March 2015. A group of 12 young growers just returned from touring fruit growing regions in Central California. Penn State Extension Young Grower Alliance Network Tours provide experiential training in sustainable production practices and encourage innovation among this next generation of growers.

Young Grower Alliance tour in California. High Density Olives.

Young Grower Alliance tour in California. High Density Olives.

From a hostel in San Francisco, we traveled about 2 hours to the Central Valley. Our first few stops were with pear farmers in the Sacramento River Delta region, where we saw pear trees over 125 years old, and still producing quite well.

We also visited with Jeff McCormack, who has over 600 acres of pears in production! Most of the growers we spoke with manage small family farms. In the Modesto area many peach growers average 40 to 50 acres. The cost of land varies by location but growers shared numbers from $18,000 to $50,000 per acre in the Central Valley. In Watsonville area, land rental rates are up to $4,000 per acre.

We learned that most growers sell to packing houses and processors (Dole, Del Monte, Driscoll's, etc.). They were amazed at the extent of our involvement with direct marketing. Michael Neuharth of Steamboat Acres in Sacramento is jumping into agritainment with very ambitious plans over the next few years. Direct marketing, diverse operations, and agritainment components seemed like rather new concepts at many of the places we visited. Certainly this is not an option for the larger growers, some of whom have their own packing houses.

A highlight of the trip was visiting Corto Olive Co. and standing among a super-high density planting of olive trees--a contrast to the spacious olive groves in Europe--while learning all about the importance of high quality fresh olive oil and the milling process. Good olive oil should: taste almost floral, burn slightly at back of your throat, will not leave an oily residue in your mouth, will smell amazingly fresh, not rancid, and tastes delicious drizzled over vanilla ice cream. The olive oil industry is slowly growing in California, and is based on two major companies: Corto Olive Co. and California Olive Ranch. Many growers are contracted to grow olives for these two companies. We visited cherry orchards that were just starting to bloom and saw young trees interplanted with 20-year old trees. Various University of California Cooperative Extension Advisers met with us throughout the trip.

We often discussed training systems for apples and peaches--one major issue being the high level of growth that tree fruit growers in California must contend with. Hot topics for every grower we met were labor shortages, increased regulation at all levels, water issues, and increasing concern regarding the arrival of BMSB in nearby areas of the state. We drove past orchards of almonds in full bloom and learned that in recent years, acreage for almonds and walnuts has greatly increased because nut production is highly mechanized and requires much less labor.

We had the privilege of visiting Zaiger Genetics and meeting the family who is responsible for many of the interspecific hybrids growing in our orchards. We walked through a greenhouse and saw the process of pollinating and crossing different varieties by hand, which included using modified tweezers for emasculating flowers and eyeshadow sponges for applying pollen to the pistils. The family estimated that they hold 250 patents for stone fruit and walnut varieties. It was fascinating to learn the processes that take place there and a bonus to stand among peaches in full bloom in late February. Zaiger Genetics is truly a world class facility for our industry and it is nice to know they are down to earth people running a family business, just like us.We visited an almond shelling cooperative and learned all about the processes of removing the shells and hulls from the edible nut, as well as the numerous sorting and automatic quality control steps to prepare the nuts for processing at Blue Diamond.

The CA Canning Peach Association sponsored us for lunch and we spent the afternoon in a peach orchard, looking at several training systems. Eric Spyker shared about his immediate need for mechanization in peach harvest and clarified how dire the water issues really are, and how access to water, let alone enough water, is getting more and more difficult. If you do not have land that is already within a water district, it is practically impossible to buy water that runs through the canals. Lastly, we learned the proper pronunciation of almonds! Californians say "aamands" without pronouncing the L, just like we do not pronounce the L when saying salmon.

Our last scheduled day of the tour took place in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, where we met with several California Extension Farm Advisors from the area. We first stopped at a family-owned strawberry farm contracted by Driscoll's, and discussed the impact that the elimination of methyl bromide has had on fruit production.

Researchers are still looking for effective fumigants to combat Verticillium wilt and other soil-borne diseases prevalent in the area. We also discussed the difficulty in finding reliable farm labor.After visiting the farms contracted by Driscoll's, our focus switched from large wholesale operations to smaller, diversified direct-market farms. Live Earth Farm, in Santa Cruz, is a highly diversified organic operation owned by first-generation farmer, Tom Broz. After operating under a traditional CSA model for years, Live Earth Farm is slowly switching to an online-marketplace model for its consumers, so that buyers can either purchase individual products, or can personalize what they will receive in their weekly share.

Our last farm visit was to Gizdich Ranch, a pick-your-own apple and berry farm that also operates an on-farm deli, bakery, and cider press. Here, Vince Gizdich introduced us to olallieberries--a cross between loganberries and youngberries (similar to blackberries)--which are popular in the Pacific Northwest. Gizdich started its pick-your-own business in the 1960s, after having labor issues and discovering the importance of bringing families to the farm. Soon after, the farm opened a bakery that specializes in pies--a great way to sell its frozen olallieberries and stored apples.

We encourage you to participate in a Penn State Extension Young Grower Alliance trip like this sometime. The interaction and adventures with fellow farmers and industry professionals was equally as rewarding as the travel itself. We had countless good discussions, many laughs, and enjoyed getting to know one another and networking a bit too.

We rode cable cars in San Francisco, stayed in a house on the beach, enjoyed a free day in Monterey and sat around the table for a home cooked dinner one evening! Why not take advantage of opportunities to learn and grow? It's not every day you get to see pears growing next to citrus and palm trees!

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Donald Seifrit
  • Extension Educator, Tree Fruit