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.
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.
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.”
We are pushing out trees and prepping blocks for new planting in some of our orchards. Once the trees are removed and the compacted ground is broken up and prepped, we will be ready to plant new trees in about three to four months. The varieties we’ve chosen for new planting are the result of a good amount of research and planning, and we are confident that they will make a great addition to our stone fruit lineup.
Late season table grape harvest is thriving with the current weather conditions on our farms. The cool overnight low temperatures are ideal for berry color and maturation, as well as pleasant harvest weather for our employees, helping move us toward the end of the harvest season. The quality, timing, and flavor of grapes coming out of our vineyards are all holding strong.
Students from Reedley College recently visited our farms as part of a two semester course titled Fundamentals of Fresh Fruit. This class was privately funded by HMC Farms and other local stone fruit growers, and we’ve taken the lead on the course design. This semester, the focus is exposing students to all areas of our industry. Drew and other members of our farm management team gave students an introductory crash course on trees and vines. We covered everything from prepping fields to selecting varieties, and the concept behind our high density orchards. The goal of this course is to educate local students on everything ag has to offer in order to help attract and cultivate future generations of ag professionals in the Central Valley.
Last week, a group of HMC Farms employees volunteered at the Central California Food Bank. It was our first in-person group service event since the pandemic paused our extracurricular activities. We got to work on the food bank’s pack line, testing our quality control and packing skills on a new commodity; our team packed over 2,600 lbs of peppers! We greatly appreciate the work that food banks do to ensure people don’t go hungry, and are always thankful for any opportunity we have to support their efforts beyond our regular fruit and monetary donations.
Traditional pruning is quite labor-intensive, and we are always looking for ways to improve upon the process. This year, we are using a pre-pruner in preparation for pruning our grape vines. The pre-pruner thins out excess growth and performs a basic cut on vines, significantly reducing the amount of time crews need to spend on pruning. This should allow crews to more easily access the vines for targeted pruning, making the overall process more efficient.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, some precipitation finally materialized in our area, allowing us to complete grape harvest just before the rain began. The lack of any early rain this year was highly unusual, but it seems that we’ve gotten back on track. We are removing rain covers in our grape vineyards and pruning in our stone fruit orchards, taking breaks to enjoy “farmer’s holidays” during the welcome rainy weather.