Wintertime on the Farm: Orchards (Part 1 of 3)

December 2, 2004

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is shrinking as the weather cools and the days shorten. While colorful citrus, persimmon, and squash harvests are reaching their height, many of our favorite farmers, fruits and vegetables won’t appear again until the spring or summer. And though we’d like to imagine that a quieter time at the market means a quieter time on the farm, it is not so! This article is the first in a series about what is happening on the farm, ranch, and water this wintertime.

Part I – What’s Happening in the Orchard?

At this time of the year, stone fruit farmers like Fitzgerald Kelly of The Aerie are busy pruning, grafting, and feeding their trees. Kelly keeps two workers employed full-time from November to January to help him tend his thirty acres of peaches, nectarines, apricots, and plums. When the weather cools, stone trees lose their leaves and enter into a state of dormancy during which most energy is stored in their roots and trunk. Throughout this time, about 70% of the trees’ branches will be removed, a process that Kelly says is essential to the health of the tree and the size and quality of the fruit that he will bring to market in the spring. Pruning helps develop a strong tree framework, removes dead and broken limbs, maximizes the amount of light that penetrates the trees and minimizes the amount of thinning (immature fruit removal) that will be necessary in April and May.

The dormant period is also a time for new varieties to be planted and grafted into orchards. Of over 700 trees that Kelly planted last January, he will graft 400 with about fifteen varieties of apricot, plumcot, peach, and nectarine. Rather than planting the varieties of tree whose fruit is most desirable, Kelly carefully selects root stocks that thrive in his sandy soil and grafts those trees in the subsequent year with varieties that will begin to fruit just one year later. The process is fascinating. All but one branch, called the nurse limb, is removed from the stock tree. A small cutting is then taken from an established tree of the desired variety (this is called the scion wood), whittled to a wedge shape, and inserted into notches that have been carved in the truck on the stock tree. For the graft to be successful, the cambium layers (between the wood and bark) of the scion and stock must unite. The scion wood is held in place with a dressing and the nurse limb is removed after the graft takes. The growth of the newly grafted variety is rapid because the energy from an entire established root system is channeled into just four or six small branches.

Meanwhile, citrus growers like Tory and Rebecca Torosian are busily hand-picking and marketing their fruits. The Torosian’s Early Navel oranges, Page mandarins, and Oro Blanco grapefruits have just attained desirable levels of sugar and acid for harvest. As the season continues, their fruits will become sweeter and less acidic. This year’s sudden cold snap has left many growers scrambling to protect their citrus from freezing. While large commercial growers use enormous wind machines to pull warm air from hundreds of feet above, the Torosians, who grow just four acres of citrus, rely on well water to keep their crops from freezing in nighttime temperatures well below 30 degrees. Their fields are flooded with 50-degree water and the resulting vapor keeps the air around the trees above freezing temperature. Even using such clever methods of avoiding freeze, some fruit will undoubtedly be lost.

A farmer’s work is never done. You can be sure that the food you bring home from market this week has required many months, and even years, of planning, preparation and labor.