August 8, 2013

Prune Growers See Reduced Crop

According to the California Prune Board, reduced supply sets price expectations from growers California prune growers (or dried plums as they're sometimes known in the United States) are anticipating a reduced crop in 2013, driven by reduced yields in their orchards following two consecutive years with strong crops.

History has proven a reduction is common following years of strong fruit production: Declines in 2013 are estimated in three of the four top producing countries: U.S. (-24 percent), Chile (-41 percent) and France (-20 percent). Based on the 2013 global supply estimate, demand in both domestic and international markets is expected to be greater than production.

Further impacting the global supply, bearing acreage in California is estimated at 51,000 acres, down from a peak of 89,000 acres in 2000. The reduction equates to a 43 percent drop in total acreage. California prune acreage was reduced by seven percent following the 2012 harvest. Other major producing countries are seeing similar trends, with acreage being removed in favor of higher value crops.

The 2013 California prune crop estimate by the United States Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service is 105,000 tons (95,000 metric tons), down from 138,000 tons (125,000 metric tons) in 2012. The carry-over inventory from the prior crop will offset the supply reduction marginally with the total supply available to market being down by 20 percent versus the prior year.  

Many California prune growers have converted over to higher valued tree crops such as walnuts and almonds.  The combination of competing higher value crops along with reduced acreage and supply is creating very strong upward pricing momentum for California prunes.

During a June 2013 meeting of the International Prune Association in Italy, it was communicated that major producing countries must deal with the current economic sustainability issue relating to prune pricing in the field. Representatives from each of the major prune producing countries report increasing grower dissatisfaction with market prices and the continuing trend of growers worldwide to pull prune acreage and reallocate valuable land resources to more profitable nut crops.

“This (pricing increase) is an adjustment that was imminent. We just happened to get some assistance from a smaller crop in California and globally. I'm optimistic that we'll be back on a sustainable track and our growers will regain enthusiasm about keeping their prune orchards," said Donn Zea, Executive Director of the California Dried Plum Board in Sacramento.

Overall pricing from California is expected to advance by at least 10 percent to 20 percent above the prior year's pricing. Packers are watching the final days of the growing cycle with great interest, but so far challenging conditions do not seem to have adversely impacted the crop. The fruit size and sugar levels indicate good quality, and there is optimism that the harvest will reach forecasted volumes.

The supply pressure is putting a strain on marketing efforts to increase demand. Strong California campaigns in both domestic and international markets that aimed at generating new consumers are at risk. Key to this new demand is the growing consumer emphasis on digestive health, supported by the recent approved health claim for prunes issued by the European Food Safety Authority. Also, promising research on the benefits of consuming California prunes demonstrates a potentially significant positive impact on bone density, creating a buzz among consumers.

With these positive messages in place to grow demand, the supply is critical for the industry. However, plans may be threatened unless grower returns can be elevated to compete with higher valued fruits and nuts around the globe.

Zea continued, "This is a product that is enormously undersold. Once consumers of all ages are aware of the many health benefits, diverse uses and delicious taste, they'll realise that prunes really are the whole package. It is critical that consumers are able to continue to receive these messages."

California Dried Plum Board (CDPB): The CDPB represents 900 dried plum growers and 20 dried plum packers under the authority of the California Secretary of Food and Agriculture.

Revered as part of California's rich history, the dried plum remains a vital player in California's economic wealth. California produces 99 percent of the United States' and 48 percent of the world's supply of dried plums, a convenient, healthy snack for today's busy lifestyle.