Responding to change
California, with its moderate climate and water availability, has long been the fruit bowl of America, producing nearly all types of fruits imaginable. The Golden State’s tree fruit industry of peaches, plums, and nectarines dominates many retail markets, not unlike Washington State apple producers. And like Washington, shifts and adjustments have taken place as California’s tree fruit growers and shippers respond to market changes.
I visited several California tree fruit growers last fall to see firsthand some of the changes I had heard about. It had been more than ten years since I’d driven the country roads between Fresno and the soft fruit kingdoms of Parlier, Reedley, and Dinuba, something I did regularly in my previous position working for California tree fruit and table grape growers and shippers.
Among the more striking of my observations: large housing developments built where once productive orchards stood; extensive almond plantings throughout northern and central California; tree fruit growers diversifying into cherries and organic fruit; and a determined optimism shared alike by industry members.
Labor was a top-of-mind issue. Growers and even researchers expressed a “fear of the future” regarding workers needed to hand pick fresh market peaches, plums, and nectarines. Growers are challenged by new air and water quality laws that involve patience-trying paperwork and profit-eroding regulations. Low-chilling hours are a nagging worry for some.
Despite the unending challenges, I saw an industry working together, supporting focused research at the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Center and Extension demonstration projects. Grower innovation is apparent as the industry works to reduce orchard inputs and labor costs. Some of the new techniques to reduce tree height are being applied to existing orchards, giving growers immediate tools to improve orchard efficiency.
California’s tree fruit growers, like their counterparts in other states, are a tenacious group. Orchardists are willing to try new practices—such as the current trend of growing shorter trees that is highlighted in this issue—as they strive to be more efficient. They are creating market niches, as evident in the new organic acreage being grown, and diversifying to other crops, like cherries, not only to spread risk among different crops, but also to entice labor with longer periods of employment.