Written by The Business Journal Staff
A cold, windy, wet storms in March may have torpedoed the 2016 Golden State prune crop — especially in orchards located in the northern parts of the Valley.
The abnormal El Nino weather conditions disrupted pollination, resulting in a much heavier than normal shed of developing fruit in just the past few weeks. While the season began with a strong overall bloom, industry officials say the heavy loss of the initial fruit set due to storms could cut this year’s crop in half.
“Growers and industry members are still evaluating the crop loss [but] the initial take on the crop is pretty grim,” said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association in Yuba City.
“It takes about 800 prunes per tree now to deliver a crop of a half dry ton per acre at harvest,” Thompson added. “Many growers indicate they are having a tough time finding even half that amount. If that’s the case, the crop will fall even shorter because many orchards will not be picked at all.”
The loss comes at a bad time for the California industry. While research continues to demonstrate the wide range of health benefits of eating California prunes, poor yields in the past have discouraged growers and some have opted to remove older prune orchards and replace them with other tree crops.
Lack of supply has also increased imports of prunes and growers worry about foreign product without the same high production standards required of California growers taking the place of California-grown prunes.
Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright said prune operations in the Central Valley seem to have escaped the carnage suffered by growers further north.
“We have not received any reports of major damage yet,” said Wright. “As far as I know, we’re not in the same shape as the folks up north.”
“We kind of skated through this most recent hail storms” without major losses, Wright added. “If growers had suffered considerable damage, they’d be calling us right now.”
Robert Markarian, who grows prunes on a 40-acre parcel near Easton, confirms Wright’s assessment. “So far, we’ve dodged a bullet,” Markarian said.
But some prune orchards, especially those north of Sacramento, experienced up to eight inches of rain last month, with heavy storms that blew petals and pollen out of the trees. Many growers reported the wind, rain and cold temperatures also prevented bees from flying.
Too much rain can wash away pollen and cold temperatures disrupt pollen tube growth of prunes, which are also called dried plums.
According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the French prune variety accounts for virtually all plum acreage grown in California, which, in 2014, yielded slightly more than 285,000 tons of the fruit.
California’s prune crop in 2014 was valued at $209 million.
Usually during bloom each year more than 20 percent of the blossoms pollinate and become developing fruit. This year some University of California Cooperative extension test blocks in the Yuba City area detected only 2 to 12 percent of the blossoms growing into fruit in the lower half of the trees.
“By the first of May we usually see that 20 to 40 percent of the blossoms set,” said UCCE Farm Advisor Franz Niederholzer. “This year even some well-cared for orchards have only 25 to 30 percent of a normal crop.”
Golden State prunes are produced mainly on small- and medium-sized family-owned farms.
In 2014, prune growers in Fresno County produced 3,020 tons of the fruit, valued at slightly more than $7 million. The most recent harvest represented an increase in value of about $1.75 million over 2013’s crop.
Madera County produced $3.2 million worth of prunes in 2014, a drop in value of more than 25 percent from the 2013 crop.
Ag Commissioner Wright said Central Valley prune growers “have had issues recently with labor and pricing. In the last four or five years, the market has fallen off,” he added, “although it appears more stable now.”
Niederholzer said growers should get an accurate fruit count from top to bottom of representative trees to determine the actual crop load and adjust their cultural practices accordingly. “Hopefully growers find a better set in the tops of the trees so there are enough prunes to warrant picking.”
Prune production in California averages about 2.3 dry tons per acre. Most growers consider yields of less than a half-ton per acre a complete loss as the wear and tear on the trees — and the management and cost of harvesting and drying is more than the value of the fruit.
Industry officials are hopeful this year’s crop can still rebound. “The health benefits of California prunes have been shown with sound, scientific research,” said Ranvir Singh, Prune Bargaining Association president and board chair of the California Dried Plum Board.
The Prune Bargaining Association was formed in 1968 as a grower-owned cooperative and negotiates with prune buyers to establish the industry’s raw product price.
“We have the highest environmental, labor and food safety standards in the world,” Singh added. “Our industry provides a consistent supply and quality even with the variability brought on by changes in the weather pattern. Nonetheless, we need better resources in order for our growers to adapt to change and improve production.”
“Right now our biggest problem is lack of supply,” Singh said. “We are reaching out to all concerned to find practical ways to solve the challenges and encourage California prune growers to grow more high quality California prunes.”