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Good quality gets California tree fruit season off to solid start

California fresh peach, plum and nectarine growers are at the supply peak of a marketing season that is expected to send more than 56 million packages to markets worldwide by season's end.

It has been a roller coaster start for the season, with many producers, especially from the Modesto area north, suffering frost damage. Some orchards were a 100 percent loss due to frost. However, the frost damage cut significantly into the early fruit supply, which has been marketed to pleased consumers who are paying respectable prices for plentiful, good-eating quality fruit.

“I think most growers have been encouraged by the start of the season,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League in Fresno, Calif. Prices have held up relatively well.

“The industry is coming off a very difficult year in 2007. There was quite a bit of concern going into 2008 since the 56-million box estimate was on the upper end of the crop forecast of the last few years,” he noted.

Veteran University of California Cooperative Extension stone fruit farm advisor in Tulare County, Kevin Day, said last year should have been a good year with a lower supply of fruit available from growing areas outside of California.

“It wasn't a good year. Prices were not good. However, prices have been better early this season, and there is a bit more optimism among growers,” Day said.

Bedwell called it a “decent start,” but with more pressure on the market from increased mid-summer supplies that could change.

Growers are concerned about fruit flooding the market and prices plummeting.

“Typically, growers see late June and early July prices collapse with larger volumes. It happens more often than not, but a lot of that depends on harvesting timing, varieties and the weather,” Bedwell said.

“If Mother Nature cooperates and we can get an orderly flow into the market, we could be okay.”

He does not believe frost losses are necessarily a factor in a surprisingly good early California fresh fruit season.

“The industry fully realizes now that the key to success is not just a great looking fruit, but a great eating product as well. I think consumers are getting that now.

“The industry with leaders like Blair Richardson's FreshSense and the Family Tree Farm emphasizing and guaranteeing quality is making a difference,” said Bedwell.

“Hopefully, this focus on good eating fruit will bring back repeat consumers, which is something the industry desperately needs.”

Day has the scientific proof that quality is improving, especially in the early fruit. It is what consumers buy first and if they are happy with the first buy of the season, hopefully they will return. They have not been over the past few years and as supplies increased into the summer, prices plummeted.

“Ten years ago at meetings to display new varieties, what you saw was big and red and we saturated the market with fruit that was big and looked good,” Day said. Unfortunately, it did not always eat as well as it looked.

The “uniqueness” of California fresh fruit is in the eating experience, and the quality is now there, according to Day.

A decade ago refractometer readings of just 10 percent in early fruit were common. “It is not uncommon now get to 14 to 16 sugar readings in early fruit … that is a 50 percent to 60 percent improvement in quality.

“I think a lot of the strength of the season so far has been in the quality. Quality really gives legs to fruit marketing,” Day said.

For 2008 the industry expects the 56.6 million package crop to be broken down with 23.8 million packages of peaches, 11.6 million plum packages and 21.2 million nectarines.

The California Tree Fruit Agreement projects the state's growers will produce fresh peach and nectarine crops similar to last season. The plum crop is expected to be 10 percent larger due to a better set and better sizing potential, even with the frost damage that occurred in Tulare County in April.

Bedwell acknowledged frost damage was heavy in some orchards and vineyards. However, it was spotty and he does not expect frost losses to have a major impact on the overall supply.

“There were heavy losses in one orchard or vineyard, and just down the road no damage,” he said.

According to the California USDA/NASS field office, it was the unusually cold temperatures April 19-20 that caused the significant frost damage.

The largest impact was in the Northern California growing areas. There were also a large number of growers with losses in the Modesto area. Orchards and vineyards in Tulare County also were hit.

Growers are waiting as long as possible before they start to thin to get a better idea of which fruit will drop from frost damage and which will remain on the tree, according to USDA. Some blocks will not need thinning because their set is so light.

Mendocino County, one of California's top pear growing regions, experienced the worst freeze growers have seen in nearly a half century. Damaged pears were showing many black centers or frozen cores. The Sacramento River pear-growing district was not impacted as much by the freeze and is expected to produce a normal crop.

Spring weather has again damaged the California prune crop like last season. Despite the damage, crop prospects were showing an improvement over the small 2007 crop. A cold snap during April caused several Sutter County growers to lose more than 25 percent of their orchards and some growers lost their entire crop. Prune growers will assess the crop again after the June drop.

Frost does not benefit anyone, but cool weather can help size a crop. At least that is the conventional wisdom, but that wisdom did not apply this season, even with the unseasonably cool spring, according to Day. A searing five-day hot spell in May with temperatures well above 100 degrees negated any sizing benefit from cooler spring weather.

It was not just heat, frost and cool temperatures that made the start of the 2008 season unusual.

“I have never seen anything like the wind we have seen this year and I have lived here all my life. The wind seemingly blew on and on. It did scar fruit.

“It has not been the scarring like you would see from hail, but scarring nonetheless,” said Day.

Overall, however, the outlook for the 2008 crop is positive. With adequate chilling hours this winter, consumers can expect better flavor in the fruit, said Sheri Mierau, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement. “Along with better sizing, the industry is looking forward to a successful season having plenty of fruit to supply promotions all season long.”

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