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 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.
This month, Reedley College held the official groundbreaking ceremony for the McClarty Center for Fine and Performing Arts. The new 24,000 square foot facility will attract talent and draw audiences from near and far. It will also provide students and faculty the much needed opportunity to showcase their talents and skills on campus. Harold gave a remarkable speech about his own life and impactthe college and the arts had on his upbringing.Click here to see what he had to say.
It got cold at the beginning of the month. There was a widespread freeze, but only various colder locations suffered any significant damage. As you can see in the picture below, the juvenile nectarines on the left are green and shiny, compared to the frost damaged nectarines on the right that are dark and dull looking. While we feel that the overall volume was not affected by the freeze, March-April is a worrisome time for us as we monitor for potential cold temperatures and hail events.
As grape vines awaken from dormancy, buds begin to form and swell until they open up and reveal green leaves and new growth. The opening of these buds is called bud break, a process that is currently happening in our table grape vineyards.
Sarah McClarty, our Chief Financial Officer, is featured in this month’s Western Grower & Shipper magazine as a WG Women Ambassador. Sarah is part of the first few graduates of WG Women, a women’s professional development program under the Western Growers umbrella. Before WG Women, Sarah worked to create a women’s group at HMC, which allows the women from across our organization to participate in networking, teambuilding, and volunteer opportunities. Because we are in the midst of Women’s History Month, this feature is extra special to us. Read the article here.
Our stone fruit orchards are moving right along. Juvenile fruit is growing on our trees, with nectarines pictured above. At the beginning of this week, we received just over an inch of precipitation on our farms, which included some hail. It’s a little early to determine the extent of the hail damage. We have not yet thinned our early season varietals, which sometimes gives us an opportunity to sort through the fruit on the trees and remove pieces that may have been damaged by hail.
This month, HMC Farms held a two day COVID-19 vaccination clinic for employees of HMC and several nearby ag businesses. At this point, we have successfully distributed vaccines to more than 450 agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley, in partnership with the California Farmworker Foundation and Heart of Ag (the free-to-employee clinic we sponsor) – both relationships built before the pandemic. Sarah McClarty, Chief Financial Officer at HMC stated at the event, “To watch every employee in our organization who wants a vaccine receive one over the last two days has been the biggest win in what has been an extremely challenging twelve months.”
Research and development are crucial to our success as a farming business. We are constantly looking for ways to improve our farming methods by studying a wide variety of topics. One of our Plumsicle™ orchards is pictured above. This is one example of the results of years of research and development to improve the maintenance and growing processes, while planning ahead for the use of future ag technologies. While we often show you these trees during harvest time, the blossom stage gives a clear view of the high density setup.
This month, we’ve had both rain and hail in the Central Valley. Hail can pose a significant threat to our crops if it occurs at the wrong time. Right now, our stone fruit is in three different stages: blossoms, developing fruit with the jacket (base of the blossom) still attached, and juvenile fruit outside of the jacket. Blossoms essentially have no vulnerability to the hail we’ve had – even if we lose some blossoms, that can be chalked up to thinning. The developing fruit with the jacket still attached still has some protection against the elements. The most vulnerable of these stages is the juvenile fruit that has just shed its jacket, and the growth process moving forward. About 20% or less of our crop is in the post-jacket stage at this point, and we will evaluate any hail damage in the coming days.
Bud break is happening in our early season table grape vineyards. This means that tiny buds on the vine have begun to swell up and give way to leaves using energy stored up during dormancy over the winter. Pictured above is a Flame red seedless table grape vineyard, our first variety to harvest. We generally compare the timing of the growth cycle with previous years, but bud break itself is not a solid benchmark for harvest time because the weather after it occurs has a significant impact on timing for the rest of the growth cycle. While bud break began about the same time as last year, the cooler weather over the past couple of weeks has slowed down growth across our vineyards.
We are now thinning our early season stone fruit varietals. During the thinning process, we remove excess immature fruit, leaving behind only about 2-4 pieces per hanger (shoots from permanent tree branches which bear fruit). This time consuming job is labor intensive, and can only be done by hand. The amount of fruit we leave behind varies based on the specific variety. Thinning will continue for months as our mid and late season varietals reach the appropriate point in the growth process.
Our platform equipment is now being used for harvest in our high density stone fruit orchards! This is an exciting moment for us, since this concept has taken three years of hard work and dedication to come to fruition.
We recently installed an optical grader to the packline in our plum packing house at HMC Reedley. The optical sorter not only improves our efficiency by automatically removing fruit with defects before it reaches the pack tables, but it also provides detailed statistics about each lot of fruit that help us improve our practices out in the field. Our plum team is pictured above (Raul, Paula, Nick and Greg).
Veraison is just beginning in our Flame table grapes, which is the point at which ripening begins. Red and black varieties begin to change color, and green varieties lose some opacity as natural sugars begin to accumulate in the berries. These particular grapes will be ready to harvest next month.
We are excited to begin harvest of our proprietary Plumsicle™ later this week. This piece of fruit was selected purely for flavor reasons and we think it is unequivocally the best tasting plum or plumcot of the season (don’t tell the Holiday plum, Honey Punch, or Ebony Rose that we said that). They will be available this season in 1# clams and 2# bags, with the variety name itself proudly featured on the package.
Welcome to a new decade! Although it’s winter on our farms, there’s still a lot going on…
Recent weather has provided some crucial chill hours to our trees and vines. Chill hours occur when the temperature is between 32°F and 45°F while our trees and vines are dormant. Each variety and type of fruit has different chill hour requirements, which can range from approximately 100-800 hours. We currently have more than 700 chill hours logged on our farms. That’s around 200 hours more than we had at this point last year. January rainfall on our farms is average for the Central Valley. Once the chill hours have been reached and the weather begins to warm, our trees and vines begin to come out of dormancy, signaled by buds and blooms.
Weather in California’s Central Valley has its own unique attributes. One of the things that sets us apart is tule fog. No ordinary mist, tule fog is radiation fog, which forms when humidity is high and the ground is cold with little to no wind. This dense ground fog often forms in the days following rain in the Central Valley, causing sections of very low visibility – often 1/4 mile (.4 km) or less. This low visibility leads to “foggy day schedules” at our local schools as school buses and parents wait for visibility to increase for safe driving conditions.
The trees in our high density orchards have now grown to a point which opens the door to a new method of tree pruning utilizing a platform instead of ladders. In comparison with ladder use, the platform saves time and increases safety for our field crews by eliminating the need to climb up and down a ladder and then move it a few feet to start the process again. The platform is beneficial for many farming activities in our high density orchards, including pruning, thinning, and harvest. We are excited to see how this new piece of equipment will increase our efficiency throughout the tree fruit cycle this year.
Our table grapes have moved into the veraison stage. During veraison, the berries on the grape clusters begin to soften and change color, as pictured above. This color change marks the onset of ripening. From this point, the grapes pictured above will ripen fairly quickly.
Harvest remains ongoing for HMC Farms peaches, plums, and nectarines. Table grape harvest is still tracking slightly behind last year’s harvest dates, but will begin soon. Weather over the past 10-14 days has been very cooperative with the start of our table grape veraison. Hot and sunny days are in the forecast, just touching 100° over the weekend before dropping back down, but overnight lows should remain mostly in the low 60s.