Peach growers look for technology boost

Growing peaches for a living is a hard business, one that has gone from hand-labor doing everything, to modern technology that doesn’t replace all the labor, but must enhance production for the grower to stay afloat.

Johnston, S.C., growers Chris and Josh Yonce are fourth generation peach farmers. In the summertime they usually go to work in different directions — Chris to the peach orchard and Josh to the peach packing plant, but both are trying to fine-tune the technology that keeps J.W. Yonce and Sons among the top peach growers in South Carolina.

“My great grandfather, J.W. Yonce, started the company, then my grandfather got it going a little bigger. Back then, my grandfather grew some cotton, a lot of asparagus and some peaches. In 1970 my father and Josh’s father came back to the farm and we started growing mostly peaches and expanded our operation some more,” Chris explains.

“We have five packing plants and about 14,000 acres of peaches in the Ridge area of South Carolina, says long-time Edgefield County Extension Coordinator Greg Henderson. The Ridge includes four counties that run from the Georgia line a hundred miles or so into South Carolina. This is the same ridge that runs from traditional peach production areas around Fort Valley, Ga., all the way to North Carolina.

The Ridge derives its name from the range of sloping hills that transcend the area. Cold air seeks the lowest point, and the Ridge provides good drainage for the air which seeps into the valleys on either side.

Growers in the Ridge area of South Carolina began peach production as an alternative crop for an additional source of income after the boll weevil took a bite out of the cotton industry in the early 1900s. Farmers in the area during the 1920s and 1930s found another alternative crop in asparagus to extend their row crop profit. Peach trees replaced small asparagus farms when the competition from other states and inclement weather squeezed South Carolina out of the asparagus market.

Peach production is all about size and perfection. Both parameters can be significantly affected during the growing, harvesting, packing and shipping processes. Production level growers who are shipping peaches all over the country have to continually fine-tune all these processes to stay competitive, Henderson says.

“There is very little that can be done in a peach orchard to reduce costs. We are working with growers to try and implement some high tech equipment and procedures that have been used in other crops. Sight specific fertility and water application are a couple of areas where we might be able to improve efficiency and reduce costs,” Henderson says.

The only other area in the peach orchard that can reduce costs is to reduce labor.

One highly labor intensive aspect of peach production is annual pruning. Done in the winter months, pruning extends the labor needs for large commercial growers by two to three months a year.

Henderson is working with the Yonce brothers on a regional mechanical pruning project that could significantly improve the efficiency of pruning peach trees and reduce the labor force needed in the winter months.

“We have taken this new application of a mechanical pruning system that has been around a few years. We have applied this technology to a commercially harvestable size block of peaches. Final data comes back from the packing shed to determine how well we have done in improving fruit quality and size by early mechanical thinning,” Henderson explains.

Mechanical thinning has greater predictability than chemical thinning. Because the effects of physical removal are immediately visible, the level of crop removal can be determined by comparing pre- and post-thinning flower or fruit counts. Therefore, a grower can assess the level of crop removal and adjust the machinery to increase or reduce thinning as needed.

Studies in other peach-growing states have shown an economic value of mechanical pruning, in combined reduced labor cost and improved quality of well over a thousand dollars per acre.

“We’ve tried mechanical shakers to thin peaches, but too often these machines thin too many fruit from the top of the tree, shake the big peaches off and leave the little ones. We can’t afford to miss any limbs on the tree — that’s why we thin limb-by-limb to maximize production in the whole tree,” Chris Yonce says.

On an average-size peach tree, Henderson says most growers shoot for 700-800 peaches to reach full maturity, meaning 1,000 to 1,500 must be thinned. How the immature peaches are thinned from the tree has a close correlation to the profit the grower gets or doesn’t get at the end of the season.

The pruning system being tested in the Yonce orchard uses a hydraulic spindle that can be speed-controlled. The thinner opens the peach tree up in a V-shape. There are other shapes, using four, rather than five scaffold limbs. These are on a tighter spacing and may increase initial yield, but may crowd the tree over years and hurt long-term production, Henderson explains.

“We have seen less total pounds of fruit produced when using these mechanical thinners, but we have seen fruit size increase form 2.25 to 2.50 inches. When the market is in need of peaches later in the season, they typically want larger peaches. So, having a higher percentage of larger fruit may be more profitable than having more overall fruit,” Henderson explains.

“We are fortunate to have young, technologically innovative growers like Chris and Josh who are willing to work with us in a commercial block of peaches. Keeping this liaison going is critical to getting the new technology in production to keep peach production in South Carolina competitive with other peach growing areas in the U.S. and around the World,” Henderson says.

“With labor cost the way it is, we have to look at technology to survive. We will have to cut costs somewhere and replacing some of the hand labor needed to prune our peach orchards is one of the best options we have,” Chris Yonce says.

Few other options are available to reduced costs in peach production. There is no true cultural resistance to diseases common to peach trees. Less labor intensive pruning and thinning systems are critical to our future,” Chris Yonce says. Peach farmers don’t have the luxury of changing varieties every year, he adds.

Change is constant in a peach orchard. In late June, Yonce was busy selecting buds that will be used to graft replacement varieties this winter.

“Once you plant a new variety, you have three years before you see what kind of fruit the tree produces. If you like it, you have to wait three more years to get more, and if you don’t like it, you lost three years of time and money already invested in the new variety. Plus, you have to wait three more years to see what the next variety will produce,” Yonce adds.

This year J.W. Yonce and Sons farm will replant about 10 percent of their acreage. Though there is no standard among peach growers, most agree that 5 percent to 10 percent is normal production replacement for large acreage peach growers.

“Very rarely will we take out an orchard less than five years old — most of the time you are committed to 12-15 years with a variety once you invest the money in planting it and waiting three years for it to come into production,” Chris Yonce says. Clearly, there is a high premium on development of new peach varieties that are ideally suited to South Carolina production.

Once peaches are mature, there are few options for cutting costs and improving quality until the peaches reach the packing house, where technological advances help growers deliver high quality peaches to customers thousands of miles away.

Peaches are still picked by hand and go into a large bin, which is transported to the packing house. Initial graders take out soft, bad peaches, which are discarded. The next set of graders are looking for imperfections, which go to a line that goes to a No. 2 pack. The other peaches go into the No. 1 line.

Once peaches get in the No. 1 grade, technology takes over the quest for the perfect peach. Each peach falls into an individual cup that weighs each one and sizes each one, sending two and a quarter-inch peaches down one line and two and a half inch peaches down another line.

Properly weighed and sized, the peaches fall into a filler, which fills a box with 25 pounds of fruit, then shuts off.

“The fillers have cut out some labor, but you still have to have graders at each step, so technology has helped labor be more efficient, but hasn’t always replaced labor,” Josh Yonce explains.

“When I was in high school all the labor came from local high school students and other local people who wanted a part-time job. Now, all our labor is H2A labor, all with legal visas. It’s an expensive way to do business, but it’s necessary to stay competitive,” Yonce adds.

As fourth generation peach farmers Chris and Josh Yonce face many problems not faced by the previous generations of Yonce family peach growers. However, with the help of modern technology, they also have some options that can make peach production more efficient and more profitable.

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TAGS: Equipment
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