvest for the 2023 California season. Available varieties are Allison for red seedless, and Autumn King for green seedless. We are removing plastic from vines and are lightly irrigating fields since most of the predicted storms subsided as the rainy days approached. We are beginning to prep orchards for the upcoming season by installing trellis systems and preparing the fields for new plantings.
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.
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.
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.
We’re almost completely done pruning in our plum orchards, and we are busy pruning in our peach and nectarine orchards. Pruning is an important process of the annual stone fruit cycle as we prepare the trees for winter. By removing the older wood from the trees, we not only make way for new fruiting wood for the 2022 harvest season, but we also keep the trees shaped properly.
In our high density stone fruit orchards, crews are using electric pruning shears in order to reach the upper parts of trees without ladders. These electric shears improve efficiency while still allowing our employees to make precise cuts. Eliminating the use of ladders for pruning makes the process safer and reduces the physical burden on our employees.
HMC Farms recently participated in an ag tech summit at Reedley College to determine the future needs of the ag work force in specialty crops over the next ten years. HMC Farms is a progressive leader in mechanization and technology. We recognized years ago that our time and labor sensitive commodities are not sustainable the way they are produced today. Our role, if stone fruit and table grapes are to exist and be viable in the future, is to combine a technological approach with an educated workforce. This year, we made decisions on which blocks to pick, thin, etc. depending on the daily availability of labor which left fruit on the tree and not harvested.
We live in small towns in the Central Valley that all depend on agriculture, and we have a responsibility to the communities that support us and that we grew up in to find solutions to this changing environment. The purpose of these continuing conferences is to educate community colleges and expose our need for a workforce that reflects the change in the way we get our product in a box and to the marketplace. Exchanging entry level, lower paying, difficult jobs for better paying, more sophisticated, less physically demanding ones is our goal. To make this successful, there must be cooperative effort between colleges, our industry and government for these specialty crops and small towns to continue to exist. It was encouraging to see the celebration of talent and dedication it will take to make this successful. Our way of life depends on it.
While we are in the final third of the season on peaches and nectarines, we are just rounding second base on the plum season. We are looking forward to some of the highest sugar varieties of the year, including Black Majesty, Red Yummy, and of course our exclusive HMC Holiday plum. Holiday red plums will begin harvest in early September, and will pack and ship into October.
Burro self-driving carts are currently running in our table grape vineyards. After experimenting with Burros for the past couple of years, this is our first time using them for a full harvest season. Burros reduce physical stress on our hard working employees, and make the harvest process up to 40% more efficient by allowing our crews to focus on harvesting instead of pushing carts up and down the vineyard rows. Click to watch a Burro working in a vineyard right outside our office!
Grape harvest is underway in our vineyards in California’s San Joaquin Valley just in time for the kickoff of the 2021-2022 school year. HMC Farms has value-added solutions that make it possible to provide students with the fresh grapes they love. Kids choose grapes more often than other fresh fruit items, which means less plate waste and a higher take rate when grapes are on the menu. Value-added grape packs from HMC Farms make yield and portion control easy, offer significant labor savings, and are a perfect fit for virtually any serving application.
Color development is coming along well in our table grape vineyards. We are going full bore harvesting the mid season red and green seedless varieties. We’ve experienced moderate temperatures on our farms lately, which is perfect for grape development and harvest.
HMC Farms was the recipient of the 2021 Agriculture Business of the Year award from the Kingsburg Chamber of Commerce. Notable reasons for the selection include: a strong relationship with the food bank, support of the local senior center, adjusting to fit school nutrition needs during the pandemic, and providing vaccination clinics to agricultural workers. It means a lot that we were selected with so many different ag businesses to choose from in our area.
We are in the midst of the most labor-intensive part of table grape farming: pre-harvest hand labor. This work consists of leafing, hanging and dropping bunches, thinning, and tipping. All of these jobs are done by hand in our vineyards to facilitate the growth and development of great quality HMC Farms table grapes. Our Farm Friday video goes in depth on this topic, explaining what each job entails and why it’s important. Watch it here on our YouTube channelif you missed it, and follow us on Instagram to see the weekly Farm Friday series in our stories.
In the middle of June we experienced a week-long heat wave, peaking at 112°F one day. Our first priority in extreme temperatures like these is the health and safety of our employees. We are working shorter days, wrapping up harvest by noon or earlier, and observing special procedures to ensure that employees get plenty of water, shade, and rest to avoid any heat-related health issues.
We are constantly on the lookout for ways to make our processes more efficient using ag technology. One of the tools we use every day is Pago, an integrative platform HMC Farms invested in and helped develop. Pago is a platform which allows us to schedule crews, calculate pay, maintain compliance with current ag labor laws, and monitor activity in real time. Gone are the days when handwritten time sheets needed to be brought in from the field to track activity and calculate pay. With a scan of the Pago card using a mobile app, each member of the crew is able to clock in and out, and data accumulates into cloud storage for our office staff.
We’re a third of the way through stone fruit season. This year has had more than its share of challenges: drought, extreme heat, and labor shortages have all taken their toll on an already difficult commodity. We are adjusting to deal with the issues at hand, like we always do. On the bright side, the fruit is as good as any we have produced. Sugar, size, and the condition of the product are all excellent; but we’ve got a long summer ahead. Grapes will begin harvest in a couple of weeks. At this point, the crop looks excellent and has come through the heat waves with only minimal sunburn.
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.