Lessons from the Past

 

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us in the short run are slow to accept changes. We do not like situations thrust upon us from outside forces. In retrospect, it is often these changes that have saved us. They have forced us to stop our daily grind and search outside of the box for new solutions to everyday needs. History will support me in that innovation is encouraged when there is an emergency. We are seeing this currently with how the Covid 19 Virus has inspired new discoveries in our health care delivery.

I fell that fruit production is also at one of these crossroads. If we are going to be able to supply a fresh product to our consumers we will have to do so at an affordable rate. We are price takers yes. My observation on this is a bit different. As production costs have risen so also have returns to the farm.  My observation of over 50 years is that too often the per unit return is always enough to cover net production costs but very little to go towards renewal or profit. This fact is why we continue to see the number of farms annually decline. Those that survive, in my opinion, have accepted the challenge of innovate or perish. Survival of the fittest. This occurs in natural selection as well as farming.

Labor has been and will always be a challenge for our industry. We have such short term needs for labor that it makes it impossible to expect local communities to supply the necessary labor. Migrant inflows of short-term labor, while increasingly expensive, has always been sourced. I cannot recall a single farm that failed to find some degree of labor during these times of need. So long as this availability persist, we will not quite reach the tipping point of seeking a new solution.

In fruit production I see three periods of short term labor intensive need.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Once the task is complete, we do not need the labor. Pruning, hand thinning and harvest are the three I have in mind. In my opinion we are currently at a crisis as to how to complete these tasks in a cost-efficient manner. To annually apply large numbers of increasingly expensive hand labor surely will reach a breaking point. My fear is, that as an industry, we have not reached a level where we accept this fact. The cotton industry, upon the close of the Civil Warm was saved by the cotton gin and the automation of planting and harvesting of cotton.

Our packing lines are in fact light years ahead of the cultural practices in our “modern” orchards. Many of the skills used in our packing lines need to be taken outside to our orchards. Use of cameras and infra light technology needs to be directed to our cultural needs. What is needed is the research push from the complacent production side of the fruit equation.

For the last two years the Horticultural Society has been in Albany planting the seed of such a change. We need to concentrate funds to direct technology to address the need for computer generated procedures on our trees. We believe that we may already have most of the technology to perform each of these before mentioned tasks. What has been missing is the catalyst from the growing industry that it Is ready to apply such technology. We have already been working with a high-tech company that is interested in such work. They are now only on the outside looking in. We need to encourage them to proceed and that upon completion we will be ready to apply this service.

Really what it always comes down to is that we seldom pursue the new technology until it is absolutely necessary. I again refer to what is happening in real time with the Covid 19 Virus. We must learn new skills to function in our orchards that will allow us to control our production costs. I think it is the correct time to encourage our efforts in a new, more progressive manner. Change can be a very positive driver under the correct leadership. We need to learn some lessons from our past.

2020 year of Opportunity and New Directions

You did not select being a fruit farmer because of the constant repetition in the work. Farming is, at times, too unpredictable but it certainly stretches your personal skills to the max. Let’s take a moment and try to for see what might be lying in wait for us in the next year.

To begin, it will be the first year under the new farm worker bill. Every farm will be attempting to maximize the work schedules and fall close to or slightly above the new overtime limits of 60 hours. I am not too nervous over this as I see it having some side benefits as it forces employers to place higher emphasis on the work tasks assigned. We will each learn to meet this challenge. Honestly I see this as a challenge but need not be one that will drastically put farms in grave risks.

The next needed fresh look or perhaps opportunity will for each farm to stop and reassess the variety

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

break down in their portfolios. As an industry we have always seen new varieties enter and in time push aside older ones. The only difference today it that this evolution seems to now come at a faster pace. The consumer will have the final verdict as to what they will place in their cart. Our farms will forever, moving forward, be driven by this shopping cart choice. Take the time to ask, observe and then act to make certain you are investing those new 60 hour work weeks in the correct spot.

Thirdly we need to understand that the marketing order will be up for certification in 2 years. This offers a great opportunity to review past directions and take a fresh look at how this order can be structured to best serve the present needs of your farm. I strongly encourage you to maintain the order. That being said I just as strongly need you to ask yourself how you want the order to be administered to best help you bring improved financial returns to your farm. If you see the order as an expense than I think you have failed to give the order the direction it deserves to be an asset. Orders only work when they have the support and creative inputs to be successful.

I think fruit production in the future will be different. That is good. We began by agreeing we are not the type of worker who can survive 52 weeks a year doing the same task. We are lucky living here in the north. Once a year it forces us to take a step back due to weather to review what we are doing. Spring will be knocking on your door too soon. Take Mother Nature’s cue and review before you plunge into perhaps outdated tasks. The future is yours to design.

Ways to Reduce Your Labor in 2019

Everyone who is managing a commercial apple orchard in New York State is concerned with whether they will have enough labor to harvest the new crop. I operated my family farm for over 30 years. Too often I was guilty of the concepts I will challenge you with. I know that what I am suggesting is not easy, but it may be the difference between you just surviving and seeing a profit.

To begin let me pose a question to you. Are you managing orchards that are productive but not profitable? Have the markets shifted away from these blocks? Will these blocks struggle to break even? If this is the case than you need to ask yourself why you are continuing to operate these blocks. Bushels alone do not guarantee profit. If those bushels have to be sold at a discount to move them are they doing you any good? Have newer strains found shelf space in their place? Am I having to house extra men to harvest these apples? Am I mowing, fertilizing, spraying and pruning these blocks often times more in an effort to meet color requirements? More than 100 apple varieties are grown commercially in the United States. Fifteen of those varieties represent 90% of the production.

Paul Baker,
Executive Director
NYSHS

Most of agriculture’s history enjoyed the fact that if you were able to grow a crop you could find a use for it. Distribution systems were such that you could find a “profitable” utilization for your efforts. In essence, if you grew it there would be a consumer waiting for it. Those days are gone here and globally. Today we need to farm from the shopping cart to our farm gate. They decide if they want your product. They have more choices than demand for each product. They are no longer in a consumer position to accept marginal quality.

Recently it was announced that the Gala variety has replaced the Red Delicious (dates back to 1870) as the most popular variety. Long standing varieties such as the Macintosh, that was discovered in 1811, and the Cortland, that was discovered around 1900, are understandably under great consumer challenge. Newer varieties have arrived. Consumers have diversity today in the market place. As they review and cast their vote at the checkout counters we need to take notice. They are sending us clear messages as to what they prefer. If we ignore this then we should not be surprised when our sales for older varieties decline.

I am not suggesting that any one variety is no longer profitable. I am asking each of you to evaluate your particular marketing program and react to those trends. At one time in my farm history I grew profitably over 100 acres of pears. The markets I was associated with made this a profitable venture. In the last years I was managing my farm it all changed. I was investing in removal of pears in favor of other newer apple varieties. What was once a sound program had shifted due to consumer buying trends.  As I alluded to earlier, I was guilty of holding on too long as well.

In conclusion, before you expand your housing take a good look at what you are needing to harvest. If you are gearing up to harvest crops that are productive but not profitable you need to step back. We all need to shift to meet consumer demands. The entire globe is eating better. Consumers everywhere have a higher income that allows them to select what they will eat. Be certain you are striving to match those trends.