A laborer works in Sutter County to harvest the 2019 prune crop.

Prune growers throughout the state are expecting a price reduction for last year’s crop, with some growers expecting to see a fall in pricing of more than $500 per ton compared to the previous crop year.

Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association, said the price hit is due to a number of factors including the disruption to trade caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, he said, many growers were forced economically to make a 23 percent reduction in crop deliveries.

“Growers are to be commended for the tremendous efforts they have made to match production with demand,” Thompson said. “Growers were told they would be paid little or nothing for smaller prunes, so they increased their efforts to prune, thin, and then screen out fruit at harvest, bringing the crop down from an estimated 110,000 tons to 85,000 tons.”

At the same time, he said, some of the industry’s packers were facing some difficult markets, which drove the crop’s price down substantially. One of the key factors was uncertainty and disruption at ports around the world – about half of the state’s crop is exported overseas.

“There are also increased costs because of COVID to our processors, in particular with some plants shutting down for a period of time and extra costs involved with dealing with the pandemic,” Thompson said.

Prune growers are estimated to invest nearly $18,000 per acre (not including land) to establish an orchard, and spend an additional $4,194 per acre each year to produce and deliver the crop, according to the University of California.

“The extra effort made this past year by growers increases expenses and reduces yields,” Thompson said. “It is truly a double whammy to have grower prices fall so precipitously.”

Thompson said despite the economic hardship growers are experiencing, there have been a number of positive factors for the industry in recent months. Imports of prunes are down 76 percent for the first five months of the year, while domestic shipments of California prunes are up 13 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased nearly $50 million worth of prunes over the last three years for its family feeding programs to help offset losses in overseas markets and gain back market share. Also, shipments to Japan, which is a key market for the state’s prunes, are up 14 percent over the previous year.

And while the pandemic ended up hurting prices, it also impacted the crop positively on the domestic front, Thompson said. He said in some cases, the industry saw increased shipments in the domestic market as more Americans began to consume prunes, both because they provide health benefits and can be stored for an extended period of time.

“There is so much more to the health benefits of eating prunes than anyone first imagined,” said Ranvir Singh, president of the Prune Bargaining Association, in a press release. “…The benefits of micronutrients, boron, potassium, fiber and an apparent anti-inflammation benefit in the gut make prunes a truly remarkable food.”

Thompson said the 2020 crop is expected to be much lighter than last year’s. The industry saw a 10 percent reduction in acreage since last year’s harvest, he said, and production is expected to decrease along with it.

The Prune Bargaining Association, headquartered in Yuba City, was formed in 1968 as a grower-owned cooperative to improve the economy of the state’s prune industry, encourage the production of a quality product and provide a forum for growers. The association establishes the industry’s raw product price for prunes.

According to county crop reports for 2018, the latest year statistics were available:

– The prune crop spread over 13,350 acres in Sutter County and was the fourth largest crop at a value of $57 million.

– In Yuba County, prunes accounted for the third largest crop, at $32 million, spread over 8,104 acres.

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