Harvest has begun in our stone fruit orchards! At this point, the fruit is a little smaller than normal due to the decreased amount of time between bloom and harvest, and the timing is a little ahead of last year.
It’s hot! Last week we experienced rain and peak temperatures around 72°, this week’s record projected heat is as high as 109°. Grapes and stone fruit don’t like this heat any more than people. In stone fruit, extreme heat slows everything down and halts growth, causing some heat damage to the fruit – especially dark colored plums. In table grapes, any of the exposed berries not covered by foliage will burn.
A few months ago, we increased efficiency and eliminated the need for ladders by using platforms in our high density stone fruit orchards. Since then, we have started to experiment by attaching an artificial light to the same equipment to perform “night thinning.” Beginning before the sun comes up, crews are able to finish this crucial process in the cool morning hours. Going forward, we will modify our picking by transitioning this process into harvest, resulting in an optimal product by removing the afternoon heat. This is an efficient operation that benefits the workers and product by eliminating the summer heat.
We are moving rake wire in our table grape vineyards. This process opens up a wire in the middle of the trellis that helps guide and organize the canes and their growth to conform to the V shape of the trellis. There are multiple benefits of rake wire use. It helps get all of the clusters to hang out in the “fruiting zone” underneath the trellis, making maintenance and harvest more efficient. Sunlight is allowed in to hit the bottom of canes, which helps with fruitfulness in next year’s crop. A pocket forms for air to flow and escape, reducing chances of humidity getting trapped underneath the canopy.
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.
Plum trees are not self-pollinating like peach and nectarine trees, so they require pollination from other plum varieties in order to produce fruit. To give our plums the best chance of pollination, we plant blocks of cross-pollinating varieties adjacent to each other on large ranches. It is important to choose varieties which bloom at the same time to ensure that bees can do their work, moving pollen from the blossoms of one variety to another. when the bloom timing of the varieties is off, or when the weather is too cold for bees to fly (below 55°F), the result is a short plum crop. As pictured, we have lots of uniform bloom this year, which is hopefully a good sign for a full plum harvest.
Our dormant grape vineyards recently received a layer of compost to help feed soil microbes and replenish depleted nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the soil. Using compost allows us to maintain soil health using organic forms of nutrients, and reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer. To ensure the compost we use is safe to apply, it is put into rows, brought to an appropriate temperature, and turned multiple times to ensure any pathogens are cooked out. The timing of compost application depends on the weather – we wait until late winter has passed so that heavy rains don’t wash minerals past the root zone and the temperature is warm enough for soil microbes to be active.
We are taking as many precautions as possible to ensure a continued supply of nutritious produce during these unprecedented times. We are staggering break and meal periods in our facilities to minimize the number of people in a given area at one time, we have changed configurations in our processing facility to maximize social distancing, and we are continuing to follow our already extremely high standards for hygiene and food safety. We are also fogging common areas with disinfectant during off hours and have procured additional laptops to allow some employees to work from home as necessary. We are planning for the upcoming stone fruit season, with thinning starting. So far there looks to be a heavy crop load, which will require extensive and timely thinning of our crop. We are watching the skies closely as there is rain in the forecast, and we have approached the time of spring in which precipitation that turns into hail can be incredibly devastating.
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.
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.
High density planting, shown above, allows our farm crews to prune, thin, and harvest the organized rows with greater efficiency. Now that these trees have grown large enough, we will bring in a platform pruning system to prepare them for winter and the coming season. This new method of farming will ultimately result in an even better quality of product and more efficient system of delivery for the California stone fruit system.
Our weather has finally caught up with the calendar. Since Thanksgiving, we’ve received about 2.59″ of rain, which is more than 20% of our annual average. Sunday, a thunderstorm dropped quite a bit of hail in some spots on our dormant farms. The forecast shows no rain through the weekend, with precipitation popping up again toward the end of next week. We’ve had a some foggy mornings this week, which are likely to continue due to ground moisture.
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.
Pruning is in full force in our traditional tree fruit orchards, as pictured above. As you can see, the trees are bare of leaves, allowing our crews to distinguish between older wood and fruiting wood. We will soon begin pruning in our high density planting orchards, which is a slightly different process. Pruning allows us to prepare for the next season by maintaining the shape and structure of the trees.
HMC Farms table grape harvest is rapidly winding down. The weather has continued to cooperate with our harvest, helping to maintain excellent grape quality. It looks like we may finally see some precipitation in the middle of next week. The forecast shows high temperatures in the 60s with some chilly overnight lows to start Thanksgiving week.
Autumn is staking its claim on our tree fruit orchards. These beautiful fall colors signal that pruning time is near. We wait for the leaves to fall off of the trees in order to prune and select the best fruiting wood. Older wood appears thicker and rougher, like the tree’s trunk, in comparison to fruiting wood, which still has fresh bark and is likely to bear the best fruit.
Our table grape harvest is still going strong, with weather that continues to cooperate well in our vineyards. The forecast shows daytime temperatures dipping down with highs into the upper 60s to end this week, and then climbing back up a bit to start next week in the high 70s. Some cloud cover lies ahead, but there is still no significant chance of precipitation on our farms.
This year has proven to be one of the most unusual fall weather patterns we’ve seen. The weather has been virtually perfect for grape growth and harvest on our farms, with high temperatures in the 70s and 80s and cool overnight lows. With precipitation continuing to hold off, we will likely complete our grape harvest before adverse weather hits our vineyards.
Wildfires have blazed through parts of California over the past few weeks. Our farms were not in close proximity to any of the fires, but we’ve monitored the air quality closely, as smoke from these fires can drift to the valley floor. Fortunately, the major fires have been fully or mostly contained at this point. For updates on the California wildfires, visit the CalFire website. Table grape harvest is still going strong in our vineyards. The forecast shows slightly warmer days, with high temperatures creeping back up into the low 80s.