Near-perfect growing weather for San Joaquin Valley tree-fruit farmers has produced a limb-buster of a crop this season.
For several weeks, farm crews have been furiously thinning fruit off peach, plum and nectarine trees in hopes of producing bigger, better quality fruit.
“Last year we had to take what we could get from the trees because the crop set was small,” said Mike Thurlow, owner of Mountain View Fruit Sales & Cold Storage in Reedley. “Now we have a plethora of fruit that we can select from. And it’s awesome.”
Although tree-fruit farmers routinely thin immature fruit, the practice was lightly used during the state’s four-year drought that also saw warmer-than-normal winter temperatures.
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This year is different. Cooler days and nights combined with adequate rain have revived the tree-fruit industry in the central San Joaquin Valley, which is the state’s premier tree-fruit growing region. Barring a disastrous hail storm, this year’s tree-fruit crop should produce larger fruit and perhaps more of it.
Thurlow said his company expects to handle 10 percent to 15 percent more fruit than last year.
“And I would hazard a guess that just about everyone else is in the same boat,” he added.
Statewide, the industry has been producing about 40 million boxes a year and tree-fruit officials agree that this year looks promising.
“We know that we had a good fruit set this season and it looks like it is going to be a very good crop,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association in Fresno.
Last year, many growers struggled with undersized fruit. Small fruit is a tough sell for retailers that prefer larger sizes.
Now we have a plethora of fruit that we can select from. And it’s awesome.
Mike Thurlow, owner of Mountain View Fruit Sales & Cold Storage in Reedley
To maximize production, growers thin trees early in the ripening season. In the Valley, orchard floors are littered with walnut-sized, green-colored pieces of fruit. The immature fruit will be worked back into the ground, where it will break down and enrich the soil.
“The furrows are flooded with fruit,” Thurlow said. “We have had customers come by and their jaws drop.”
Although it may seem like a waste to strip unripened fruit off a tree, farmers say it is necessary.
“If you leave all that fruit on the tree you will end up with lots of small fruit that has a lot of pit but very little flesh,” said Liz Hudson of Hudson Farms in Sanger. “Our goal is to grow desirable fruit that consumers want.”
Too many pieces of fruit on a tree also can cause tree limbs to snap from the added weight.
And while farmers welcome the larger crop, it does hike their labor costs.
Harold McClarty, co-founder of HMC Farms in Kingsburg, estimates his labor costs have gone up by about 15 percent. And he is only done with half the thinning.
“We are stretching our workforce pretty thin,” McClarty said. “Not only do we have thinning to do, but we’ve also been picking since the third week in April.”
McClarty said his crews likely will be thinning through this month and maybe into June for the later varieties.
Early estimate: This year’s fruit crop is 10 percent to 15 percent bigger than 2015.
John Chandler, who farms with his family in Selma, said thinning is one of the more expensive practices in farmwork. What remains to be seen is whether the price for this year’s crop will help offset the higher production costs.
“The general feeling is that this year we will have a good-sized crop and I am being very positive about that,” Chandler said. “Now, whether we get the price to justify that is something we still don’t know.”