Striving for efficiencies
The Tos family tries to stay on the cutting edge of new stone fruit varieties.
Bill Tos of Tos Orchards said that while the family farm has grown through the years, they haven't taken the vertical integration step of packing their own fruit.
The Tos family has one of the few large, contiguous stone fruit farms in the San Joaquin Valley. They take advantage of having their tree fruit blocks in one location and strive for efficiencies in labor, tree training, and harvest.
With 400 acres of peaches, plums, nectarines, and Pluots, third-generation family farmer Bill Tos of Hanford, California, said the large orchard gives them lots of advantages and efficiencies that others who have orchards spread over different locations don't have. Tos, who farms with his father and uncle, said the orchards are fairly young, with blocks going into their sixth, fifth, or fourth leaf. New plantings are being trained to the Vtrellis with spacing 12 feet between trees and 18 feet between rows. Some plum blocks have been trained to the Tatura system. Trees are kept short by mechanically topping all the blocks at 9 feet to make ladder work easier.
He said they have also found it more efficient to pick one variety at a time in 30-acre blocks with 60 to 90 pickers. It usually takes three picks and about ten days to complete harvest in a variety. Peak employment numbers are around 500, with most of the work done in a six to seven month period. Pruning crews are about one-third the size of harvest crews, and about a dozen people are employed year round.
Tos admits that he is "nervous about the tree fruit industry's need for labor and rising labor costs."
Though it has grown in size through the years and generations, the family has not become vertically integrated by adding its own packing house. But they work very closely with three different packing houses, staying up on new varieties and market trends.
Tos said that while they strive to stay on the cutting edge of new varieties and horticultural practices, that doesn't always work. For example, they planted the Dapple Fire Pluot, an interspecific cross of plum and apricot, on the rootstock Nemaguard. "Unbeknownst to us, the Pluot and rootstock had a union incompatibility problem, and we had to replant the block," he said. In replanting, they cut down the original trees, and replanted Citation rootstock on Dapple Fire in between the old trees. "That's what happens sometimes when you push the envelope," he said.
While some orchardists in California must deal with high salts in their irrigation water, Tos said their groundwater lacks "good" salts, and they must add calcium sulfate to help the water penetrate the soil. "Our water is almost too good, so we help Mother Nature out a little bit," he said.
Normally, growers add gypsum or calcium sulfate to reclaim soils high in sodium, Tos explained. "But here, we don't have any good salts. At the surface, the soil seals up and almost turns to flour. It's hard to get water to the roots."
They pump most of their irrigation water from the ground, which has a high water table because they are about a mile from the Kings River. Their well is 700 feet deep, though he admits that the depth was "overkill," as most wells in the area only go to 400 feet. They pump 2,000 gallons per minute and can irrigate 60 acres at a time. Although it's common in California to use flood or furrow irrigation, they switched to a fan-jet microirrigation system with 50 percent coverage. They want coverage wide enough to imitate furrow irrigation, he said.
Fertigation is used to add nutrients that may be lacking in the soil or trees. Tissue-sample analysis guides their nutrition program. He said that they add almost no nitrogen because there is some nitrogen in the well water. Zinc deficiency is always a concern, so they put on zinc at almost every fertigation application.
The Tos family no longer girdles their trees, a common practice still used by some California orchardists trying to improve fruit size and size uniformity.
Girdling is typically done 30 days after bloom to eliminate stage two of the fruit lag stage, said Kevin Day, University of California Cooperative Extension advisor for Tulare County. "Girdling keeps the carbohydrates in the top of the tree, but it's not a cure-all because you can get split pits, and some varieties develop an astringent taste from girdling."
At Tos Orchards, early peaches and nectarines yield 300 to 400 boxes of fruit per acre, midseason varieties yield 600 to 700, and late-season varieties average 800 to 900 boxes per acre, although some late varieties approach 1,000 boxes. A box is equal to 25 pounds.
Their pest management program focuses on control of brown rot, oriental fruit moth, peach twig borer, and katydids. "You have to assume that you have brown rot, and go through the orchards with at least one bloom spray," he said, adding that they can't cover their acreage fast enough if the weather and temperatures are conducive to brown rot.