Prune crop pinched by weather

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Freshly picked plums are shipped to drying tunnels at a processing plant south of Red Bluff, Calif., during last summer's harvest.

Despite late start, size and quality of this year's light crop 'looks good'

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

RED BLUFF, Calif. -- California prune growers don't expect to reach anywhere near last year's abundant yield because the crop got off to a late start because of mild weather.

In fact, they'll have a hard time realizing a government projection of 150,000 tons statewide this year, said Mark Gilles, drier manager at the Sunsweet plant here.

However, the smaller crop could help the industry reduce what has been a glut of prunes in storage, which should help growers get a better price, said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association.

"Originally it was looking like we might carry over 100,000 tons with a crop forecast of 150,000 tons" for a total of 250,000 tons in the pipeline, Thompson said. "Now we're looking at a total number of 84,000 tons carried in and a crop less than 150,000 from everything I'm hearing ... so we could have a much better and more balanced situation than we were looking at going into harvest."

It would have been hard to match the total 2009 yield of 157,000 tons harvested in California, which produces nearly all the nation's prunes and 70 percent of the world supply.

That crop was up significantly from the 83,000 tons produced in 2007, according to the California Dried Plum Board. And it came despite the fact that California's roughly 64,000 bearing acres of prunes are down from a peak of about 86,000 acres in 2000.

Trees usually respond to a heavy crop with a lighter yield the following year, Gilles said. The cool and rainy spring may have affected the crop's size, too, he said.

The Sunsweet plant has been running at about two-thirds capacity and is on a pace to process about 12,000 tons of fruit this year, he said.

"We expected a lighter crop coming in, and it's a little less than we expected," Gilles said. "The quality looks good this year, and the overall size."

Prune harvests typically last about four weeks, and the Red Bluff plant's first day of processing was Aug. 23, Gilles said. Other processors farther south got started about a week earlier, he said.

In addition to the cool spring that pushed harvests of many commodities back a little, the prune harvest has been accompanied by mild weather, too, including a couple of light showers. But the weather hasn't hampered picking, Gilles said.

"The cooler temperatures made harvest more enjoyable to work in versus 110- or 115-degree weather," he said. "It's been a very pleasant summer."

The Prune Bargaining Association is negotiating with packers over prices, Thompson said. The parties have been waiting to see how the crop yield will turn out, he said.

"The shipping numbers are more positive than were forecast," said Thompson, noting that shipments typically total 120,000 to 130,000 tons a year. "We're still facing the problem of increased production coming from South America.

"We've gained back a lot of customers because we've got better and more consistent quality," he said. "Still people want to buy the cheapest thing out there."

Online

Sunsweet: www.sunsweet.com

Prune Bargaining Association: www.prunebargaining.com

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