California's cling peach growers are accustomed to re-inventing their operations, often by replanting a portion of their acreage with improved varieties every few years but occasionally with a completely new look to gain efficiency in their orchards.

A good example is Randy Fiorini, a third-generation grower at Delhi, who has about 85 percent of his 400 acres of clings in a short-stature hedgerow, or so-called “ladderless” configuration.

He began working with the design several years ago, and the latest is 20 acres of Ross clings planted in February. He plans on an orchard life of 18 to 20 years, with an annual replanting schedule of about 5 percent each year.

Fiorini credits his mentor, Wayne Salter, a Ceres grower, with getting him started with the hedgerow concept in 1984. “Wayne pioneered the system in the 1970s. He had a hedgerow orchard of the same variety, Carson, as a conventional orchard of mine. Both were planted in 1972.

“At the end of each year, we'd review the results of our orchards, and his trees were out-producing mine consistently by 40 to 50 percent. He encouraged me to try it. I planted seven acres of Carson, and after a couple of years I was convinced that for our soil and situation the hedgerow is be best way to go.”

“We haven't come up with anything yet with a harvester design we think would work.”

Planted 14 feet between rows and eight feet between trees in the row, the configuration has 350 trees per acre, vs. the 100 of conventional spacing, and begins producing an economic crop the second year.

No ladders helps

“In addition to the early production, the opportunity to farm without ladders was really attractive. Elimination of ladders meant we could farm the same number of acres with fewer people. From a management perspective, we could supervise and observe the crop much easier and achieve higher quality production,” he said.

Although the closer-spaced trees produce earlier, experience has shown, he noted, that once the orchards are mature, the production tends to level off when compared to conventional plantings.

Fiorini estimates he gained about 10 percent in production, although it's associated with some additional costs. “We are taking what would ordinarily become a full-sized tree and holding it back by pruning, so the pruning costs probably offset the gain in production.”

The cling industry averages about 17 tons per acre in recent years, but Fiorini, who sends most of his clings to Del Monte, says to stay in business these days, 20 tons is a realistic minimum. That's his guide in deciding when to redevelop an orchard. When a block falls below that level, it is pulled.

He said his workers readily took to the ladderless system. Paid on a piece-rate basis, they earn considerably more on the ground than picking from ladders. “Time and motion studies show that half a picker's time is spent going up and down the ladder, so we are practically making them 50 percent more efficient.”

“We haven't come up with anything yet with a harvester design we think would work. One problem is the trees are too close together to easily handle bins between them.”

The worker retention rate bears out the success of the hedgerows from the labor point-of-view. The foreman is a 25-year veteran who worked his way up from equipment operator. Equipment operators range in service from four years to 20, and many seasonal workers return every year.

The main advantage of the hedgerows, under micro-sprinkler irrigation, is that the trees are no more than eight to 10 feet high and the fruit is in a zone three to seven feet off the ground. Not only can pickers readily reach the crop, it is visible from the ground so Fiorini can detect pest control or other problems early on.

Labor as key

Hedgerowed clings may not be for everyone, he said, recalling that some growers have tried them and gave up for one reason or another.

However, Fiorini, who is chairman of the California Cling Peach Board, says his industry, like so many others, faces the eventuality of short supplies of labor, with mechanized harvesting the only alternative.

“We haven't come up with anything yet with a harvester design we think would work. One problem is the trees are too close together to easily handle bins between them.

“Ultimately, if there's not enough labor to go around and we have to mechanically harvest peaches as the rule and not the exception, it will probably require a different planting style.”

For the moment, he said he feels making the work environment more pleasing and using fewer personnel puts him “halfway to solving the problem.”

One solution may be with growth-controlling rootstocks, being researched now for the industry, and Fiorini says his vision is for growing clings in a manner similar to that for apples. “This would be a wall of fruit that can be harvested by hand by people on a moving platform at different elevations.”

Total mechanization appears to be out of the question, since peaches just don't all ripen at the same time, Fiorini explained.

“In order to provide the quality canners require, we have to pick at least two times, and for some varieties, three times, about a week between pickings. So it would be difficult to design a piece of equipment to be that selective.”

e-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com