RED BLUFF, Calif. — With prices sharply increasing and with a slightly larger crop this year, California prune producers believe they’re making it out of the wilderness.
Plum acreage for prunes has been in decline in recent years as growers switch to more profitable nuts. Growers are using about 49,000 bearing acres this year, down slightly from 51,000 in 2013, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
NASS forecasts this year’s crop at 95,000 tons, up 12 percent from the 85,000 tons harvested last year after some hot days in the early summer caused part of the crop to drop to the ground.
At the Lindauer River Ranch here, a lack of chill hours last winter has made for a light crop load on many trees. But farm manager Michael Vasey said the prospects for those who’ve stuck with prunes are looking up.
“I think there may be a plateau (in acreage) if prices continue to rise,” said Vasey, noting that last year growers were paid an average of $1,800 per dry ton. That could go as high as $2,500 a ton this year.
However, the question of whether prune acreage will flatten still depends on what happens with other crops, he said.
“Even at the current prices, it’s hard to compete against the prices they’re getting for nuts,” Vasey said.
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. Growers received an average of less than $1,000 per dry ton over a five-year period ending in 2010, according to the California 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.
Meanwhile, several recent studies have extolled the healthful qualities of prunes, including one in Europe last year that showed a steady diet of prunes had no negative gastrointestinal effects, said Donn Zea, the plum board’s executive director.
The dried plum board’s marketing initiatives have touted prunes as an ingredient in baked goods, salads and other foods, which is proving popular and increasing demand, Zea said.
With the high input costs that can accompany prune production, growers with their own dryers and other equipment will be most likely to stay in prunes and flourish, he predicted.
“Clearly there’s a significant slowdown in acreage reduction (in California) and I think we’re close to that low point,” he said. “There’s stabilization going on. The prices have a lot to do with that. Growers are interested again.”
2014 California Dried Plum Forecast: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Fruits_and_Nuts/201406prunf.pdf
California Dried Plum Board: http://www.californiadriedplums.org