By TIM HEARDEN
RED BLUFF, Calif. - The harvest of plums for prunes is under way this week in California's Sacramento Valley, as growers say their trees are heavy with sweet fruit.
"Overall, the prune crop looks really good," said Dairyville, Calif., farmer James Brandt, whose crews started picking in Colusa County last week and were starting in Tehama County on Aug. 27.
"The prunes have sized well," he said. "I think we're a little bit above average tonnage-wise and size-wise for prunes."
Grower Tyler Christensen of Red Bluff was set to get started Aug. 29 - about a week later than normal because of a late bloom and cool weather in the spring, he said.
Still, the quality of the fruit is good, he said.
"It's sugaring well, and the fruit's holding on the trees well," Christensen said. "A week or so behind is not a big deal."
The prune harvest picked up throughout the Sacramento Valley last week, as cooler night temperatures have resulted in a more rapid softening of fruit, according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
This summer, the USDA and California Department of Food and Agriculture estimated the state's dried plum crop will be about 120,000 tons, down 12 percent from the 137,000 tons produced in 2011.
Acreage is down about 5 percent this year to about 55,000 bearing acres statewide, as some plum trees were pulled after the 2011 harvest, the agencies reported.
The drop in production would come after prune producers last year posted a slight increase in production from 2010 despite a spring bloom that was hampered by cold, wet weather.
California produces nearly all of the nation's prunes and 70 percent of the world's supply, but producers have contended with a global glut of prunes in recent years because of overproduction in South America.
Prune producers are still recovering from a dip in grower returns stemming from a busted crop in 2004 that ate into their worldwide market share.
Growers received an average of $1,349 per try ton last season, up from the $1,226 they received in 2010-2011 and nearly a twofold increase from returns over the previous six years, according to the California Dried Plum Board.
Still, the Prune Bargaining Association is asking buyers to pay about $150 more per ton this year and a similar increase next year to help producers meet rising costs. General manager Greg Thompson was meeting with buyers this week.
Producers were a bit worried earlier this summer that periods of triple-digit temperatures would cause a condition referred to as blue prune, in which plum tissue tries to ripen prematurely and the fruit falls off the tree.
But the problem wasn't widely reported, said Rick Buchner, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor here.
"From what I've seen, everything looks pretty good," Buchner said of the crop.
California Dried Plum Board: http://www.californiadriedplums.org/
Prune Bargaining Association: http://www.prunebargaining.com/index.php