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Prolonged bloom leads to varied prune yields

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

The harvest of plums for prunes is under way in California. Growers anticipate a larger crop than last year, but a prolonged blossom this spring has apparently led to varied yields.

RED BLUFF, Calif. — As it turns out, the much-anticipated bumper crop of California plums for prunes apparently depends on location.

Plum harvest has begun throughout the Central Valley as an expected boost in crop size this year has growers optimistic despite an acreage decline in recent years.

“We’re looking at about a 15 percent increase in tonnage compared to last year, but on less bearable acres,” said Mark Avilla, spokesman for the California Dried Plum Board.

But as crews started shaking trees in Tyler Christensen’s orchards near here on Aug. 25, they didn’t find quite as much fruit as they’d hoped.

“Our crop is lighter than we expected,” Christensen said. “We had a lot of fruit set on the outside of the tree so it looked like we had a larger crop. But they don’t seem to be picking that way.”

However, growers near Yuba City have reported good yields so far, said Christensen, a Tehama County Farm Bureau board member.

Other prune fruit has been “progressing well” throughout the Sacramento Valley for several weeks, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service crop weather reports.

The disparity can be traced to a prolonged blossom that lasted nearly a month, so Christensen’s orchards have some trees that are barely ripe and others whose fruit is already dropping off.

The varying levels of ripeness complicate matters for prune producers who normally work within a tight window, waiting until there’s enough sweetness in the plums before picking. Prune harvests typically last about four weeks.

In June, NASS forecast this year’s crop at 95,000 tons, up 12 percent from the 85,000 tons harvested last year. Plum acreage for prunes has been in decline in recent years, as growers are using about 49,000 bearing acres this year compared to 51,000 in 2013, according to the agency.

California’s prune production has dropped considerably since nearly 200,000 dry tons came out of dryers in 2006, according to NASS. Just two years ago, producers put out 138,000 tons.

Prune production dropped after a couple of failed crops in the mid-2000s enabled competitors such as Chile and France to seize part of the market share, pushing down prices, and growers switched to more profitable commodities such as walnuts and almonds.

But growers’ prospects have been looking up, as the price paid to farmers was expected to increase from an average of $1,800 per dry ton last year to as much as $2,500 a ton this year, according to Michael Vasey, farm manager of the Lindauer River Ranch here.

Growers received an average of less than $1,000 per dry ton over a five-year period ending in 2010, according to the Dried Plum Board. But as it has done in California, prune acreage is receding in Chile; it’s down to about 60,000 bearing acres and farms have stopped planting, Vasey said earlier this summer.

In projecting the larger crop this year, NASS noted that the bloom was longer than usual, with warm temperatures mostly toward the end, and that fruit set was particularly strong in the southern Sacramento Valley. The forecast was based on a survey of 253 growers in late April and early May.


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