By Tim Hearden
RED BLUFF, Calif. -- Dried plums in California are becoming a bit of a rarity, as reduced acreage combined with a poor crop set to drastically diminish this year's production.
The state Department of Food and Agriculture predicted earlier this summer that this year's prune production would be 105,000 tons, down 24 percent from the 138,000 tons produced in 2012. The agency mainly blamed a 7 percent drop in acreage following last year's harvest for its lower expectations.
However, the prognosis was worsened when two days of extreme heat in the Sacramento Valley in mid-June caused a lot of fruit to drop from trees just as the crop was developing, grower Tyler Christensen said.
The upside is that fewer plums has meant better quality and sugar content for the ones that remained, and the decrease in production has depleted reserves and caused a skyrocketing return to growers, he said. Last year, growers were paid $1,350 a ton, while the price could jump to as much as $1,900 this season, he said.
"I've had five handlers call me and ask if I had any uncontracted fruit," said Christensen, who owns a prune dryer here. "We needed to reset our prune market, but the pendulum has swung so far that we could lose market share."
The harvest of plums for prunes is under way throughout the state, as shaking began in the Sacramento Valley a couple of weeks ago. However, Christensen's drying plant is at about one-third of capacity, he said.
The government estimates this year's bearing acreage at 51,000 based on a survey of growers in May. The French prune variety accounts for virtually all of the state's acreage of plums grown for drying, according to the CDFA. Acreage has dropped consistently each year since 2001, when about 86,000 acres were dedicated to prunes.
This year's bloom was successful, lasting for more than two weeks with mild temperatures and little rain, the CDFA explained. But adverse conditions in some areas this spring may have hampered some trees' development, according to Donn Zea, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board. Christensen said his yield is down about 30 percent this season.
California produces nearly all of the nation's prunes and 70 percent of the world's supply, but growers have contended with a global glut of prunes in recent years because of overproduction in South America. By contrast, nut growers have been planting more trees to meet a global spike in demand, and some of those new acres used to be in prunes.
The environment for marketing California prunes was expected to improve this year, as the Southern Hemisphere's crops were disappointing. The prune industry has modified its marketing strategy to target younger generations looking for healthy and natural snacks, but a poor crop at home could deprive the industry of an ability to capitalize on South America's misfortunes.
While prices are improving, Christensen said returns still aren't as lucrative for growers as those for walnuts and almonds. He has been replacing some of his prune orchards with nuts over the past several years, and his goal is to get all the plums planted on poorer ground, which is more conducive to growing the fruit than to growing nuts.
"You can grow prunes on pretty poor soil," he said.
2013 California Dried Plum (Prune) Forecast: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Fruits_and_Nuts/201306prunf.pdf
California Dried Plum Board: