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PARLIER, CA -- Official estimates for the 2009 California peach, nectarine and plum crops will not be made until April after fruit has actually set on the trees. But the California Tree Fruit Agreement, at its winter committee and board meetings held here Feb. 19 approved budgetary assessments based on a tentative and somewhat "conservative" preliminary estimate of a combined total of 50 million boxes of fruit for the season.

Several factors could make the actual packout either higher or lower than 50 million boxes, possibly to a significant degree. But after considerable discussion, board members agreed that the 50-million-box figure was the best they could come up with this early in the season with the data currently available.

In past years, budgets and assessments were approved in April at the same time as the official crop estimate. But new regulations governing the marketing order require that the budget and assessments now be approved at an earlier date, necessitating that a preliminary crop estimate be made in February, just as blossoms are beginning to emerge.

A 50-million-box crop would be a 9-million-box reduction from 2008, which at 58.95 million boxes fell just shy of the 59.5-million-box record in 2002.

Committee and board members expressed concern in the meeting that retailers would put too much stock in the 50-million-box figure, making plans and setting prices based on a number that is likely to change as the season approaches.

"I don't think a big crop is coming," said Jim Simonian, vice president of field operations for Simonian Fruit Co. in Fowler, CA, and vice chairman of the Nectarine Administrative Committee.

One of the major factors that will determine the actual size of the 2009 crop will be the number of acres in production, and that is a more difficult number than usual to get a handle on this year. Each year, a percentage of the state's tree fruit acreage is pulled out or grafted over to new varieties, but it is typically replaced by a similar amount of new acreage or previously grafted acreage coming into production.

This year, however, some in the industry believe that pullouts are higher than in the past. CTFA staff is gathering data on pullouts but did not yet have final numbers, although CTFA Research Director Gary Van Sickle said they were trending similar to last year.

Also, some growers feel that any net reduction in producing acreage may be at least partially compensated for by better yields from improved varieties or more advanced cultural practices. But there is also the possibility that additional acreage will be taken out of production or simply abandoned before harvest depending on such factors as water availability, markets and availability of bank financing.

Weather conditions between now and harvest, and in particular during the bloom period, which is just beginning, can also influence the ultimate size of the crop.

The 50-million-box estimate used for budget and assessment purposes for 2009 consists of 21 million boxes of peaches, 20 million boxes of nectarines and 9 million boxes of plums, according to Sheri Mierau, president of the CTFA. The plum figure includes some Pluots packed as plums at growers' option. There are no statistics available on the number of Pluots in the market not packed as plums, but it is "a significant number," she said.

The CTFA's 2009 domestic market development budget is just under $1.37 million, which is a reduction of about $2.3 million from 2008.

In addition, the CTFA's international market development program will have a 2009 budget of around $3.45 million, including nearly $2.6 million in USDA Market Access Program funds.