Do you ever wonder what the best way is to peel a sticker off of a peach or do you ponder the best way to tell when a plum in ripe?
Dale Janzen is the Director of Industry Relations for the California Tree Fruit Agreement (a government organization that allows growers to share knowledge, resources, and money to promote tree fruit, do research, and perform quality control functions). Dale has been involved in growing tree fruit (peaches, plums, and nectarines) since he was a kid. Grab a fresh piece of fruit and join him as he gives you an inside look into the industry and shares some important lessons about fruit.
I tell people, basically, agriculture through osmosis. My father was a career businessman. His hobby was even business and he would buy ranches that were run down a little bit. My brothers and I would work on the ranch, prune the trees or the vines, improve the irrigation system, and bring the ranch back up to snuff. Then, he would sell that ranch for a profit. That wasn’t his full time business. That was just a hobby he had.
In my high school days, I would work in packing sheds. I’ve pruned trees. I’ve picked trees. I’ve packed the fruit. I’ve done every job on the way up to the point where I started working for the inspection service. I was inspecting fruit and certifying the fruit and the maturity as far as federal standards and marketing orders standards. I did that for ten years.
Then, I started working for the CTFA. Actually, at first I worked for the Kiwi Fruit Marketing Order. I was their first field agent for three years. Then, I worked part time at CTFA and now I’ve worked for them for 21 years.
Since you’ve done it all, can you walk me through the steps from starting to grow the fruit until it gets into the store?
The first thing you do - you want to make sure that you have the proper soil profile. Peaches and nectarines like a very well-drained soil (people call it sandy soil). Plums can actually take a heavier soil. They are not as particular.
Once you pick a place, then you shop around for the type of variety characteristics that you know can be marketed. In other words, you’re looking for fruit that will size to a good size, that’s got a good shape, and red color. You want fruit that’s full of good sugar and good flavor. Then, the last thing you look for is fruit that will ship well so that it doesn’t get bruised in transit. Also, you look for the timing. There’s a lot of aspects about growing fruit that come into play. It’s not as simple as just planting trees in the ground and watering them.
Does each tree only have one harvest per season?
Right. Exactly. That’s the thing, farmers work 12 months out of the year, but they only have one harvest of that tree (which always amazes me). Another thing about it is that all the fruit does not mature at the same time.
Maturity is what happens to the fruit as long as it’s attached to the tree. Once you pick that (once that umbilical cord to the tree has been separated), then you start the ripening process. Maturity is the fruit sizing up - the fruit is filling out at the shoulders and getting its sugar and its flavor. Once you pick the fruit, the fruit is not going to size up any more and the sugar content is going to be the same.
In the early spring, you might have 5 times as much fruit on the trees (more fruit than the tree could size up). Every tree has only so much energy to it. It can only give so much sugar, flavor, and sizing to the fruit. Once you’ve decided to grow a variety, then you need to learn that variety to know how many pieces of fruit you should fit on that tree. Early in the season, you might only fit 350 pieces of fruit on the whole tree. Later in the season, it might be 800-1200 pieces of fruit. Later in the season, the fruit has had so much longer to grow and size up.
Photo courtesy of the California Tree Fruit Agreement
By thinning the fruit. That’s what the process is called - simply "thinning" - because you’re thinning out the number of pieces of fruit on the tree. All of this is done by hand.
In the springtime, you can walk into an orchard and you hear this. It’s almost like somebody practicing a percussion instrument. The people who are thinning the fruit are pulling it off the tree and the fruit is dropping on the rungs of the ladder and you hear this "dip, dip, dip, dip" and you hear people singing as they like to do. It helps the day go by fast.
During the Spring, you hear this constant patter of the fruit being dropped. It’s really intensive hand labor. It’s very expensive, but if you don’t do that, the fruit won’t size up to the size that the retailers demand.
Is fruit grown to a specific size simply because retailers prefer it?
Sure. Right. But, then also going back to what I said earlier, the tree only has so much energy to deliver the size, sugar, and flavor. If you have a lot more pieces of fruit on the tree, you’re actually diluting the sugar and the flavor of the fruit. In the early season, because there’s only so many days from bloom to harvest, that limits how big the fruit can actually get before it’s harvested. Whereas, late in the season, that fruit has been growing on the tree since April. That means that fruit has been on the tree for 4 months sizing up and so you can have more fruit on the tree.
Does each variety take the same amount of time to mature?
The timing of varieties comes off at specific times. When you plant a variety, that variety will come within two weeks early to two weeks late of the same time period every year. So, here again, a grower (in order to use his people that work for him in the orchard), wants to keep them busy and wants to make sure that they get a constant paycheck. So, he will plant varieties so that the varieties come off sort of like a string of pearls in the summer - to keep his people that work for him busy throughout the summer. Those are factors about growing the fruit that all have to come into play.
You mentioned that the thinning was done by hand. Is all of the picking done by hand?
Oh, yes. The thing about the picking, I just mentioned briefly, is that not all the fruit comes off at the same time. Today is Thursday and maybe the farmers determined that this group is mature and ready for the first pick. The crews will go through and they’re gauging by the size and the color that the fruit is mature and they’re picking that piece of fruit from the tree and they are bypassing other fruit that isn’t mature yet and leaving it on the tree. In 3-5 days, the farmer will have the workers go through again and do a second pick. Then, they can do that a third time, a fourth time, even a fifth time. There are some growers that will keep picking and keep picking to get a very uniform maturity, but usually picking is done anywhere from 10-14 days.
Photo courtesy of the California Tree Fruit Agreement
Generally, there are two ways. One is that they might have a picking bag. This bag is open at the top and at the bottom. It just has straps that go onto velcro tabs so that the pickers’ hands are free. He’s got shoulder straps to this canvas or nylon bag and he is just picking the fruit and putting it down in front of his chest into this bag. His hands are free to go up the ladder to pick the fruit. Once the bag gets as full as he wants with fruit, he walks over to a tractor that has bins. He will lower this bottom of the bag to the bottom of this bin, un-hatch these velcro ties, and then the fruit is gently put into this bin.
The other way of picking is they will have either a bucket or a tote (and here, again, its got shoulder straps so he/she has their hands free) about 16" long by about 12" wide and about 12" deep. They will just pick into the tote until the tote or bucket is full and then they go to the trailer behind the tractor and then they stack those up. The reason that people pick into totes and into buckets is they’ll pick a more mature piece of fruit. In a bin, you’ll have fruit that is stacked on top of other fruit and if the fruit is too mature, the compression or the weight of the fruit on top of it will actually dent the fruit. You certainly don’t want that to happen because that’s going to be a bruise on the fruit.
All the thinning is done by hand, the pruning after the harvest is done by hand, and all the picking is done by hand. It really is labor-intensive work.
Photo courtesy of the California Tree Fruit Agreement
The tractor will take that fruit out of the orchard. There will be a forklift and a truck waiting. They’ll either use bins or pallets for the totes. They lift those onto the truck, and then the truck takes that into the packing shed.
Since the fruit is coming out of the hot orchard, they want to cool that fruit down. They will either hydro-cool it where you have a cold water bath that the containers of fruit (either totes or bins) go under to cool or they have cold storage that they put it in. They want to take that field heat out of the fruit as soon as they can because that gives it longer shelf life.
Then, once that fruit has cooled down, they run the fruit over a sizer, which sizes the fruit. It stickers the fruit and then it gently drops that into different pack lines by sizes so that all of the fruit is uniform.
Why does all of the fruit need to be stickered?
The sticker is demanded by retail. If there is an organic peach right next to a commercial peach, the organic peach looks exactly the same as the regular commercial peach, but they're going to have to charge a lot more for it. Retail has come up with this whole system of stickering the fruit in order to know what to charge. They might be charging $1.99/lb for one and the other might cost $3.99/lb and it looks like the same piece of fruit, but one's organic and one's not. The consumer doesn’t like stickers and really the packers don’t like the stickers.
I find it hard to remove the stickers.
It really is. Another one of my functions is that I’m always there on the photo shoots for our web site. I select the fruit for the photo shoot to make sure it’s portraying the fruit in a realistic and appealing way. As a result, I’ve taken off thousands and thousands of stickers.
The easiest way is look at the sticker. On 99.9% of the stickers there will be a wrinkle because the sticker is flat going on a curved surface of the piece of fruit. If you can see that little wrinkle and use your fingernail, that part of the sticker will come up. If you look for that wrinkle and just work that wrinkle up then you can remove the sticker. Tips from Dale!
Sometimes, I’m cutting fruit and doing slices and all that. I’ve even gotten dental tools that I can use to flick that little wrinkle in the sticker right off if I need to do huge quantities of it.
What happens during the ripening process?
Once you start the ripening process, what happens is you’ve got enzymes in the piece of fruit that are going to start breaking down the acid content in the piece of fruit. It might taste sweeter (because you don’t have the acid competing against the sugar on the palate), but actually, the sugar content is going to stay exactly the same from the day that you picked it.
What’s the best way to know if a fruit is ripe?
I always say, "Gentle palm pressure." Automatically, what I was doing is I had one open hand and I put my fist in that open hand and I pressed with all of my fingertips in the palm of my hand right by my thumb. That’s the way you want to test if the fruit has a little bit of give so that you’re not making actual fingerprint indentions in the fruit. You don’t want to use your thumb and first finger, you want to use your whole palm to gently squeeze the fruit and see if there is a little bit of give.
Then you take the fruit and smell it. A peach should smell like a peach, a nectarine like a nectarine, a plum like a plum.
There are some people that like a crunchy piece of fruit and then some people like a very ripe piece of fruit. Since I was young, I always called the ripe fruit leaners because a very ripe piece of fruit is so juicy that you bite into it and it runs down onto your chin. If you’re not leaning over, it’s going to go down the front of your shirt. When people ask how I like fruit, I say, "I like to eat leaners!"
I gave our promotional people a tour and they liked that term and so we have posters out to help educate the consumer about what types of food they like to eat. The poster says, "Cruncher, Leaner, In-Betweener." There are people that genuinely like a crunchy piece of fruit. I like a much riper piece of fruit. To me, a perfect piece of fruit runs down your chin and it’s just a real wonderful, delicious, juicy mess.
Can you tell from the color if the fruit is ripe?
The red color on our fruit is more about sunlight and the plant breathing than it is about actual ripeness. What happens is the red pigment that is exposed to the sunlight through the leaves of the trees will turn bright red.
Have you seen pieces of fruit that are red and just sort of have flame type patterns in the fruit that are yellow? Those flames are actually the shadows of leaves on the fruit. It’s sort of like back when I took tape and on my chest, I taped "DJ" and then went floating down the river and at the end of the day, I had a suntan everywhere except the white "DJ" on my chest. Boy, I thought it was so neat! It’s the same type of thing in that you get flames of shadow from the leaves that will be the yellow color that you see on the fruit.
Now, some pieces of fruit develop just about 100% red and in those cases, you can look down into the shoulder where the stem is and you don’t want to see a hard green color - you want to see a yellow to yellow-orange color. What we call those yellow spots or looking down into the stem well is background color. The red is the primary color, and anything that is not red is the background color. The background color tells you more about maturity and ripeness than the red color does.
Photo courtesy of the California Tree Fruit Agreement
The best way to ripen fruit is to ripen it at room temperature away from sunlight. Some people say, "It grew its whole life in the sun, I’m going to put it on the windowsill to ripen it up," but that’s not correct. Sunlight, once the fruit has been picked from the tree, actually will break down the fruit.
The best place is some place room temperature, away from direct sunlight, and not inside a plastic bag. A piece of fruit is still respirating – it’s still breathing through the skin, even though you picked it. If you put it in a plastic bag, it will get moist and start to break down and you might see decay start forming on the fruit. The classic putting the fruit on the dining room table is fine for ripening up fruit.
Once that fruit has gotten ripe or soft to the point where you want it, you can go ahead and put it in the refrigerator and that will stop it from ripening further. If you’re a cruncher, you can pick out the very solid ones, the ones that might have a little bit more of a greenish background color; if you’re like me, you’ll look for fruit that has a definite yellow background color and appears to be a little bit riper. Even if it’s not as ripe as I want it, I can sit it in the fruit bowl for a couple of days until it gets to the ripeness I want it. You put it in the refrigerator and that stops the process and now you’ve got a lot more time to eat that bowl of fruit.
Logo courtesy of the California Tree Fruit Agreement
The California Tree Fruit Agreement is celebrating our 75th anniversary. Basically, the start of the California Tree Fruit Agreement was motivated because growers were not getting compensated for the cost of producing their fruit. So, they petitioned their politicians to come up with the Federal Marketing Order Act. Farmers could get together and vote to have a marketing order to share knowledge, resources such as statistics, and also to pool the money together to promote the fruit, do research on the fruit, and perform quality control functions. Those are the three functions of the California Tree Fruit Agreement.
Part of it is federal and then another part of it is the state of California. It’s the two marketing branches of CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) or USDA on the federal side of things. We’re both federal and state to get the most bang for the buck out of the program and we do promote our fruits worldwide.
I produced a video which is on our website and just the other day, the president of CTFA was in Taiwan and she sent me a photograph of me on a big screen TV in the produce market in Taiwan, speaking Cantonese. I never knew I spoke Cantonese. What a big wide wonderful world it is!
Are all of the California fruit growers part of your organization or just the larger ones?
Every grower of fresh peaches, plums, and nectarines in California is a member. The key word is fresh (if it goes to the cannery, if it goes to the dry yard, that is not included in the CTFA). Every four years we have a referendum, and every grower gets a ballot and he/she votes whether or not to keep us in business. We have a heck of a report card every four years that determines whether or not I’m going to have a job.
How is the program supported?
Per package assessment. For every package that is shipped, we get money back from that in order to fund all these programs.
So, the growers themselves are paying for it?
Exactly. The great thing about it is that it is self-funded.
Are there similar programs in other states?
Yes. One that just comes to mind is Vidalia onions in Georgia. That’s a marketing order. The three things about a marketing order are quality control, promotion, and research. Some marketing orders are only promotion. Some are just promotion and research. We happen to be all three.
What is your role in the California Tree Fruit Agreement?
I am the Director of Industry Relations. What that entails is relations with the growers, with the packers, with the marketers of our fruit, and with inspectors that inspect our fruit. I also do a little bit of compliance work if I find that somebody is not meeting our quality standards.
What are some things that California growers do to ensure food safety?
We have a food safety trace back system so that every box has the number of the packer and the date it was packed. If I found product on the market that didn’t have these trace back numbers on them, I would follow that back with the actual packer and make sure that he started putting those on every single box.
We have never had a food safety issue - knock on wood. We have the definite advantage that our fruit is grown on trees and never touches the ground. A lot of the problems that leafy greens, tomatoes, and peppers have, we do not have because the fruit is grown on trees. Another advantage of fruit grown on trees is that our workers have access to ready-made shade at any time (which if it’s going to be 99 degrees is definitely a factor).
Do you think the fruit from California tastes different from the fruit in other places?
You know, that’s really subjective. I believe so, just because we have our tools of the trade. Our access to varieties are greater than in any other growing area. Because of that, I believe that yes, we do have the advantage as far as flavor and sugar. But, Stefani, if you interviewed somebody from South Carolina or Georgia, I would be truly amazed if that person wouldn’t tell you the same thing.
Here in California, we are blessed with such great soil. We have the Sierras that catch water for us in the form of snowfall and we have reservoirs that deliver that water to the San Juan Valley which would actually be a desert. Because we have those desert conditions, it’s a much drier condition to grow the fruit. Because of where we are, the trees go into dormancy in the winter and they have plenty of cold temperatures in the winter to go into dormancy. That’s when the trees get their beauty sleep so that they wake up nice and strong in the Spring to develop all that fruit.
California also has the advantage that we have peaches grown from mid-April all the way through September and into October. With such a wide growing season, we have many different varieties to choose from. Also, because we have such a dry climate, we don’t have some of the plant diseases, like fungi, that are caused with a lot of moisture. So, California really does have a lot of advantages.
How has California’s focus on being green affected the CTFA?
The plant breeders are just geniuses. Nothing as far as peaches/plums/nectarines is genetically modified. It is not being improved. It is all done with open pollination, so it’s all a natural process.
In California, our regulations of growing practices are stricter than anywhere else in the world. Here in California, the growers are very, very aware that the consumer wants as healthy and clean of a product as possible. Part of the marketing orders is the growers have a research committee that votes on the research projects that should be funded. We spend half a million dollars a year on research and a lot of that research is how to grow a healthier product to try to come as close to organic as possibly can be done. The whole story of the California peach/plum/nectarine growers is focused on a healthier product and it’s just getting better.
What are some of methods used to protect the trees from bugs?
When I was working in the orchards as a teenager, you didn’t see insects in the orchard - you didn’t see ladybugs, you didn’t see spiders, you didn’t see praying mantis. These are all predators of bad insects. You didn’t see them because pesticides were generally sprayed on a regular schedule. Now, part of the whole research here in California is that we have researchers that are entomologists, which is the study of insects, and they have one huge success story which is the use of mating disruption.
Researchers have developed pheromones which are the sexual attractant that insects use to find each other. They are just like little twist ties like you would use to twist a plastic bag except that they are a tube that has the pheromone inside. Here again, the pheromone never even touches the tree. It’s just given off like a vapor. They’ve only got so big of a brain and the eyes aren’t used as much as the sense of smell. So, the male insect hunts down its mate by smell.
The male moth comes into this orchard and he smells the pheromone and he goes, "Oh boy." He’s fooled into thinking there’s a mate in there, but he flies around and he never finds the mate because he can’t tell a female from the pheromone that’s everywhere in the orchard. Here you have a very clean method of deterring these very destructive moths.
This practice is used extensively in California and it’s backed up. We hired University of California researchers. They monitor the actual life cycles of the insect to know how to protect the fruit against it. It used to be, "Let’s just go in and spray." Now, they have pheromone traps in the orchard and as long as they are getting so many moths per trap per day, they know that the damage isn’t going to be too great by the time of harvest. In the past, they would spray, they look at this and go, "Okay, we think we might have one to three percent damage before harvest. That’s acceptable. Let’s just live with it."
The grower is so much more sophisticated and he’s hiring these entomologists to check traps in his orchard so that he does not have to use anything against the insects. It’s a wonderful system and growers have adapted this system for two reasons: one, the health of their product, and two, sprays are expensive.
Also, here in California, they have all these regulations: what you can spray, when you can spray. Your workers have to be monitored for their health. All the aspects of spraying are such that they want to shy away from that if at all possible and so it has opened up this huge business of entomologists that are going around checking orchards and making sure that it does not have to occur. What a great system!
And here’s another thing, just for your own knowledge. Sulfur (which is a naturally occurring product) is used by organic growers, but that is considered a pesticide. Pheromones, because they are artificial chemicals that mimic the sexual hormones of the insect, are considered a pesticide. Even some of the good practices are lumped into recording of practices that seem worse than they are. But, here in California, spending half a million dollars a year in research is just a tremendous tool for the California grower to deliver a healthier, pesticide-free product.
What kind of challenges do California growers face when growing organic fruit?
The organic fruit is held to the same quality and maturity standards as the conventional fruit, but the thing about the organic is because you cannot use the same materials that you do with conventional fruit, you will have some losses due to insect damage or just decay. There’s just a lot more handwork that has to be done on organic fruit.
At home, I do an organic garden as much as I can, and it’s a lot more work because you do have the pressures of nature. I love fruit, well so do the worms, birds, and moths - they all love it. With organic, your losses and your risks are greater. Therefore, they deserve to be paid more.
How often do you eat fruit?
My people are Mennonite people and so I grew up in this whole tradition of canning peaches, making pickles, and making jams. I still do the cooking. My wife is a good cook but I’m an inspired cook. Just about every week, I’m making peach pies, peach cobblers, and peach jams. So, I really handle the fruit.
I really love fruit. If you offer me a Snickers bar or a peach, nectarine, or plum, I’ll choose the fruit every single time. Growing up, I think I did 11 batches of jam, then I’d give jam away for Christmas, when people came over I gave jam at birthdays and all of that.
Aside from canning and making jams, what else do you recommend to save your fruit?
If I have too much fruit, I’ll slice fruit (like about 5-7 cups of fruit) and put that in a Ziploc bag with one cup of sugar. I let it sit there for 20 minutes or so and the sugar dissolves with the juices of the fruit and becomes like a syrup. I’ll take that bag out and put it in the freezer. Then, during the winter, I take that out and defrost that and I’ve got a ready made cobbler or peach/plum/nectarine pie from the freezer. If I’ve got an abundance of fruit or there’s this fruit that just is especially delicious, I make sure I put some away and that way I can have some in the winter.
I got to meet one of my heroes with food: Julia Child. I met her and her husband, Paul, and there’s an interesting story. I’d only been working for CTFA for a couple of years and we got a letter from Julia stating that she was really unhappy with these peaches. She said, "How can you call them sweet, juicy, California peaches? They were really horrible."
We wrote her back and asked her where she bought them and what time period. She said she bought them in February and so we informed her that California does not produce in that time period, so it had to be imported peaches. I said, "If you would allow us, because you’ve taken the time to write this letter, I would really like to deliver some boxes of peaces to you this summer."
I arranged a date and a time and I took Julia Child six boxes of peaches. When I rang the doorbell, she filled up that doorway. She was a large woman! Her husband, Paul, was more my shape and size. I’m 5’8" and I think he was probably about 5’7".
She was just charming and gracious and very down to earth - easy to talk to, very approachable. If you look at some of her old shows, a towel would catch fire on the set and she wouldn’t cut that, it was part of the cooking process: "Oops, did that again!" She made it fun and she made it look like I could do this. There’s fun in the kitchen. It’s not drudgery. I think that’s why everybody likes Julia Child.
In her later days, she would do shows with Jacques Pepin and Wolfgang Puck - all these chefs who really wanted to spend time with her, because she was such a tremendous influence on their lives. She was just a charming woman - signed a couple of cookbooks I had. What I admired about Julia Child is that she brought French cuisine into everyday cooking. To me, she was just a really dynamic person in that she demystified French cuisine and made it fun.