HMC News – January 2022

We’re starting the new year with a good amount of precipitation on the books already this winter, and a gorgeous view of the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains from our office. September-December of 2021, we received 7.52″ of rain on our farms, compared with only 1.89″ in the same timeframe in 2020. We have already blown past the 7.07″ total for Sept 2020-June 2021, and more rain is likely on the way over the next couple of months. In December alone, we received just over five inches of much needed rain on our farms, which is a big step forward from the 1.45″ of precipitation we measured in December of 2020. We are close to wrapping up pruning in our stone fruit orchards, and pruning more heavily in our table grape vineyards during this break in the rain. The weather has been cold, which is perfect for pruning and for accumulating necessary chill hours for our trees and vines. 

dormant grape vineyard with puddle of water, blue sky with clouds above

With the rain we’ve had this winter comes another weather event: Tule fog. Tule fog is a radiation fog that forms in the Central Valley when the ground is damp and temperatures are low. The fog is so dense that visibility is measured in feet, and when visibility is too low our local schools have a late-start “foggy day schedule” to allow the fog to lighten up a bit before school buses can safely operate. Once we’ve finished pruning our trees, we will go back through our traditional orchards to repair any damaged roping, which helps keep the trees in a vase shape and supports the weight of next season’s crop. We are almost ready to plant new trees in the blocks we prepped over the past few months.

satellite image of California with thick white streak of Tule fog through the middle

January is National Blood Donor Month, and HMC Farms recently hosted an employee blood drive in partnership with Central California Blood Center. Our participants ranged from multiple first time donors to a member of the five gallon club. All of the blood collected at our event will be put to good use in life-saving measures in the Central Valley.

Man with HMC Farms hat looking down - first time blood donor sticker on shirt

We are done pruning trees in our stone fruit orchards, and through the majority of our grapevine pruning. We are finishing up the final touches on new irrigation systems in our prepped blocks, and we will plant new trees once installation is complete. Field activity will slow down over the next couple of weeks as our trees begin to bloom. By mid-February, the Central Valley should be full of orchards covered in pink and white blossoms.

Dormant peach orchard - trees with no leaves or fruit and blue sky

The Cost of Doing Business in California Agriculture

While everyone is a little bit tired of hearing about inflation, our products are far from immune from the cost increases seen in other parts of the economy. Cartons and other packing materials have gone up in excess of 15%, chemicals and fertilizer in the field have increased substantially with some products more than doubling, and labor has become in short supply and more expensive. Farmers in California are not only looking at regular per hour wage increases, but have also completely lost agriculture overtime exemption (only one of two states in that situation). The latter not only makes activities after forty hours uneconomical, but further increases the strain on a short labor supply. If you have read our newsletter over the last couple of years, you are aware of our efforts to do more with less—we believe this is now more important than ever. On top of all of this is the uncertainty of the future impacts that COVID may have in 2022. Ever changing rules on quarantine procedures and requirements, uncertain labor availability even in the best of situations, and increases in the costs of doing business make 2022 a pivotal year for many growers in our area.

-Jon McClarty

Reflecting on 2021 and the future of California agriculture

Next year will be better.

We live by this credo, which some find irrational. The onerous circumstances we must navigate in California agriculture to produce better tasting fruit each year are getting increasingly more difficult, and have yet to reach an inflection point. Inputs, whether they are labor, water, or materials, haven’t just become more expensive, but at times they have become unavailable. If you read our newsletter on a monthly basis, you are aware of some of the creative ways in which we are trying to keep costs from continuing to rise. We want to keep our products as competitive with other commodities as possible, and don’t want to push the products we grow into “luxury item” status. We believe in the stone fruit and table grape commodities. As we reflect on what may have been the best tasting season in our history, we take some pride in having brought these products into the marketplace. It is this belief and small sense of pride that urges us to continue to do what tastes right.

-Harold McClarty

HMC Farms participates in Western Growers AgTechX Summit at Reedley College

Editorial by Harold McClarty

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.

Quote on red background: I'm not taking anyone's job away, I'm just making the jobs better

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. 

Autonomous grape cart with four people standing behind in a grape vineyard
photo courtesy of Western Growers

HMC News – June 2021

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 channel if 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.

HMC News – May 2021

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 fruit crop, 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.

HMC News – December 4, 2019

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.

Crop Update:

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.