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.”
California is the world’s largest producer of dried plums, producing about 40% of the world’s supply and 99% of the U.S. supply. Dried plums, also known as prunes, are considered to be a super food thanks to their valuable nutritional content. Recently, California Ag Today spoke to Donn Zea, the executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, about the prune industry and the nutritional benefits of prunes.
“The growers are doing well. Of course, we’ve lost acreage over the last decade. We’re at about 47,000 acres or so. We have a big crop this year; it looks like 105,000 tons. Last year was a short one because of the weather. We seem to be in a good place, Zea said. “I think acreage, certainly in California but even globally, is in balance with demand, and it’s our job now to make sure that we continue to keep California prunes at a high value profile. We like to think that we grow them better and that they taste better than any other prune in the world.”
Recent studies show that prunes are able to assist in aiding and even reversing osteoporosis, the process in which bones become fragile and brittle due to old age.
“We’re finding out a lot about the prune’s role in slowing or even reversing age-related osteoporosis and improving bone health in women so far, but we’re now doing research in men,” Zea said. “There’s a lot of exciting things going on there, especially for those that can’t eat dairy. It’s not the calcium. What we’re learning is that it’s a combination of polyphenols that are working together in prunes. The evidence seems to be clear, in the animal studies we’ve done and in the clinical trials that we’ve done, that these combinations of nutrients and micronutrients are working together to produce a defense against osteoporosis and bone loss and maybe even strengthening bone.”
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Tree fruits this year for Daniel Jackson, a seventh-generation farmer and partner, Reedley-based Family Tree Farms, are thriving and delicious. “The quality is just exceptional right now,” Jackson said. “I think the industry is taking a little bit of a lull in volume right now for the last two days, but it looks like it’s going to pick up again. The fruit coming off late season is going to be exceptional from an eating quality standpoint,” he indicated.
Family Tree grows various tree fruit hybrids, as well as blueberries and grapes—everything from plumquats (a hybrid between an apricot and a plum) and apriums (a similar hybrid that is more apricot than plum) to fresh white peaches and nectarines, yellow flesh peaches and nectarines, and apricots.
Although hot weather can be challenging to growers, trees in the Central Valley have evolved to adapt to the heat. “Tree fruit genetics here in the Valley are used to that heat,” Jackson elaborated. “Other than a mid-season apricot that may get some tip burn, we’re not seeing too much damage,” he explained. “We may see some sunburn here and there; but for the most part, as long as you have a good leaf ratio on your tree, everything seems to be looking good. We’re happy with the way things are turning out.”
Jackson also reported some minor labor shortages, but their numbers are staying pretty strong. “It was short early on; now we’re pretty stout,” he commented. “I think our crews are up 25 guys, which is a good full crew. We may run into some challenges as we enter the table grape season, but right now things are looking good. We’re staying positive.”
Family Tree Farms has an optimistic attitude about their labor crews. “We just want to be able to provide a consistency of work out there so that people are happy and can stick around with us. I think most farmers are trying to do that same thing,” he said.
Springtime, this year, gave them an early bloom but a cool and mild spring, conditions that can impact the size of produce, come harvest season. “I don’t think we gathered enough heat units to grab the size that we typically have,” Jackson explained, “but I think we’re catching up now. A lot of times, that’s what happens in a season; the size may be a little bit off [early on], but it catches up and becomes more of a normal year,” he said, and other growers have experienced the same problem with their commodities,
“We were probably about a half size to a size off early on in the season, but are seeing sizing come back a little bit and we’re happy about that,” Jackson described. He attributed this impact on fruit size experienced by most California fruit growers, “because we lost a couple of early season growing days that are so important in the early-season varieties.”
The Family Tree crew remains positive; they take pride in the exceptional color of their fruit and picking has stayed consistent. “I think color has been one of the best years we’ve had. Especially with plumcot varieties, we see the ripening happening a little bit more evenly, so are able to pick more consistently as well.”
Jackson handles the fluctuating challenges in farming with stride. “There are a lot of positive things going on,” he commented. “There will always be challenges every year but we don’t let those slow us down. Farmers are more resilient than that.”