Peach grower Jim Santini has spent every summer in a peach orchard since he was about four years old. His father planted his first peach orchard in the mid-1950s when Santini was about two.
Decades later, Santini is in the peach business for himself and still spending his summers in the orchards. He grows eight varieties of cling peaches, which are used for canning.
On the morning of July 20, his orchard in Escalon buzzed with activity. The peach harvest has started and crews of pickers climbed ladders and plucked the peaches off the trees with speed. They quickly filled the half-round buckets attached by straps around their shoulders, and then dumped the buckets onto makeshift sorting tables where other workers determined what went into the peach bins and what was culled. As the bins were filled, they were picked up by a motorized trailer that traversed the rows of trees. The bins were transported to a nearby receiving station where they were then loaded onto awaiting diesel truck flatbeds bound for the cannery.
Santini and his employees began harvesting peaches in mid-July and will harvest until early September, approximately 50 days. The different varieties ripen at different times – he said there are many more than the eight types he grows – so that the canneries can handle the load, as they can’t take it all at once.
Changes in the industry, however, and the amount of work involved with growing peaches have Santini considering changes to his operation on the horizon.
“It’s not as much fun (as it used to be),” he revealed. “The markets aren’t there anymore. We have to compete with imported fruit from other countries. People aren’t buying as much canned fruit … You can buy fresh fruit year round now.”
Compared to most other crops, Santini said that there’s a lot more hand labor involved in growing and harvesting peaches. He said that there is hand-thinning and hand-harvesting of the crop. All his 95 acres of peaches in Oakdale and Escalon are hand harvested. He noted that some operations do machine harvesting but it’s a small percentage.
“It’s hard, hot work,” he said.
Due to the labor-intensive work of growing peaches and other challenges, Santini mentioned that he’ll probably phase out some of the peaches, perhaps converting some of his orchards to almonds or walnuts down the road.
“We have some orchards that are still in their prime,” he said, adding that as they get older and less productive, that’s when he may make the changes.
Santini said that peaches usually begin producing when the tree is in its “second leaf,” or second growing season in the ground. He spoke of an orchard he planted in the spring of 2010 and said it had some fruit in its second leaf and then about half of a full crop in its third leaf. He added that peach trees are usually in full production by their seventh year. Years eight through 16 are their prime production years, he said, and after that their production drops more and more each year. He said that peaches are a short-lived crop compared to some others.
This year’s fruit crop, Santini said, is on the small side. It’s hard to say exactly why, but he believes the main reason the fruit is small this year is because there was so much fruit on the trees earlier in the season and a lot of it needed to be thinned off, but there wasn’t enough labor available at that time. Plus, he added, the dry winter may have also played a role.
Charles Daily is a practicing optometrist by day with his office in Modesto but when he gets home to his Oakdale ranch, he gets on the tractor. Daily grows French Colombard grapes and almonds on 67 acres.
“I bought a farm in Oakdale in 1983 and it had some grapes and almonds,” he said. “…My ancestors, my grandfather, all were Midwest farmers.”
Daily got into farming later in life because he enjoys country living, working with his hands, driving his tractors, and producing something. However, he still has to turn a profit.
When he started, he learned a lot from the sellers of the property and his helpful, farming neighbors. At that time, his property had 47 acres of grapes and about 20 acres of almonds. Then about three or four years ago, he said, he took out about 30 acres of the vines and replaced them with almond trees.
“The market looked better,” Daily said. “The almond industry has a better market. Although, grapes have gotten a little better (in price) since I made the decision.”
French Colombard was once one of the most widely-planted white wine grapes, but it declined in popularity and Chardonnay grapes took over.
“The prices for French Colombard have been rather low,” Daily reported. “At one time this grape made a nice white wine.”
French Colombard is now primarily used for blending as opposed to being a varietal that commands its own label the way it used to. Daily said that when the demand changed there were too many acres planted in French Colombard and the price went down. Other farmers switched to growing other varieties, but Daily has kept going with his Colombard grapes.
“Growing grapes efficiently and making a profit is a challenge,” he said, noting that his vines are aging, now about 35 years old. “If I wasn’t a professional, I probably couldn’t afford to do it.”
Though both farmers have very different types and sizes of operations, they both feel the squeeze of regulations on their time and profits.
“Every time you turn around there’s another form, another permit,” Santini said.
He also talked about the issues with having employees, worker safety trainings, and other requirements. He recognizes the importance for safety but suggested that some requirements are stifling to a single farmer.
“I’m kind of a hands-on guy,” Santini said. “I always have my eyes open for a potential problem without looking for a government agency telling me what to do.”
Daily does his own cultivating – discing, mowing, weed spraying – but he hires contractors to do the heavy work of harvesting. He acknowledged that labor is always a cost.
“Fuel is expensive, chemicals are expensive,” he said, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has buckled down on the farmer.
“We’re not able to do certain things. We used to have more freedom,” Daily said. “With the EPA, everything has gotten more expensive because of the controls of that.”
This wraps up our three-part series on the bountiful Central Valley. Look for additional multi-part series on other subjects in the months ahead.