Planting has begun in our tree fruit orchards. Last fall after harvest, the trees were pushed out and the ground was prepped for new plantings. Once a field is prepped, we mark the planting locations of the new trees, as well as the irrigation and trellis infrastructure locations. We plant either by hand (shown below) or mechanically with a GPS tractor. After planting, the irrigation hoses are installed, and the trees are soaked in to remove any air pockets around the roots.
The 2023 California Table grape season is coming to a close with a 20% drop in grape volume from what was originally predicted in the early months of 2023. As 2024 progresses, we expect to see a similar overall crop reduction in volume from Peru as well. These two factors along with a historic drought in Panama, which is limiting daily crossings of vessels through the canal, have created a difficult environment for grape supply in the month of January. The northern growing regions of Chile have started stronger than last year but are still in small volume and later than pre-season forecasts had originally indicated. We anticipate the bulk of volume from Chile will not materialize until mid-February.
This month we have accumulated 707 total chill hours for the 2024 tree fruit season. You can see from the chart below that the hours are tracking very similar to the 2021/2022 season. Last year was unseasonably cold, especially through bloom which was worrisome for bee flight during pollination. This year is tracking closer to average, with the total hours already above those needed for our low chill (hour) varieties. We had a substantial amount of rain bringing our total for the 2024 season to 4.39 inches. Seasonal rain totals are calculated by compiling rainfall from July of the previous year to June of the current. Totals for prior years are shown below. The average annual rainfall for the San Joaquin Valley is eleven inches.
2024 Early varieties of peaches and nectarines are beginning to bloom, signaling the start of another stone fruit season. We are currently ten days ahead of last year, which is similar to the blossom timing of 2022 and 2021. When the trees are blossoming, we closely monitor the forecast for potential hail or a possible freeze. While these weather phenomenoms can be common in early winter, they are sporadic in the spring and can be detrimental to the fruit, especially during early pivotal growth stages.
The blood drive was back again this month. Every year we look forward to donation day as individuals at HMC Farms line up at their onsite opportunity to donate blood and save a life. These drives play a crucial role in ensuring a steady supply of blood for medical emergencies, surgeries, and patients battling various illnesses. Beyond the immediate medical benefits, hosting a blood drive fosters a sense of unity and altruism, emphasizing the power of collective goodwill to make a positive difference in the lives of those in need.
Western Growers believes that women are essential to the future of agriculture, which is why they developed WG Women, a program that prepares women for positions of leadership within the fresh produce industry. The initial conception and brainstorming meeting took place at HMC Farms and Sarah McClarty (our CFO) was among one of the first graduates of the program. The program includes media training, political advocacy, mentorship, and much more. Recently Sarah was featured as a panelist at the Women‘s Event and given the opportunity to share her experiences and the benefits of such an uplifting and supportive program.
Harvest continues in our vineyards, and pruning continues in our orchards. This month will more than likely be the last days of 90-degree summer weather we‘ll see until next year. The warm days and cool nights have been ideal conditions for table grape maturity. The dew point and humidity have also been optimal for this time of year with zero foggy days to date. If not for hurricane Hilary, this fall would have been perfect table grape growing conditions for the season. As you can see below, the vineyards remain covered until the completion of harvest. If things continue on the current path, we will be harvesting for weeks to come.
Our grape program at HMC Farms is one of a kind. We are the only vertically integrated company with an entire department dedicated to portioned and washed and ready-to-eat foodservice grapes. Our Lunch Bunch® grapes are the original 2 – 4 ounce portioned clusters of grapes. They are perfect for school lunches, restaurants, garnishes and more. Our Grape Escape® grapes are washed and ready-to-enjoy. They come in an array of pack styles to fit every need, from bulk to individual bags, to small trays, to large bags. If you are looking for ways to expand your grape category, please visit hmcfarms.com/value-added/.
As you know, California had a historic amount of rain and snow this winter and spring. The Sierra Nevada mountains in our region recorded 237% of normal snowfall, which is now generating an excess of water that growers can utilize as it melts. Instead of pumping groundwater, we are able to take water directly from the mountain reservoirs via canal systems. Our irrigation districts have also been able to fill their recharge basins to percolate water and recharge groundwater aquifers. Having full reservoirs on is a wonderful thing, and the abundance of last winter’s precipitation will even have a beneficial carry over effect into the 2024 season.
A lot of the time when we mention the weather it is in regard to the heat, but the cool nights can play as much or more of a role in fruit maturity. Studies have shown that overnight lows below 68° F are what actually help to accelerate color and berry ripening in table grapes. With a forecast of cooler nights part of this month, we could potentially start to see the fruit moving closer to normal timing as opposed to the two-to-three-week delay; we’ve been seeing this summer. It usually takes a couple of weeks to really see the full effects of the weather, whether it is hot, cold, or ideal temperatures, so only time will tell.
The tree fruit season has quickly caught up to last year’s timing. Infact, nectarines, white nectarines, and white peaches are going to end earlier than last season. There was a light rain recently in certain spots and it is affecting the fruit in those areas. We had hoped that the timing of grape harvest would move up with the onset of cool nights, but that hope hasn’t come to fruition. Color is the main hold up on our red varieties and unfortunately color up does not have the same effect on grapes as it does on tree fruit.
We had an unexpected storm this month. The issue is not only the amount of rain, it is also how quickly the rain came down. Someplaces in the valley registered over half an inch in 30 minutes. This is unheard of in our area and is uncharted territory for August (which was unlike any this valley had seen in over 85 years); and it is manifesting itself in all the negative ways we predicted. We are getting some clarity of the damage and product lost in both grapes and stone fruit. Pack outs on tree fruit, which is how we measure the number of boxes packed from fruit received from the field, are less than half of what they were before the rain. In some cases, we are choosing to abandon the fields rather than pick, especially nectarines. This month will probably be the end of our rescue attempts on nectarines. We will limp through peaches until we get to the later varieties which begin in late September. In our vineyards we are cleaning the grapes. This process involves clipping out individual berries and bunches that are not suitable to be packed. The packing costs have risen about 20% as a result of all the cleaning required.
We appreciate your patience and understanding during a very difficult time.
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.
Take a look at a before and after of tree fruit thinning in one of our peach orchards, pictured below. Thinning is a process in which we remove under sized or over crowded pieces of fruit from our trees. This allows our trees to provide better nutrients to the remaining fruit for better sizing and flavor. It also protects tree limbs from breaking due to the heavy weight of too many pieces of fruit. During this process, our crews are also able to remove unnecessary new growth to save time and costs by not taking another pass through the orchards to prune this growth later.
We are in the midst of planting new grape varieties on our farms. Once the ground is prepped and the irrigation lines are set up, planting locations are marked and new vines are planted. It’s important for the irrigation to be set up first in order to irrigate the land before and after planting, allowing the vines to ease into their new environment. As you can see here, each new vine is given a bamboo stick for support and training purposes and a carton for protection. After the vines are planted, we work on installing our V-trellis system, which has begun with the stakes visible in the photo below.
Our stone fruit orchards are coming along nicely. The early-season peaches pictured above, which are right outside our office, are just about the size of ping pong balls. As you can see, they are already gaining a blush color. Over the coming weeks, they will grow quite a bit as they prepare for harvest, which will begin soon in our orchards. With temperatures in the mid 80s, we should have a very good quality and taste to start the season. Last year, we had lower than normal temperatures and rain for much of May, which impacted our quality. This year’s crop looks exceptionally good, and we should have great tasting fruit by mid-May, with a harvest schedule similar to last year.
Heart of Ag Wellness Center is now open! Heart of Ag is a private medical facility which HMC Farms employees can use at no charge. The center provides a wide range of basic healthcare services from flu shots to annual physicals and much more. The ribbon cutting ceremony drew in special guests, including Assemblymen Joaquin Arambula and Devon Mathis, representatives from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and State Senator Melissa Hurtado’s offices, and the mayor of Selma. With the ever-changing landscape of healthcare in the United States, we are excited to offer this opportunity to our employees!
Pruning remains ongoing in our tree fruit orchards. Rain cover removal continues in our grape vineyards to prepare for pruning to begin within a couple of weeks. The forecast shows overnight lows cool enough for our dormant trees and vines to get some chill hours – we’ll touch on this more when we return in 2020.