Growing something special
Family Tree Farms will use a new research farm to identify stone fruit varieties with the best flavor.
This white-fleshed nectarine tree is being trained to a quad, four-leader system, and will be kept short, about eight feet tall. Behind the nectarine row is a black screen cage where apricots from France are being grown under quarantine regulations.
At Family Tree Farms, it's all about flavor.
David Jackson, head of the third-generation stone-fruit growing and packing operation, said that the company's mission statement is to consistently produce, package, and market the most flavorful fruit in the world.
They grow about 50 different varieties of peaches, plums, Pluots, nectarines, apricots, and other stone fruits. After growing a lot of vegetables, the Jackson family began specializing 15 years ago in stone fruit that was "early, late, or something special," said Jackson. Today, they farm about 4,000 acres. About 40 percent of their production, which is heavy in white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, is exported to Pacific Rim countries.
Key relationships have been developed with their retail partners, he said, noting that about 85 percent of their fruit is shipped to about a dozen retail partners.
Asked how they get the most flavorful fruit in the world, he answered that it takes time searching and establishing relationships with fruit breeders and obtaining exclusive rights to selections. "It's an attitude that you have to develop," Jackson said.
But searching for and producing premium fruit has a cost, he admitted. "We have to receive $3 to $5 a box more over premium prices to survive. Our customers must be convinced that it's the most flavorful."
In the packing house located in Reedley, California, they sort their fruit to put together a perfect box, thereby delivering to retailers the best box possible for a premium price. Cosmetically challenged fruit are sorted for the farmer's market box. While others in the industry strive for the best packout, achieving high yields from a grower's lot of fruit, Jackson said that they strive to have the best box of fruit out there. "I tell my crew that anyone can be as good as us, but no one can be better than us."
In the quest for flavor, Jackson said that their biggest competitor is his brother, George Jackson, owner of Kingsburg Orchards.
"California growers haven't switched to flavor yet," he said. "They're still looking for those big, hard, red peaches and nectarines. Breeders tell me that they threw away flavorful selections years ago."
Unusual fruits include Pluots and plumogranates, which have the flavor of a plum and pomegranate. "It's fun to sell fruit that are a little odd but taste great," he said. "We made a run growing Fujis, which we called Green Dragons. They had no color, but good flavor."
Family Tree Farms markets Pluots as plumcots because Pluot is a trademarked name of Zaiger Genetics, the breeder that developed the first interspecific plums that were a cross between plums and apricots. Jackson said they needed a name that they could use for all interspecifics, even if they were not bred by Zaiger. "Also, a plumcot is easier to describe to the consumer as being a cross between a plum and apricot," he added.
R & D
hey began searching the world for flavorful varieties of stone fruit four years ago, recently planting a six-acre research block to house the varieties they grow and selections they are interested in growing.
Four replicates of each variety have been planted on the farm, with two trees planted on Nemaguard rootstock, the industry standard, and two trees on either Viking or Citation, depending on the fruit species. Semidwarfing Krymsk 5 and 6 rootstocks are also under trial.
They have a late-season apricot variety from France that is still grown under
a screen cage as part of quarantine
regulations. The screen keeps out disease-transmitting vectors.
Plant quarantine regulations allow the material to be grown on their property under specific requirements.
The research farm also includes a small building that resembles a modern barn to house a small cold-storage room and fruit-display area. The research facility will contain a laboratory for fruit analysis and be used in their Flavor Tech University, a hands-on training course they sponsor annually for produce personnel (see "Favor Tech University" sidebar).
Family Tree Farms doesn't do any plant breeding, only research and testing of existing varieties and selections.
Jackson said that with the new research and development facility, they plan to involve the produce managers and retail store owners in evaluating stone fruit varieties and deciding which ones are keepers. "They'll be on the cutting edge of selling fruit with flavor," he added.
He estimates that labor represents 80 percent of their production costs. Workers are paid by the hour for pruning, thinning, and picking. They pick on flavor, not pressure or color, and picking can entail five to six passes, depending on variety.
Jackson is very concerned about the availability of workers in the future. He is laying the groundwork to bring in temporary guest-workers from Honduras and Guatemala through the H-2A and H-2B workers. Packing house workers come under the H-2B program.
Although he concedes that Washington has the nation's highest minimum wage, he believes that California agricultural employers pay out more from "our back pockets" when employee taxes are included in expenses. He calculates that their average wage is $11 per hour, including all of the payroll taxes paid.
"For every dollar increase in the minimum wage, it costs me $500 more an acre," he said.