Gary Obenauf oversees the production research programs for the California Dried Plum Board. California Ag Today spoke with him recently about the work that he does with the fruit, also known as prunes.
Obenauf helps with post-harvest issues in storage and handling. He also helps the industry with technical issues such as maximum residue limits, also known as MRLs.
“We ship to 135 different countries around the world,” said Obenauf. “We are the largest producer in the world of dried plums—most of the rest of the world still calls him prunes instead of dried plums.”
Obenauf said prunes are now being called dried plums due to a marketing issue about 10 to 15 years ago.
“We noticed that the younger millennials preferred dried plums over prunes, and we made the name change, but we are probably going change it back to prunes,” he said.
Obenauf said that insects, diseases, production cost, and pruning costs are some of the big challenges in the industry. “Essentially, 95 percent of our production is one variety; we need multiple varieties,” Obenauf said.
“We have an active breeding program, but we have not yet come up with good alternatives to the French prune,” he said. “The improved French prune is a good variety, and it is hard to find replacements, and that’s the problem we are having.”
Not on the Same Page: California Dried Plum Prices and Production
by Laurie Greene, Editor
Gary Obenauf, agricultural research coordinator for the California Dried Plums Board, confirmed, “We had a normal crop last year. Prices are still up—have been up for the last several years—and we are anticipating pretty good prices over the next several years for dried plum production.
Obenauf attributed good prices to crop shortage. “We went through several years of depressed prices, so we adjusted by taking out a number of acres a year ago,” he elaborated. “We’ve had acreage reductions in other parts of the world as well.”
So, while production is currently adequate for the current global market, Obenauf stated, “We’re now in the planning process again, trying to increase production. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
California is the world leader in dried plum production, according to the 2015 Prune Research Reports published in January, 2016 by the California Dried Plums Board, but is almost entirely dependent on the use of a single cultivar, the Improved French prune. “This monoclonal [cells or cell products derived from a single biological clone] situation lends itself to vulnerability to widespread disease, pest outbreaks and annual, statewide variations in yield caused by variable weather conditions that can negatively or positively affect fruit set and/or fruit retention.”
So despite enduring high prices, Obenauf explained, “we actually had real good chilling this year and a real heavy bloom during the bloom time, but we got over eight inches of rain in most of the plum production area—right in the middle of full bloom. We just didn’t have the bee activity to set a good crop. We’re estimating about half a crop this year.”
“As a grower,” Obenauf said, “you don’t have the production to make ends meet well when you have a short crop. And buyers like a more secure volume level. These up and down levels don’t help anybody.”
California Dried Plum Board has directed thedevelopment of new, acceptable or superior, dried plum cultivars to increase the efficiency of California dried plum production and give some protection against the risks involved with a monoculture. To stay globally competitive, current research goals include:
Reduce production cost
a. Develop new dried plum cultivars with cost-saving characteristics such as improved tree structure that would require less pruning
b. Improve fruit dry matter content to decrease drying costs
c. Increase plant tolerance to pests and diseases.
Promote a broadening of the consumer base
a. Introduce new dried plums that differ in flavor or color
b. Improve dried fruit characteristics
Adapt to California’s dry, hot climate
a. Introduce greater diversity of bloom timing in seedlings so the entire Californian crop will not be dependent on the same set of weather conditions during periods critical for fruit set and retention.
Featured Photo: Plums (Source: UC ANR Cooperative Extension)