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The International Fruit Tree Association held its annual meeting in Visalia, California, in February, with field tours of tree fruit orchards, nurseries, and University of California research trials. Melissa Hansen reports on the unique challenges facing California tree fruit growers.

California has the fifth-largest economy in the world and is home to 38 million people. With the perfect blend of climate and soil conditions to grow 350 different crops, savvy farmers utilize technology to help them lead the nation in production of many crops. The Mediterranean climate of the Central Valley gives growers plenty of options when it comes to choosing profitable crops. But as the population continues to expand in the popular state—predictions are that 50 million people will inhabit California within the next 20 years—water is becoming a precious commodity.

"California is at a crossroads now in terms of water development and its increasing population," said Mike Chrisman, California state secretary of resources. ­Chrisman’s duties as resources secretary include responsibility for the state’s natural resources (water, conservation, fish and game, forestry, energy, parks, coastal, and marine land).

Chrisman described an elaborate plumbing system developed by the state years ago to move water from the northern Cascade and Sierra Nevada Mountains snowpack to as far south as San Diego. Before reaching 24 million people in the state’s southlands, the state water project must pump water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an estuary now challenged by intruding salt water during drought years, an endangered species called the delta smelt, and weakened peat soils that form the islands and levees of the delta.

"We are convinced that climate changes are happening," Chrisman said, adding that state officials are using computer models to help predict various outcomes, including one that shows California’s snowpack could be reduced by 30 to 70 percent in the next 75 to 100 years.

"The agricultural industry is very efficient in its water use," he noted, but "in an era of shortages, people always come first."

Apples

California apple production isn’t as robust as it once was when ­volume was nearly three times higher, but the growers who remain have found a marketing niche and developed a strong export market. Although California is fifth in terms of total apple production when ­compared to other states, it is the second leading exporter behind ­Washington State.

About one third of the crop is exported, one third is sold within the state, and the remaining third sold domestically, according to Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission. Leading export countries include Canada, Taiwan, Mexico, Malaysia, United Kingdom, and Central America.

The total crop averages around eight to nine million bushels, with some three to four million boxes (40-pound boxes) packed for the fresh market. The fresh market used to be around ten million boxes annually, Ott said. Granny Smith is the number-one variety grown (2 million boxes), followed by Gala (800,000 boxes), Fuji (400,000 boxes), Cripps Pink (200,000 boxes), and other varieties.

"California is unique in regards to other apple-growing regions because we don’t store apples for a long period of time," he said. "We pick, pack, and ship and try to get in and out after Chile and before ­Washington. We focus on doing well with what we have."

Fuji is not as prominent a variety as it once was. Growers had difficulty achieving red color in the more southern reaches of the San Joaquin Valley because of warm nighttime temperatures.

Pears

California’s pear industry is cannery dependent, said Rachel Elkins, University of California Cooperative Extension advisor for Lake and Mendocino Counties. California’s pear acreage mirrors what has occurred in the fruit-processing industry—both have steadily declined in the last decade. Since 1996, no reportable pear acres have been planted, according to Elkins. Bearing acreage is estimated now to be around 16,000 acres, though some peg the number even lower at 12,000 to 14,000 acres, she said. Several decades ago, the state boasted 36,000 acres of pears.

"On average, pear production in recent years has been a losing situation on grower returns," she said. "The remaining growers are the ones that can grow a lot of tons. You need at least 20 tons per acre to break even. The ones remaining are growing 24 tons per acre."

She said that while most of the cannery prices aren’t bad—$250 per ton for 2¾-inch field-run fruit—it’s the number of declining cannery contracts that are squeezing growers. As the processing options decline, more pears are shifted to the fresh market. In 1989, 21 percent of the total pear production was shipped fresh, compared with 32 percent shipped fresh in 2007.

Elkins said that growers are widening their marketing approach to capture higher f.o.b. prices, producing higher-returning varieties like winter pears and red varieties. "It used to be just Bartletts that were grown here," she said.

Pear orchard removal in Lake County has been common as growers switch to more profitable and less-labor intensive crops like wine grapes and walnuts.

But though the industry has shrunk, it is spending more money than ever on research, she said. In 2007, about $270,000 was spent on horticultural projects such as crop management, evaluating size-controlling rootstocks, orchard mechanization, pest management, and postharvest quality. In 1987, when acreage was much higher, the industry spent $40,000 on research, she added.

There have been industry successes as a result of the research. Areawide mating disruption has reduced pest control costs and greatly diminished codling moth ­damage, she said, adding that puffers dispense codling moth pheromone to 3,000 acres of pears. Also, more emphasis has been put on ­preconditioning or ripening pears to give consumers ready-to-eat pears.

Cherries

Cherry acreage in California has been on the upswing in recent years, following the same trend of increased plantings as in other states. Industry officials estimate that 26,000 acres are planted to cherries in California, with most of the increased acreage planted in southern San Joaquin Valley where new heat-tolerant varieties are being grown for the export market.

California’s cherry crop is volatile, swinging up and down in volume depending on Mother Nature. Six million boxes is considered a big crop for the state’s growers. Bing is the primary variety grown, though much of the industry growth has taken place in the early season varieties of Brooks, Tulare, and Garnet that are produced for the export market. About 30 to 40 percent of the total crop is exported each year.

"Things work best when we get out of the market before Washington comes in," said Jim Culbertson, executive director of the California Cherry Advisory Board.

California cherry growers in southern San Joaquin Valley have unique challenges in producing cherries in warm climates, he said. They continually battle low chill hours and erratic fruit set and must contend with a high percentage of doubles caused by high temperatures during bud development. The growth regulator Dormex (hydrogen cyanamide) has been successfully used in the last decade to make up for a lack of winter chill and improve uniformity of fruit set and yield.