Courtesy California Prune Growers Marketing AssociationOrchard removal in the Sacramento Valley has affected California's prune industry.The trend of removing Sacramento Valley prune orchards for more profitable nut crops continues, but the California Prune Growers Marketing Association anticipates rising demand and prices will eventually stabilize acreage.
Prune production takes place in August and early September, but bearing acres will be down more than 3,000, said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Yuba City, Calif.-based cooperative. That estimate, based on insured acreage, would drop the statewide total to around 45,000 acres.
About 100 acres were removed right in the middle of the season – after June 1 – in the valley, which is home to 80% or more of California’s prune crop.
“It’s surprising,” Thompson said. “They had a crop, but they had other plans and were probably getting a jump on planting new orchards, most likely walnuts or one of the nut crops,” Thompson said.
The state’s persistent drought combined with acreage declines and an uptick in demand sent average prices per ton close to $2,000 in 2013, up from the $1,200 to $1,400 range the year before.
“We had an oversupply and there wasn’t a lot anyone could do about it,” Thompson said. “A couple of short crops and people pulling out acres reversed that dramatically. We hope to get prices that will keep growers interested. The market will adjust to less volume. It’s a high nutritional value product with amazing health benefits.”
“Someone who sells through WinCo (Foods) told me that even with higher prices, WinCo is moving more volume because of increased demand,” he said.
Prune marketers are eyeing the Millennial generation.
“They want to be close to the source, they want more natural, less processed food and they’re not afraid of the word prunes,” Thompson said. “They’re kind of retro. They like prunes, which is cool.”
This year’s state estimate on prunes is 95,000 tons. Last year volume was around 82,000 to 84,000 tons – falling short of an estimated 105,000. “We think 95,000 might be in the ballpark this year,” Thompson said.
It may also be close to what the industry can expect in the future, down from typical volumes of a few years ago in the 120,000 to 140,000 range.
The bulk of acreage changes have been losses, but there have been gains too.
“Some of the growers and grower-packers who have driers, are planting more prunes because they want to keep up the volume and they’ve got markets for their crop,” Thompson said. “We hope everything will stabilize with better prices and new acreage. We’re probably going to get down a little lower before that happens, maybe 40,000 acres.”