First Pick of the Season – Here We Go!
No doubt this will be an especially unpredictable season. We have not picked this early in over 15 years. The Honey May nectarines are ready. The trees were grafted in 2010 and this is their first crop. The frost and hail damaged most of the fruit and the birds and ants took their share. We will probably only pick 20 or so flats the first day (we actually only picked 8 flats). We pick when the fruit is ripe and the 100 degree temperatures may cause the fruit to ripen more quickly. We have to keep a close eye on the fruit, not to mention giving it the taste test.
Getting Ready to Pick
The packing shed is cleaned and stocked with boxes, pads, and panta packs. Panta packs are the molded sheets that come with sized cups to place the fruit into. They come in sizes that correspond to the number of pieces of fruit they will hold. For example, a size 32 panta pack will hold 32 peaches or nectarines. There are one layer flats and two layer boxes. Most of the time we pack two layer boxes, so there are 64 pieces of fruit in a box of 32s. One pad goes between each layer of fruit. We train our employees on what fruit is ready to pick and how to pick the fruit using the palm rather than fingers to grasp the fruit and snap it off the tree. They are also trained to handle the boxes gently so as not to bruise the fruit since it is picked ripe and ready-to-eat. The packers are skilled at recognizing the correct size of fruit for each panta pack. Sizes range depending upon the variety of fruit. Some retail stores require stickers on each piece of fruit. Mike has rigged the sticker guns to cut the labor time involved.
Some varieties of peaches and nectarines taste better firm and others are better soft. Mike uses the taste test to decide the best time to pick. Sometimes factors such as soft tip or brown rot require an adjustment in picking times, though. As a hands-on farmer, Mike spends his summers in the field monitoring the picking and packing of our fruit. Our foreman has been with us for over 20 years and helps determine when it is time to pick also.
Sales and Pricing
Early in the season when there is not much fruit on the market, we have more control over our prices. We deliver directly to the local Whole Foods store in Fresno, CA. They get the first of our crop and the larger sizes as well. The rest goes to other Whole Foods and retail stores farther away. The culls go to Farmer’s Markets in the LA area. As the season progresses, the prices change according to the market and we have less control over what we are paid. We get paid per box of fruit. The cost of materials, labor and transportation is deducted from what we receive, of course. There is a minimum price per box that we need to cover costs. As costs rise, income decreases. As prices drop, income decreases. The prices are constantly changing throughout the season, so we never know what our bottom line will be until all the invoices are paid in full.
Living with Uncertainty
How are you at living with uncertainty? Every day something unexpected happens on the farm; a flat tire on the tractor, a blown gasket, a slipping clutch, replacing oil on the truck, etc. The only sure thing about farming is that you live with uncertainty and we wouldn’t have it any other way.