Kings County, Calif., stone fruit grower John Warmerdam has an unusual way of characterizing California peach, plum and nectarine seasons.
Typically, most years growers annually complain about how poor the year has been, yet they still buy a new pickup, he says.
The 2013 season just ended, Warmerdam said, was a year when a grower buys the new pickup but doesn’t complain. Not too much to harp about this fall.
Warmerdam is a third-generation Hanford, Calif., orchardist. He and his 73-year-old father, also John, farm 350 acres of orchards. They operate their own fruit packing shed, packing 300,000 to 350,000 boxes of peaches, plums, nectarines and cherries annually. They also farm walnuts. The younger Warmerdam spends most of his time during the summer running the packing facility, but also shares management duties with his dad in the field. The family markets their peaches, plums and nectarines through the Summeripe program operated out of Mountain View Fruit Sales, Reedley, Calif.
“Prices were good this year. Supply and demand were pretty well in balance,” except for a period in June when the market was flooded and prices dropped. “Everyone got hammered then,” he said. “It took a couple weeks or so for the industry to get out of the oversupply.”
2012 prices overall were better than 2013, he added. However, 2012 was an infamous year for his family’s operation. A photo on his computer screen saver constantly reminds him of a fruit grower’s worst nightmare. It’s one of his orchards, covered so thick with hailstones it looks like snow. It was the “Photo of the Day” for a Fresno television station. "We were on the news for the wrong reason,” he said. Half of the family’s Kings Orchards were destroyed in that season, a reminder of a farmer’s capricious profession even when commodity prices are good.
Like most farmers, the 38-year-old Warmerdam likes to compare immediate years. However, a more dramatic picture of his industry emerges looking at it over the past seven years. In that brief time span, shipments of California tree fruit dropped about 20 million boxes. Some of the biggest packing house/growers names in the business disappeared and thousands of fruit trees were taken out, often replaced with more profitable orchard crops like almonds or citrus.
With the demise of the California Tree Fruit Agreement marketing order, no one officially counts the number of peaches, plum and nectarine boxes shipped each year. Warmerdam and Summeripe quality assurance manager Charlie Lack believe when this season is tallied, the total will be about 45 million boxes. Last year it was 40 million. It was in the 60-million-box range in the first decade of this century.
Annual per person consumption of peaches in the U.S. peaked at 13 pounds in the early 1970s. By 2008 it had dropped to 8.8 pounds per person. Consumer research conducted revealed buyer frustration with peach quality as a big reason for the drop.
Queen of stone fruit
By comparison, table grape consumption rose from just 2.9 pounds per capita to about 8 pounds in the same period. Last season California table grape shippers sent more than 100 million boxes to market for the first time. Per capita consumption of strawberries averages almost 9 pounds. It was less than 2 pounds in 1970. Per capita apple consumption is 35 pounds; bananas at almost 20 pounds, both considered year-round fruit.
Oversupply was another reason for the peach consumption decline.
Lack says no one wants to prosper from the misfortunes of others, but when as many as half of the packinghouses went out of business and thousands of acres of trees were removed, supply and demand moved closer to balance.
“You want everyone to do well, but it took some people to go out of business to sustain this industry. We could not keep on going with as many shippers as we had flooding the market and plummeting prices. Everyone was suffering,” Lack said.
The queen of stone fruit is the peach. Consumers were often disappointed buying a product that likely looked good in the produce aisle, but when eaten it was often hard, tasteless and mealy. The industry studied the issue and found when a consumer was unhappy with a peach purchase, she would not buy peaches again for six weeks.
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To counter the complaints, consumers were told to let fruit ripen on the kitchen counter or put it in a paper bag to ripen more. Warmerdam says consumers are not interested in waiting. They want their fruit ready to eat. Besides, those remedies often did not work. When grocery shoppers look for bananas, color tells them the ripeness of the fruit. What they see on the outside tells them what’s inside. Peaches unfortunately are much less user friendly.
The long-standing marketing approach of picking, cooling and shipping was not delivering what consumers want.
Enter the University of California, Davis, particularly pomologist Carlos Crisosto, who is now associate director of the Postharvest Technology Center in Davis. He was stationed at the UC Kearney Ag Center in Parlier for many years where he was part of a team of UC scientists researching what growers and shippers could do to deliver improved quality fruit.
The focus of Crisosto’s research and Extension program is postharvest fruit handling, including peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, table grapes, figs, kiwifruits, olives, and persimmons, as well as pistachios, almonds and walnuts.
The goal of this research effort was to develop a better understanding of both the orchard growing practices and postharvest factors that control fruit flavor and shelf life and to develop technology to overcome fruit industry problems.
Missing a step
Crisosto began researching fruit handling the early 1990s. He found that the old three-step peach processing regime was missing a step. It was lacking a pre-conditioning or ripening process after it leaves the orchard and before the fruit ever gets to the cold storage room. By 2000, packers and growers were listening. Now 80 percent of the California industry pre-conditions or ripens fruit before it is cooled down for storage and eventual shipment. The idea has now spread worldwide, according to Crisosto.
A 24 to 48-hour cooling delay at 68 degrees not only hastens ripening; it extends market life of peaches up to two weeks or more, without causing fruit deterioration.
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Warmerdam says the protocol developed by Crisosto has dramatically changed fruit marketing for the better. It is giving consumers a peach that tastes good as well as looks good, says Warmerdam.
It is a simple process complicated by the hundreds of different peach varieties and seasonal nuisances, according to Lack.
The ripening process is used mainly with yellow-flesh peaches and nectarines. At Summeripe, a team of 10 people work 24/7 in the ripening process. The fruit is visually evaluated for quality and pressure tested when it arrives from farmers like Warmerdam.
“Some varieties ripen quickly; others slower,” he said. Pressure is the primarily factor that reflects ripeness.
Flesh pressure is measured at four to five locations on a single piece of fruit when it arrives and while in the ripening room. The skin is sliced away at each pressure point and checked with a tool called a penetrometer; the lower the number, the softer the fruit.
“Each fruit variety has a personality. We know their weaknesses. Some varieties are bulletproof. You handle them all differently. It is in the ripening room where we can compensate for those differences,” Lack said. “We do not cool down fruit until it reaches the specs we and the buyer want. The time of year can make a difference in the ripening process. It could take only 24 hours in the ripening room early in the season and by the end of the season it could take 40 to 50 hours.” The temperature in the ripening room is approximately 68 degrees with the ability to regulate room humidity.
Lack said the ripening process brings out the juice in a peach. Juice is a natural protectant against internal damage. There is less mealiness and lower off-flavors with more juice. This pre-conditioning process also results in less shrinkage in the cooler where the temperature is 32 degrees.
“We have been able to hold fruit for up to four weeks and lose only a half pound of (flesh) pressure. Ripening is nice for us as marketers and for retailers because it extends the shelf life,” says Lack, who has 23 years in the fruit business.
Consistency and quality
Summeripe ships 5 million to 7 million boxes of fruit from 11 growers to about 100 customers annually.
The Summerripe team pre-conditions the fruit based on customer needs. “Some customers want fruit at 9 pounds and others like it at 3 pounds and juice dripping down your chin,” Lack said. Most U.S. customers demand pre-conditioning. Export and Canadian customers generally prefer fruit that has not been preconditioned.
Warmerdam and Lack believe the program is working.
“There is a lot of program business today where we partner up with supermarket chains like Save Mart or big box stores like Costco to create a season-long relationship to provide consistency and quality,” said Lack. “Ten years ago you spent a lot of time on the phone selling. That is not so much today.”
This also helps Summeripe and farmers like Warmerdam avoid terminal market selling, where they have little control over the price.
“We know the preconditioning effort is working because of the repeat business we see,” Lack says.
Crisosto said fruit should be in the well-maturity stage from the farmer when it is delivered to marketers like Summeripe for pre-conditioning.
Warmerdam said their commitment to preconditioning is one of the reasons Summeripe did not get caught up in the massive industry downsizing in 2008.
Communication between Warmerdam and Summeripe is constant during the season to provide fruit for specific buyers. His phone constantly rings with queries of how many boxes he will be packing. “Customers like Save Mart and Costco want pre-conditioned fruit to meet their specs and that starts with us delivering what Summeripe needs,” said Warmerdam, who spends considerable time communicating with the Summeripe team when fruit is available for harvest.
“The classic peach market basically lasts five months, but every week or two there is a different variety and they all have personalities. As a grower, you get to know them and how to get the most out of them.”
Over the years, growers have had tendencies to chase the latest craze, looking for a home run with products like white-fleshed peaches and nectarines and novelties like donut peaches. That often leads to oversupplies and market collapses. New varieties are also constantly being introduced, often to fill a perceived short supply market time frame or market niche.
A general rule in the business was that a grower/shipper had to change out 10 percent of their orchards just about every year to stay abreast of the change. Warmerdam said that is not as common as it once was.
Warmerdam said this switching often takes out a good variety. “We prefer to take the good varieties and do them right by learning how to make them better,” he said, using the O’Henry peach as an example.
“It has been around since the 1970s, and it still produces a good peach. It all depends on how you handle it. A yellow peach is a yellow peach is a yellow peach, but you handle each one differently ... different pruning or maybe different spraying to make it what you want it to be. I have seen growers take out the best varieties rather than figuring out how to fix them and do them right. ”
Warmerdam grew up on the farm, but planned to be an English teacher. He never made it to the classroom. “I graduated from college on Sunday and was back on the farm on Monday,” he laughs.
He also has no regrets.
Warmerdam is well organized and an even keel type of person in one of the more stressful segments of California agriculture, the fresh commodity industry. Warmerdam said growing up on the farm allows him to up handle stress well.
“You understand that you can schedule an orchard for picking on Monday and it rains or hails on Sunday, you lose it all overnight,” he said. On the other side, there are home runs in the business like the year he had one of the few cherry orchards with Brooks variety cherries fruit and hit an economic grand slam. “We have been into cherries for more than 20 years. They can be really good or you can get a rain and everything will split right before harvest,” Warmerdam said. The year he hit a home run was exciting, but “I am not a gambler. Cherries are definitely hit or miss. There are much higher costs in cherries than in peaches and nectarines, but also the chance for higher returns.” Cherries are the earliest fruit and open the harvest season for the Warmerdams.
Water and labor
With any business, the future is uncertain. Although the Warmerdams have a good source of water, he is concerned about the long-term weather and water supply in California. There is a grove of large, ornamental trees adjacent to the packing house. Some of the trees there are 100 years old. “Those trees do not have deep water, and you can see they are stressed. They received only 5 inches of water all winter. Without a stable water supply and adequate rainfall, orchards will struggle,” he said. “We do not have surface water issues like farmers on the West Side, but water will be an issue for all farmers in the years to come.”
As with any tree fruit grower/packer, labor is critical. His operation has been fortunate to still have a stable labor supply. “We knew there would be a labor issue this year, and we increased the hourly wage in the field from $8 to $9 per hour.” Farmers compete for labor with urban jobs. However, farmers like Warmerdam often offer a more stable work source, especially when the economy is struggling like it has been since 2008. Construction jobs may pay more hourly, but they are often half time jobs where people have to take two jobs.
He said women who work on the packing line at Kings Orchards work 40 to 48 hours per week and for the men it could be as much as 50 to 60 hours.
“We have most of our people back each year. This summer we had maybe five ladies in the shed who have not worked here before,” he added.
The Warmerdams are well diversified and do not see expansion anytime soon. “Not likely,” he said. “With open orchard ground around here for $20,000 per acre or more, it is difficult to justify expansion. “It is not in my blood to gamble,” he says.
“Maybe we are too contented, but I think we are better off farming what we have now and do the best job we can at it. Rather than getting bigger, I would rather figure out how to make what we have work the best way we can,” he said.
“Farming is exciting because you have the opportunity and freedom to do things the right way. If you make the right choices, everyone can benefit.”
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