Fully integrated operation
Castang is one of the largest tree fruit growers and nurseries in France.
Jean Champeix explains that they sell trees by the number of feathers. Most trees sell for 3.50 to 4.50 euros or U.S.$5.50 to $7.20 per tree, without royalties. French growers plant between late November and Christmas.
Between its commercial nursery operation, orchards, and packing facilities, the Herman family of France's Castang Group has little down time. Castang is one of the country's largest commercial tree fruit nurseries, as well as one of the largest private apple producers.
Under the leadership of Pierre Herman, the fully integrated family business annually produces some 2.5 to 3 million tree fruit rootstocks; 500,000 to 750,000 apple and pear trees (one-year-old bench grafts, budded trees, and two-year-old bench grafts), and packs fruit from about 550 hectares (1,375 acres) under the Castang label. The Herman family owns nearly 1,000 acres of fruit, a huge number of apple acres for France, and produces about 18,000 to 20,000 metric tons of fruit annually. An additional 10,000 metric tons of fruit from outside growers are packed and shipped by the Castang packing house to markets in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
The Castang orchards near Bergerac are near the Technical Research Center for Fruits and Vegetables (CTIFL) in Lanaxde, which makes them a frequent site for trials and experiments. Castang was one of the first to try the fruiting wall system developed by CTIFL and planted the system 13 years ago alongside a central axis block for comparison.
All trees in Castang apple orchards are on Malling 9 rootstock and are trained as central leaders, with 12.8 feet between rows and 3 to 4.8 feet between trees. Orchard densities range from 1,600 to 2,800 trees per hectare or 630 to 1,120 per acre. Gala, Fuji, and Braeburn make up the majority of their production, each representing 18 percent of total volume, followed by Granny Smith and Red Delicious, representing 13 and 12 percent, respectively. Pink Lady, Ariane (a French scab-resistant variety) and Golden Delicious all represent less than 10 percent of their total volume.
Platforms are used for pruning, thinning and topping trees, and hanging hail nets and wires, but not for picking, said Champeix.
About 60 percent of their orchards are covered with hail nets, which go up after bloom and are folded up after harvest but left hanging in the field. Hail nets are now installed on all new blocks. Spring frost can also be an issue, so orchards are equipped with wind machines and microsprinklers over and under the tree. There is no organic tree fruit production in the Perigord region because of the rainy spring weather, he said.
Orchards in southwest France have good soil and water and go into production fast, said Champeix. At Castang, Granny Smith and Braeburn are the heaviest producers, both averaging 70 tons per hectare, which is equivalent to about 70 bins per acre. Production has been as high as 100 tons per hectare. Gala, Fuji, and Golden Delicious give maximum yields of 70 tons per hectare. In most orchards, growers should be averaging yields of around 50 to 60 tons per hectare by the fourth leaf, he added.
In a Fuji orchard, they harvested 23 metric tons per hectare by the second leaf, 45 tons by the third, and reached 79 tons by the seventh year.
Most of their workers come from the area, Champeix noted, adding that they employ about 100 year round and hire 300 to 400 workers during harvest.
At one time, many of the migratory workers at Castang came from Portugal. But since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, most of the seasonal agricultural workers now come from Poland, a country that has much lower wages.
"The typical agricultural worker makes about 14 euros per hour, which equates to about $24 per hour in U.S. dollars once taxes are included," he said. "Labor is way too expensive to grow cherries here."
Most of the Polish workers come in groups, he said. No special visas or paperwork are needed for traveling because they come from an EU country. Castang provides pickers with housing and money to transport them home.
Both hourly wages and piece rate are used during harvest, depending on the number of picks an orchard will have. They pay by the bin for a single pick and hourly for multiple picks. Last year, their Gala apples were the only variety paid by the hour.
A good worker can pick about five bins a day of Granny Smith and maybe eight bins of Red Delicious, he said.
Although labor is expensive, and makes up a large portion of their production costs—average costs are 0.30 to 0.33 euros per kilogram or about 24 cents per pound—tree height and ladder work are not a concern.
"We don't worry about the height of trees being too tall," Champeix said. "We need them tall to be profitable. Labor is expensive, but we have enough workers."
With less than 11 hectares (30 acres) left in pears and annual production of 400 to 500 metric tons, Champeix said that their pear production reflects the declining consumer demand for pears. Comice pears comprise the bulk of their pear production, with some Bartletts. Rootstocks used for pears are Quince (BA29 and EM C).
"Pears are a lot of work for a price that's not so good," he said. "It's difficult to have a good crop, and the consumer is less interested today in buying pears. Most of the pear consumers are older."
He noted that Belgium has planted more pears recently and is now a strong competitor in the market.