A Few Questions on Farming

I recently received a few questions about the process of farming from Doreen G., as she was doing some research on peaches, and thought I would take the time to share them with you, as I believe they would be of interest to some of you. They are as follows:

What soil and climate have nurtured the fruit on your farm?

We are located in the Central San Joaquin Valley, which was originally a semi-arid grassland, but was transformed into an ideal growing region for crops through the irrigation system that was implemented in the 1950s. One of the reasons this region is ideal for farming is the temperatures. The dry heat and sun we get in the summer months is needed for crop production and the damp, cold, foggy winters are needed for the trees to achieve their chill hours, or the number of hours needed for a tree to be dormant between seasons in order to produce fruit. Another is the soil, which, with the help of the irrigation system, is rich and fertile.

Who decides what varieties are grown and how?

Each farmer chooses their own varieties and the farming methods they would like to use. There are several factors that narrow down the available options, such as the number of chill hours a variety requires, the varieties susceptibility to different diseases and insects that are potential threats in this region, and its compatibility to root stock that is compatible to this region. Our growers work with fruit breeders who develop new varieties exclusively for us. We get to select varieties from the options they bring us and grow them in test blocks to see how they perform over several years before we plant them for commercial growth. We do this because it can take up to three years for the trees to grow and produce enough fruit for us to sell, and the weather each year can affect how a variety grows. So planting a large amount of a variety only to find out it won't be able to set in this region would not be smart farming.

"Set" is the rate that the blossoms become pollinated and produce fruit. Fruit set is different each year depending on early season temperatures. If it is too cold during the day, the bees that pollinate the trees won't be as active, which decreases fruit set. If it gets warm enough for the blossoms to come out and then the temperature drops back down it can stress the trees and cause any remaining blooms to push later, which decreases set because the blooms are not out at the same time for pollination.

Our fruit breeders are from the northern part of the Central San Joaquin Valley, which means that the temperatures there can be 5-10 degrees lower than they are here at our ranches in Kingsburg. This might not seem like much to humans, but for trees it can mean the difference between having 2 pieces of fruit per tree and having 200 pieces of fruit on each branch of that tree.

There are many other decisions that come into play while growing peaches, such as the shape of the tree you want to have - box tied, Tatura trellis, Kearney V, open center, central leader, modified central leader, or other shapes - and the root stock you are going to use, how close you want to plant the trees, how often you are going to prune, how often you are going to thin the fruit, what type of nutrients you need to replenish the soil to keep the trees healthy and reduce soil salination, whether the nutrients you choose will be organic or manufactured, what type of herbicides and pesticides you need to protect the trees and whether you choose organic or non-organic versions and how often you are willing to use them, what type of watering system you will use - drip or row irrigation are the most common, - when you are going to harvest, how you are going to protect the trees from hail, and many other decisions that have to be made on a regular basis. Again, it is up to the farmer to make all of these decisions and ensure that they are operating within California's state regulations regarding farming practices. The farmers' ability to make these decisions is protected by "The Right to Farm Act" which is California Civil Code 3482.5.

What is involved in growing the fruit from a seed to full maturity?

As the stone fruit we grow are not native to this region, they must be grown on a root stock that is compatible to this soil type. Stone fruits are also difficult to grow from a seed with consistent results. Commercial farmers purchase fruit wood in the variety they want to grow from a fruit breeder or nursery and then graft this fruit wood onto root stock that is native to the region and compatible with the variety chosen. Grafting is the process of creating a niche in the root stock and fitting in the graft wood, aligning the xylem and phloem, and sealing the new branch onto the root stock. The root stock will provide the nutrients into the grafted branch, essentially adopting it as its own branch instead of growing its own, and the fruit that grows on the grafted branches will be the variety of the graft wood. Fruit breeders and commercial nurseries specialize in growing and developing varieties for commercial plantings and/or grafting. Something to note about fruit breeders: I am not talking about researchers who are creating GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Fruit breeders utilize selective breeding, which has been used since the neolithic period and is the reason we have domesticated plant life and the diverse food base we have today. The breeders use hand or bee pollination to cross-breed two genetically compatible species such as apricots, plums, peaches, and nectarines, which are all compatible with one another. In contrast, apples and pears are not compatible and cannot be cross-pollinated. These methods are used to create new varieties that have different flavors, higher nutrient levels, and other desired traits.

Once the variety has been grafted, it will continue to grow for about three years before it produces enough fruit to be sold at a commercial level. Small amounts of fruit will grow on the baby trees during this time, but most of the trees' nutrients are used to grow the branches during this stage.

How many people are involved in the process of fruit production from the time a variety is planted, cultivated, picked, packed, processed, transported, inspected, and sold?

There are many people involved in the process of growing tree fruit. The fruit breeders and nursery employees are the first to handle any variety. The farmer then becomes involved by selecting the variety, purchasing it, and seeing it through every stage until it is grown, packaged, sold and loaded into transportation to reach the store.

At the field level, you have different crews of laborers (about 20 per crew) who are involved in pruning, thinning, and picking the fruit, you have field hands that tie trees to the trellises, ones that lay out reflective material in the rows to increase the sunlight exposure to fruit on the lower branches of the trees, and others that paint the bases of the trunks to protect the trees from rabbits and insects, you have tractor drivers who pull trailers with protectant or nutrient sprays during part of the season and bin trailers for collecting the fruit from the harvesters at other times in the season, field managers who direct everyone, irrigators, forklift operators at the field level who take the full bins off the trailers and onto trucks and reload the bin trailers with empty bins to take back into the field, and truck drivers who drive the full bins from the fields to the packing facility.

At the packing facility, you have more forklift operators to unload the trucks and move product between the packing lines, graders, cold storages, and loading zones, people who unload the pick totes from the bins and place them on the grading lines and then wash the pick totes so they can be returned to the field, fruit graders who remove damaged fruit and leaves from the packing line before the fruit is washed, quality control managers who operate all the sorting lines, packers/graders who do a final grade before packing each piece of fruit, quality control managers who oversee the packers, and palletizers - who stack the finished boxes on pallets and then enter them into the inventory system and tag each pallet for traceability. Then there are USDA inspectors who come inspect the fruit and facility, as well as inspectors from Mexico who inspect both the fields and the fruit before allowing fruit to be exported from the US. We are also a certified Kosher facility, so we have a Rabbi who comes and inspects the facility on a yearly basis as well. We also have our own quality control manager who checks the fruit and facility on a regular basis.

Before transporting the fruit to the stores, the fruit is cooled in our cold storage facilities, which have their own managers and controllers. Our sales team's job is to make phone calls to buyers to sell the fruit and arrange transportation and manage any quality control issues from the time the order is placed until it is accepted by the store's sales and inspection teams. They are also responsible for that sale until the account is settled and the sale is considered 'closed.' Once a sale has been made they enter it into our inventory system and the order is sent to our shipping department to await the transportation driver's check-in at our facility.

Our shipping office employees are in charge of taking the entered orders, locating the pallets of fruit in our storage facilities, staging them for each truck that comes in, and if noted, completing another inspection before shipping it out. The trucks are all refrigerated and when they reach the proper temperature, the driver backs into the loading dock and our forklift drivers load their trucks. The truck is then driven to the distribution center of the store who purchased the fruit.

The fruit is once again inspected and either accepted or rejected by their facility and/or buyer. The pallets are kept in their cold storages and sent out to the individual stores for that company as they send in their reorder forms as they sell out of product. The fruit is received at each store and then moved to the produce department where the produce manager and clerks keep the fruit chilled in the back room and bring it out as the shelves empty so as to maintain the freshness of the fruit as long as possible.

What is the effect of those decisions on our health and the health of the planet?

Each decision made on the farm affects both personal and planetary health. From our fruit breeders who are creating things like red-fleshed pluots which have higher anti-oxidant and nutrient levels than their paternal plums - which helps the individual improve their nutritional intake without making drastic changes to their diet and increases food diversity - to Integrated Pest Management growing methods - which reduces pesticide usage and looks for environmentally friendly options for pest control- to sustainable agricultural practices - such as drip watering to reduce water usage, solar powered packing and cooling facilities to minimize fossil fuel usage, and minimizing soil salination in order to maintain usable agricultural land for the future - there are many things farmers are doing to improve the health of our society and protect and preserve agriculture for our future generations.

So, thank you Doreen for your excellent questions! I hope we were able to help you in your search for information and that our other readers have found it helpful as well. Please feel free to contact us with any additional questions you may have!

Written by Jillian Diepersloot for Kingsburg Orchards

Last Updated May 14, 2012