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.
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.
After a winter with sufficient chill hours, some of our earliest stone fruit varieties have started to wake up from their winter hibernation as they push the first blooms of the 2022 season. These first flowers bring anticipation for the upcoming season along with the anxiety of knowing that unfavorable weather conditions can now have deleterious effects on the 2022 crop. Blossoms become commonplace around the valley as hundreds of different stone fruit varieties will be in different stages of bloom in late February and early March.
We are in the process of grafting trees in some of our stone fruit orchards. Grafting is a process in which scion wood (a piece of wood from the desired varietal) is bonded to existing rootstock. This allows the new variety to reach harvest more quickly than planting entirely new trees. Different root stocks are beneficial for different reasons, such as drought resistance, increased vigor, or successful growth in a particular soil type.
We’re planting new trees on the blocks of land we’ve spent the last few months preparing for this very thing. Selecting new varieties is a process which requires a lot of research to ensure that only the best tasting varieties make it to our farms, but we also take other factors, such as harvest timing, into consideration to ensure a consistent flow of delicious fruit is available throughout the harvest season.
Unlike peaches and nectarines, most of our plum varieties are not self-fertile and require pollination from another variety to set a crop. Many blocks of plums are comprised of two or more varieties for cross-pollination. Every year we place beehives in our plum orchards to promote the cross-pollination process. Often, we include “bouquets” of a third plum variety in bins near the orchard as a supplemental pollen source.
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.
In the beginning of this month we continued to prepare for new planting in our orchards. Once the old trees are pushed out, they go into an industrial wood chipper. The ground wood is then incorporated back into the soil on our farms. Through this process, we are doing our part to capture carbon in the atmosphere and fix it in the soil. Chipping the wood also eliminates the need to burn old trees, which can have a negative impact on the air quality in the Central Valley. The next step will be to go in and break up the compacted soil (a process we call ripping) and level out the ground.
We are slowly coming to end of table grape harvest with less than 10% of our grapes left to harvest. We are clipping and cleaning bunches during packing more than we had expected in order to remove sunburned berries from the summer heat waves and grapes impacted by October rain. The finished quality of grapes in the box still looks excellent, but additional effort is required to get it that way. Our final production numbers are expected to be a bit less than our pre-harvest estimates as we slowly wrap up.
At the end of this month we found ourselves almost fully prepped to plant new trees in our stone fruit orchards. The next steps toward planting are marking the planting rows and installing the underground irrigation system. After those final tasks are complete, we just need to wait for the nursery to deliver our trees, and we can begin planting in January.
The United Nations declared 2021 the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables in order to raise awareness of the importance of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, food security, and health. One of the key messages in this campaign is the value of family farms in communities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, family farms generate income, improve food security and nutrition, and enhance resiliency through sustainably managed local resources. We couldn’t agree more!
We normally compare table grape harvest timing to the previous year, but last year’s heavy wildfire smoke blanket pushed back grape maturation significantly. We’ve had approximately 20% more solar radiation over the past month than the same time period last year. During the last few weeks of September we experienced heavier smoke in the Central Valley, largely due to the fires in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We expect that the smoke will clear out in the near future, but even if it lingers for a bit we already have much more momentum in color and berry maturity than we did at this time last year.
We are wrapping up the stone fruit season after a long, hot, and challenging summer. Weather conditions impacted our yield, but this turned out to be one of the best tasting crops in recent memory. It may seem like we’ve got a long break ahead of us, but farming truly is year-round, even for seasonal crops. We’ve already begun pruning trees to prepare for dormancy over the winter, and we are prepping blocks for winter planting.
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.
The stone fruit season is now upon us! At the beginning of the month, we saw considerable volume available with fruit exhibiting mid-season flavor. This year the fruit size is better than last year, and the drought has created weather that is perfect for high sugar development. We have a full stone fruitcrop, and it already looks like this could be be a vintage year for great tasting fruit.
Rootstock is a term we use when covering the grafting process. Rootstock is the portion of the tree or vine that establishes the root system underground, hence the name. Because of the makeup of our soil, we often use rootstock combined with scion wood (the upper part of the tree or vine which determines the fruit variety). We carefully select our rootstock based on characteristics such as drought resistance or increased vigor to pair with both the scion wood and the soil type. Because we grow permanent crops, the rootstock we choose is incredibly important. We basically have one chance to get it right, so we carefully research the pairings before planting and grafting. Learn more through this video on our YouTube channel.
Harvest is now underway for yellow and white nectarines. When compared to last year, nectarines were delayed 3-7 days, and peaches were delayed 1-4 days for early season varieties. Peach sizing is on par, but nectarines are a size to a size and a half smaller than last year’s crop thus far. All of the fruit is exhibiting great flavor and quality. Towards the middle to end of May, we started full volume peach and nectarine harvest.
We recently installed a new grading machine at our packing facility in Traver. Last year, we installed the same machine at our plum facility and saw great results, so we’ve added another machine for peaches and nectarines. It performs vision-based defect sorting and removes any fruit not meeting our programmed visual specifications. After going through defect sorting, the fruit is checked by graders before going to packers, so that the packers no longer need to re-grade the fruit. This helps us ensure that only the very best fruit is packed into HMC boxes, and helps deal with the ongoing labor shortage we’ve experienced in more recent years.