Don Curlee: California peach growers cling to market slice
A can of cling peaches from China sells for 30 percent less than California peaches in the same size can — a killer differential for the 500 or so farmers in California who still grow clings.
A major reason is the wage scale. Typical California cannery workers are paid three times more for an hour's work than a Chinese cannery worker makes in an entire day.
Consumers aren't necessarily expected to compute and consider those factors as they compare the products side by side at Target or Walmart. But perhaps the retail giants have a responsibility in the equation that they haven't recognized.
In their hellbent determination to force food producers to follow rigid guidelines that lead to the nebulous standard of sustainability, the big retailers and supermarkets might be undermining the very principles they expect growers to follow.
The food retailers have been insisting for several years that food producers follow certain economic, environmental and social guidelines if they expect the retailers to buy their products or commodities.
"Social equity" is one of the three principles the retailers expect growers and other food producers to promote. Of course, that means different things to different people, and perhaps it means supporting a $6-per-day pay rate in China. A $6-per-day job probably is better than no job at all.
As they impose their idealistic principles on food producers, the retailers claim they do so because their customers — the housewives and house husbands that trod their well-stocked aisles — insist on those principles being built into the goods they shop for. That's a stretch for most food producers I know.
You have to wonder if social equity is really a shopper's dominant concern when he or she is weighing the 30 percent price differential between California grown and Chinese-grown canned peaches — or pears, or fruit cocktail, or what have you.
If retailers really want their customers to consider full details about the origination of the products on their shelves, they might begin by telling shoppers in bold type where the food originated. They might find that their socially conscious customers also harbor a patriotic streak and a loyalty to homegrown products.
In the meantime, those 500 cling peach growers and their families in Kings, Fresno, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Sutter, Yuba and Butte counties are concentrating on promoting their California-grown products to consumers worldwide. They are enjoying some promotional help from the companies that can their fruit and from the California League of Food Producers. Pear growers are spending money to promote their canned products as well.
Shoppers have been showing a stronger preference for smaller-sized containers of canned peaches since the 1970s. Growers and the canning industry can handle that; they have been producing more of the smaller containers. Of course, in total that means less product is used.
Growers have their own ways of coping. Many of them get out of the peach business by converting their land to other crops or selling to others who will make the conversion. But the hardcore cling peach-growing families hang in there, updating their methods of production and cultural practices and using improved varieties and equipment.
Acreage of clings is down to 22,500, a drop from 31,700 in 2004. When average production tonnage is taken into account, the decrease amounts to a loss of 50 growers in California, the nation's largest peach-growing state.
Too bad the consumers weighing the benefits of California cling peaches against those grown in China can't have access to a video atop the store shelf comparing production, handling and canning methods in the two countries.
That and a chat with one of those 50 cling peach-growing families that are no longer in the picture might give new perspective to their social consciousness.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com