Diversify to survive
A former processed apricot grower survived by shifting to the fresh market.
Apricots are still the mainstay at Lucich and Santos Farms, though only one Tilton apricot tree remains from what used to be the primary variety grown. The diversified Patterson, California, grower-shipper now has more than 15 apricot varieties planted for the fresh market, along with conventional and organic peaches, nectarines, cherries, pluots, and apriums.
When Dave Santos partnered with his brother-in-law Pete Lucich more than 25 years ago to grow apricots, they grew one variety--Tiltons--for processing.
"We used to have 200 acres of Tiltons," he said. "Now, we have one tree, left only because my wife loves Tiltons. If we would have stayed with Tiltons, we'd be out of business."
Their focus on the fresh market slowly evolved from packing a few Tiltons under a shade tree to today's modern packing operation that packs about 400,000 boxes annually--about 3,500 tons of stone fruit--under the Blossom Hill brand.
With two optical sizers on their packing line sorting for color, size, and some under-skin bruising, soft fruits can be packed into seven different types of packages at a time, from punnets and bags to layer and volume fill boxes. Santos noted that they developed their own bagging line to handle the fragile apricots because "the apple bags and setup were too brutal."
The partners have made many changes since the days of growing one variety.
"We've stayed in business by vertically integrating," Santos said. "When we started, others packed, cooled, and sold our fruit. Now, we grow, pack, sell, and ship to the market and have better control of quality. That's one way we've stayed in business."
He characterizes the fresh apricot market as one with little import competition (Southern Hemisphere imports come during the off-season), the frozen market as stable, and the canning industry as a "dinosaur."
In addition to vertical integration, they also survived by shifting from processing to the fresh market and diversifying crops.
"Apricots are a specialty item, and that's our business. We've worked hard at developing a reputation for packing quality fruit," Santos said, adding that they've also worked to develop domestic and international markets. "Our reputation is everything."
Apricot season at Lucich & Santos, located on the western side of the San Joaquin Valley, begins on average around May 12 with the Poppy variety and stretches to August. Fresh-market varieties include Poppy, Earlicot, Gold Strike, Gold Bar, Jordanne, Bonnycot, Tomcot, Golden Sweet, Tri Gem, Patterson, Westley, Autumn Gold, Robada, Blossom Hill (a variety they developed), and a numbered selection.
At one time, they exported up to 40,000 boxes of apricots annually to Mexico. But since the Mexican government shut down the market in the early 1990s due to phytosanitary concerns and then reopened it to those following a systems approach program, volume has dropped to around 10,000 boxes per season.
Early variety apricots from Spain, Italy, France, and other countries have squeezed their export market in the United Kingdom, which was as high as 30,000 boxes several years ago. Santos said they hope to regain U.K. market share with their recent organic certification by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements known as IFOAM.
And even with emphasis on the fresh market, about half of their total apricot volume is sent to processors for canning, freezing, concentrate, and drying, an important market for fruit that doesn't meet their high fresh standards. There is strong demand for their organic apricots by frozen food and dry yard processors.
Though more than three-quarters of the 800 acres farmed by Lucich & Santos are planted to apricots, in recent years they have added to the mix 25 acres of white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, 15 acres of Pluots, 25 acres of Apriums, and 70 acres of sweet cherries. Varieties of cherries planted are Brooks, King, Bing, and the unpatented Coral Champagne, a red-fleshed, Brooks-type variety that ripens before Brooks and was developed by the University of California, Davis.
They maintain a five-acre experimental block to test new varieties and hybrids like the cherry varieties Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, new pluots, apriums, and the peacotum, a cross between peach, apricot, and plum bred by Zaiger Genetics.
Another reason they diversified into different stone fruit crops is labor. They can attract workers by starting earlier than most tree fruit growers and keep workers continually employed for three months.
Trees at Lucich and Santos are closely planted, at around 250 to 300 trees per acre, and kept small through rootstock selection and tree training. Most of the fruit can be picked from the ground; only six-foot ladders are used. Workers are paid piece rate when picking fruit for processing and receive an hourly wage for fruit picked for the fresh market.
Some 120 acres of the total 800 are certified organic, and they are working to certify another 80 acres in the coming years. Their first organic orchard block was certified five years ago.
Lucich and Santos used to be the first to ship cherries to Japan, Santos stated. "But not anymore with all the cherry production now located in southern San Joaquin Valley."
All State Packers in Lodi, California, packs their conventionally grown cherries. However, when their organic Coral Champagne cherries come into full production, Lucich and Santos will pack their own organic cherries along with organic cherries from neighboring growers.
Cherry harvest is usually completed by June 10, which helps avoid overlap with Pacific Northwest cherries, he said. Most of their cherry trees are on Mahaleb rootstock, although they are trying the semidwarfing Gisela rootstock and the Zee Stem, a patented and trademarked interspecific combination of peach and almond rootstocks grafted between Citation rootstock and the scion variety.
"The main advantage of the interstem is earlier production," Santos said, adding that they picked 94 boxes from a second-leaf, ten-acre block of cherries.
Lucich and Santos, by keying in on organic markets, experimenting with new varieties, and growing good tasting, high quality fruit, hope to be well positioned to take advantage of market niches and opportunities.