Fresh Facts Week 28: Thinning the Stone Fruit By Californians

By March 20, 2016Fresh Facts, Newsletter

So now the real intense work starts on our farm that will last through late July’s harvest. Thinning started last week in the Tasty Rich Aprium patch and we’ll have all oars in the water thinning plums and pluots by the time most of you read this note.

Thinning is the manual job of removing excess fruit so the remaining fruit can reach a size you all can enjoy. Anywhere from 20% to 90% of the fruit depending on variety and year has to be pulled off by people on ladders when it’s about the size of a pinto bean.

Why is thinning so intense Uncle Vern? Because just as there’s a perfect day to harvest, there is literally a perfect day to thin most varieties and every 2-3 days later than perfect will cost the farm about 10% of its bottom line profit; here’s why. The peach tree has been storing energy to feed its children (peaches) with since last summer and all through the winter.

Bloom has passed, and now we are in a period of very rapid cell division that consumes a ton of that stored energy; you moms will know what I’m talking about to a point. The difference is there may be 10 little plums where the tree can only support one and that means 9 have to be removed by hand.

You want to thin as early as possible so the tree is putting its energy into marketable fruit. If you’re late, that energy is going on the ground in the form of thinned fruit, and you’ll never get it back.

So here’s the deal. For apricots, you can start when the fruit’s about the size of a pinto bean. For plums, you can start when the fruit is about the size of a man’s little fingernail. And for peaches and nectarines, you can start when the fruit jumps or differentiates. What I mean by that is; you’ll check your orchard, and all the little fruit will be the same size. Then literally in a day, some of the fruit will jump to triple or quadruple the size of the others. Those are the ones you want to keep—big puppies make big dogs—and you can start thinning that patch tomorrow.

And here is the even bigger deal. This work is all done by people. Men and women with families and bills just like the rest of us. Non-farm people think farm work is done by migrant labor, but that is absolutely not the case at least with our California crops. The work is done by people who live and work here year-round. Our goal is to be a preferred employer and while the first place your mind goes is pay rate, the real challenge is providing consistent full time work from seasonal crops; crops with very intense labor demand.

To do that, you need varieties that harvest sequentially over a long period of time, but you also need varieties that thin sequentially or you won’t be able to get it done on the perfect day.    All of these factors plus flavor appearance and yield potential go into our variety selection.

And now an inside secret just between us girls: the main reason for all the nuts being planted instead of the fruit and vegetables you would have seen 20 years ago is both labor scarcity and anticipated labor scarcity at any price.

Neighbors tell me we’re crazy to continue in a business where 80% of our cost is labor and that has gone up 40% in 18 months; perhaps.

But we are betting the farm, that people will be willing to pay for California grown organic stone fruit. It’s what Petersons have done here since 1893, we’re really good at it and Lord willing, you’ll be getting fabulous Tasty Rich in about 8 weeks.

Author Uncle Vern

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