California’s tree fruit industry, like other growing regions, has experienced a multitude of challenges in recent years, including smaller crops caused by wet weather and low chilling hours, labor shortages, declining grower returns, and rising production costs. The industry has also gone through significant change in recent years, including:
Acreage—Following years of disappointing returns, many tree fruit orchards have been removed or replanted to what are hoped to be more profitable crops. Bearing acreage survey statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2005 show a 14 percent decline in apples, 19 percent decrease in apricots, 13 percent decline in pears, and 8 percent decline in freestone peaches. Bearing nectarine acreage is stable. Only bearing cherry acreage showed an increase, gaining 8 percent.
Consolidation—Soft fruit packing houses have consolidated, with many operations disappearing or merging and alliances formed on the marketing side. The number of packing sheds dropped from 278 in 1999 to 165 in 2005, with a 50 percent reduction in medium-sized packing sheds and a 40 percent drop in small packing houses, according to the California Tree Fruit Agreement.
Preconditioning—The practice of preconditioning fruit has grown significantly in response to consumers who want ready-to-eat fruit. In 2003, only two soft fruit preconditioning programs in the state existed. Now, nearly every major soft fruit packer has some type of program.
Late Varieties—Growers, looking to avoid peak shipping periods, are shifting to later varieties. Late-season packouts in 2006 showed that 18 percent of the peach and nectarine crop was packed between September and the end of the season, according to CTFA.
In response to these challenges and changes, California growers and researchers have intensified research for ways to reduce inputs and production costs while continuing to produce high-quality fruit.
Melissa Hansen, associate editor of Good Fruit Grower, spent several days in California last fall, interviewing soft fruit producers who are taking innovative steps to reduce production costs by changing conventional orchard designs of peaches, plums, and nectarines. She also visited growers and shippers who are staying profitable by diversifying and developing new markets, as well as those who are at a crossroads as they search for more lucrative crops to produce.
This is the first of several articles about her California trip.