2009 a tough act to follow for California tomatoes, prunes

Tim Hearden/Capital Press A worker evens out prunes that are loaded into a bin in an orchard south of Red Bluff, Calif., during last summer's harvest. This year's prune crop in California isn't expected to match the abundant yields of 2009.

Cool spring, record 2009 slowed this year's prune crop

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

For California prunes, it'll be hard to top 2009.

The state's dried plum crop is expected to be about 150,000 tons this year, down about 10 percent from last year's 166,000 tons, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Cooler weather and lighter fruit sets will lead to the decrease in yield. But the cool weather really hasn't been much of a hindrance, said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association in Yuba City, Calif.

"Prunes had a big crop last year, so that tends to take some strength out of the tree," Thompson said. "When they carry a heavy crop load, they don't seem to come back as much the next year. Weather conditions turned out to be not too bad overall during the spring with the bloom."

Cool weather "in general is a good thing," although too much clouds and rain can cause diseases to occur, Thompson said.

In the northern Sacramento Valley, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Rick Buchner has seen "a mixed bag" in plum orchards.

"I've got orchards that set very well ... and I've got orchards that are light," Buchner said. "It's all over the board. To pin it on an environmental thing, I don't know. It's just prunes. A lot of them had a heck of a crop last year and just came back light."

If you take out the undersized and lesser-quality fruit, Thompson expects California will end up with about 126,000 tons of usable fruit this year, down from about 146,000 tons of good fruit in 2009, he said.

California produces nearly all the nation's prunes and 70 percent of the world's supply. The French prune variety accounts for 97 percent of what's grown on California's 64,000 bearing acres of dried plums, according to NASS.

The state's prune acreage is down from a peak of about 86,000 acres in 2000, but last year's yield was up significantly from the 83,000 tons in 2007.

The industry's biggest challenge, Thompson said, is competition from growers in Chile and Argentina who've used lower prices to cut into the state's domination of the prune market.

In 2008, packers shipped 55,000 tons out of the United States, a decline from 66,000 tons in 2007 and 68,000 in 2006, according to the California Dried Plum Board.

Moreover, the large acreage increases in South America in the past 10 years haven't been accompanied by increased marketing efforts by world players, Thompson said.

"If you're going to plant prunes, you'd better spend a lot of money promoting them and promoting the market," he said. "Third-world countries ... see an opportunity to plant a bunch of stuff, but they didn't give any thought to how to market it.

Argentina's most recent crop was damaged by frost, and the earthquake in Chile caused losses and quality issues as fruit sat on the ground too long, Thompson said.

The two nations' misfortune could put California in a position to reclaim market share, he said.

"The most consistent quality comes from California," Thompson said.

"Argentina and Chile are trying to move in that direction," he said, "but they have a long way to go."

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