Although Ugene Song’s family’s association with the nectar of the California summer fruit season doesn’t trace quite that far back, today’s modern day nectarine and the Song name will forever be linked.
Ugene’s father Leo Song began his career in the summer fruit business as a table grape jobber in the Los Angles produce market more than 65 years ago. He later became one of the exclusive marketers of the Le Grand nectarine developed by legendary horticulturist Fred Anderson after World War II and the first commercial nectarine variety.
Although the nectarine dates back to China over 2000 years ago, it was Anderson who made thousands of peach/nectarine crosses in developing the modern day nectarine called "a peach without its fur coat." Before Anderson’s work, nectarines were pale green and small-sized, however, the flesh was juicy.
Anderson commercialized the nectarine; breeding in its color and size. His Le Grand nectarine was the first nectarine in over 2000 years to rival the peach in color, size, and firmness. This was such a breakthrough that the fields were watched over by armed guards at night.
Always taste good
Ugene Song said unlike peaches and plums, nectarines are consistently good tasting, regardless of their appearance. That is a trait of the fruit, he said.
Song grew up in Los Angeles and worked in San Joaquin Valley orchards in the summer. His father, who began K&S Jobbers in 1925 at the Southern California produce terminal, came to America from Korea in 1918 as a student. He obtained an electrical engineering degree from USC, but never used his degree.
As a college student, Leo Song worked in the produce terminal. After graduation, he decided the fruit business offered more profit potential than engineering, initially selling table grapes out of the back of trucks from the San Joaquin Valley. Later he obtained a stall at the sprawling market and formed a partnership with Youse Kim and thus began K&S Jobbers.
Anderson developed the modern day nectarine with long time SJV growers and nurserymen Kim Brothers.
"Kim Brothers had exclusive rights to the fruit and trees of the Le Grand nectarine. K&S became the exclusive distributor of the nectarines in the Los Angeles market," said Ugene.
His father became successful and began buying the crop from a producer’s entire orchard and eventually bought his own acquired orchards in the valley and founded his own label, Kism.
"The nectarine business really took off in the 1960s and 1970s and there was a proliferation of new varieties," said Ugene.
Through college Ugene worked along side his father and in the orchards. In 1973 he moved to the central valley, taking over Song Ranch from his father and opened a packing plant in Sultana, Calif.
Song Ranch is now a 400-acre operation nectarine operation and K&S Jobbers continues as an exclusive nectarine deal.
It’s a rarity today for a growing and packing operation to be a one-fruit deal, but Song has developed a reputation for quality nectarines that makes that possible.
He ships 12 to 14 varieties a season from May until the latter part of August.
Summer fruit marketing has always been a fast-paced, competitive business, but never more so than today. Song said when he began it was not uncommon for an orchard to remain in for 20 years. Now it’s more like 10 years or no longer than 12 or 14 years as new varieties come along like the new white and sub-acid nectarines. Song’s newest plantings are all sub acid varieties.
The public clamors for ripe fruit and these new sweeter sub-acid varieties are filling the bill. However, they are not as soft as older varieties and that is taking some consumer education.
"We are also trying to get people to eat crispy fruit," said Song. "Soft was associated with ripe fruit, but that is no longer the case."
Song aims for big size fruit, another perception of ripeness, and that means considerably thinning expense, especially with the newer, low chill varieties.
These new varieties set much more fruit than the old varieties. "Thinning costs can be as much as $900 per acre if you figure it takes one man a hour to thin a tree. At the minimum wage and 136 trees per acre, that’s $900 per acre," he said.
He can also prune varieties to reduce set, but he will never escape hand thinning.
With costs like that, the breakeven point on a carton of fruit is approaching $8 to $9 per box.
"We have had a good year this season, but it is getting harder and harder with increasing costs," he said.
Bright red color is important for nectarine marketing and Song uses reflective film in some of his varieties. That is an additional $200 per acre each season.
Summer pruning is becoming increasingly more common, particularly since most orchards are younger.
Transitioning or switching varieties has long been a part of tree fruit farming and Song is in the middle of one with a wide array of new varieties. Transitioning is becoming more frequent
"You used to replace an orchard every 17 to 18 years. Now is it is 12 to 14 years and sometime even less," he said.
With a shorter lifespan, orchards much bring a return on investment quicker.
"You cannot wait five years for an orchard to reach full production. That could be half the life of some of these new orchards. It has to be two or three years to get a return," he said.
Tree densities are increasing to gain that early return. New orchards can have as many as 200 trees per acre vs. only about 100 trees in older plantings. Part of this is also to reduce the height of the trees to reduce ladder-associated labor costs.
This higher density and younger trees require more summer pruning. "The younger the tree, the more vigorous it will be. Unless you summer prune you will shade out the fruit. This reduces color and excessive shade reduces the fruit wood from the next season," he added. "Sunlight must penetrate the orchards."
Song has been successful because he strives for quality. "Quality will always sell," he said.
However, he believes the summer fruit industry has not done as well as it should in marketing its fruit.
"We need to reach the younger generation," said Song. "The table grape people have done a good job of that."
Industry hurts itself
Song is joining a growing chorus of producers who say the industry has hurt itself by putting immature and tasteless fruit in the supermarket.
"A person will buy on eye appeal once or twice. If the consumer takes fruit home once and it does not eat well, he or she may buy it a second time," he said.
"However, if the consumer is burned a second time, we have lost a customer and we cannot afford that," he said.
Song markets his own fruit and enjoys gaining converts like a Los Angeles market who tried some of his premium nectarines.
"He bought a limited quantity and I told him if the consumer buys these, they will want more. He didn’t believe me," he said. "People bought the nectarines and started coming back asking for more and he did not have any. He called me in a panic. I knew he would be back, and I had two truckloads in storage."
Those are the scenarios that will increase volume and income. Giving consumer top quality fruit at a reasonable price will turn a profit for producers facing increasingly more costs.
It also has to be convenient. "I have got to figure out a way to give today’s young customers a nectarine on a stick," he said.
"Convenience, value and quality are what consumers want. Look at the pre-packaged vegetable business. That is where we need to be headed in the fruit business," he said.
Ugene’s father helped pioneer the modern day nectarine and his son is one of those looking to the future to preserve that legacy of the nektar of the gods.