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The versatile Patterson variety is the most widely planted apricot in California and can be used in fresh and processed markets.

The versatile Patterson variety is the most widely planted apricot in California and can be used in fresh and processed markets.

California’s processed apricot industry, reeling from the impacts of foreign competition, declining consumer demand for canned products, a decreasing work force, and urban sprawl, could well be writing its epitaph, say apricot industry representatives.

Such issues are not unique to apricots, and other cannery and processed fruits are facing similar challenges.

The volume of processed pears from the Pacific Northwest and California has steadily declined in recent years, although sales prices for canned pears were up in 2006, reports the Washington-Oregon Canning Pear Association. Cling peach growers in California participated in a tree removal program and pulled more than 5,000 acres by the end of 2005 to reduce acreage and stabilize grower returns. Competition from China, South Africa, and Greece has eroded U.S. exports of canned fruit and negatively affected U.S. domestic markets.

Apricots decline

In the early 1970s, California growers annually produced 180,000 to 200,000 tons of apricots. About a dozen canners competed for fruit, and what wasn’t canned was sent to frozen food processors and dry yards. In 2006, the total apricot crop of nearly 39,000 tons–the smallest ever–was sent to only a handful of canners and freezers, and the fresh market.

"There’s a very small spot left for apricots at the canners," said Bill Ferriera, president of the Apricot Producers of California, the bargaining association for growers.

Ferriera is alarmed at acreage trends of Patterson, the main apricot variety planted in the state because of its versatility in the fresh and processed markets. Data shows that in the last decade, acreage declined from 20,000 bearing acres in 1996 to 14,500 bearing acres in 2005. Nearly half of the original Patterson plantings have been removed, with less than 200 new acres planted in the last six years.

"Trees planted in the last large planting year of 1994 are now 12 years old," he said, adding that it takes six years for trees to achieve full production. The current trend is to pull trees without planting replacements for the future.

Grower view

Westley, California, grower Gene Bays is typical of many California apricot producers. As the number of canneries dwindled from 12 to 3 in the last 30 years, he removed apricot orchards and diversified by planting almonds, cherries, peaches, and row crops. Bays now farms only about a third—about 350 acres—of the apricots he once grew.

For many apricot growers, the final straw occurred in 2000 when the Tri-Valley Growers cooperative closed its doors—after encouraging growers to plant new acreage.

"Apricots are a high labor crop," said Bays, who chairs the Apricot Producers. More care must be taken when harvesting for the fresh market than when picking for processing.

"It’s hard to switch from processing to fresh," he said. "I’ve played with the fresh market for Patterson apricots, and lately, it’s not been that great."

The average annual production of California apricots shipped to the fresh market is about 1.5 million 24-pound box equivalents, which equals about 25 percent of the total annual production, according to data from the Apricot Producers.

Growers are also concerned about the future availability of labor needed for such a labor-intensive crop, Bays said, adding that it takes about 25 workers for every ten acres of apricots. Growers need to have enough crop to attract and support the crews for the early season crop.

Competition

Through promotional efforts spearheaded by the Apricot Producers, growers are working to hold on to markets and develop new ones. USDA’s commodity program that provides apricots to households and schools has helped keep canned inventories in balance. But such efforts aren’t enough anymore.

Bays said that the problem is "we’re putting the apricot in a container that nobody wants. The canneries are in the business to make cans and they own the canners [can manufacturers]."

The industry’s story is similar to that of canned pears and peaches—imported canned product from foreign countries has significantly eroded market share. USDA statistics show that a few years ago, South Africa claimed nearly 75 percent of the U.S. canned apricot market.

Although consumption of canned apricots is declining, sales of dried apricots have grown dramatically since the mid-1980s. However, about 90 percent of the dried apricots consumed in the United States come from Turkey.

The one bright spot for processed apricots is the freezer segment, Ferriera said. In the past, the freezer market took few apricots, using them only for jams and preserves. But the foodservice market is now looking at apricots as an ingredient in products like yogurts and pastries, in part because of the fruit’s nutritional value.

Preserving industry

The city of Patterson, California, still boasts of being the "Apricot Capital of the World" and holds an annual Apricot Fiesta to kick off apricot season. However, the claim is outdated. Turkey, with production of around 410,000 metric tons annually, now holds the world title and produces five times the United States’s average annual apricot output, according to Food and Agriculture Organization statistics.

In the last decade, Patterson, once a small agricultural town, has become a bedroom community for the Bay Area. Housing subdivisions are the magic crop these days for growers located near city limits.

"Will there be a domestic-processed apricot industry in the future, or will all processed-apricot products be imported from other countries?" Ferriera wonders.

If the industry is to survive, he thinks processors must make long-term commitments to growers through extended contracts that would encourage new plantings. Also, the net return per acre must be improved to a level competitive with other crops.

New plantings

"There has to be a profitable return to the grower and assurance of a home for the crop. If we want to keep the industry going, growers should be planting trees now."

But a review of data he collected from nurseries shows no planting trend. Only 50 acres of processed apricot varieties were planted in 2006.

"Without question, the California apricot industry is at a crossroads in determining its own future. I’m not sure who will retire first," Ferriera said with a chuckle. "Me or the industry."