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Cold spring weather and a shift in California varieties have combined to create a demand-exceeds-supply situation in the early stages of the plum market this year.

The U.S. Federal State Market News Service reported June 14 that plum prices are about $25 per carton f.o.b., which is about 25 percent more than nectarines and 60 percent more than peaches.

"The plum deal isn't like it used to be," said Gary Van Sickle, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement. "We just don't have the early volume like we used to."

He said that numbers tell the story, as only about 60,000 cartons of plums were being packed each day in mid-June compared to about 100,000 cartons of peaches and 150,000 cartons of nectarines. Mr. Van Sickle said that the decline in volume for the early plum varieties is the main culprit, with cool weather in May also a contributing factor.

"We are about six days later than the estimate," Mr. Van Sickle said of the comprehensive crop estimate and start dates that the agreement researches and releases every year around the first of May.

May's cool weather played havoc with the crop, delaying the early varieties for almost a week.

"We just haven't hit our stride yet," said Wayne Brandt, president of Brandt Farms in Reedley, CA, who explained that Red Beaut and Black Beaut -- the longtime early favorites that pumped up the early volume in years gone by -- fell out of favor over the last several years with most trees being replaced by other varieties. "The final nail in the Red Beaut coffin came two years ago when it had a heavy crop of small sizes that just couldn't compete against the early Flavorosa Pluot variety."

Mr. Brandt said that it is all about flavor and size, and these traditional early plum varieties just don't have the flavor profile to be big sellers.

He did, however, expect the plum volume to increase in the next week to 10 days as the Yummy Beaut and Black Splendor varieties came into the fold. Both Messrs. Brandt and Van Sickle said that as volume increases over the next couple of weeks, plum prices probably will fall, but there is plenty of reason to expect the market to stay fairly strong this year.

The CTFA president said that the plum estimate is down from last year, and much of that lost volume is during the middle of the season. He does expect plum volume to get up to 140,000 to 150,000 cartons per day, but probably not much higher than that. Both peach and nectarine volumes have the capacity to reach 200,000 cartons per day soon.

Mr. Brandt concurred. "I think we could have a fairly strong plum market all year."

Speaking June 16, he said that the nectarine market was also in good shape, but added that peach sales were struggling.

He explained that California peaches are still searching for size, while producers in Georgia and South Carolina have large crops this year currently in the marketplace.

"There are a lot of small peaches on the market, so that could be tough for a while," Mr. Brandt said.

A significant portion of the California peach crop is being sold to Mexico, which is helping to move the volume, but the market price is suffering a bit, he added.

California tree fruit growers are the major producers of both plums and nectarines, but they have much competition around the country with regard to peaches. This year, California is expected to send about 47 million packages of the three summer fruits to the marketplace, which is fairly close to last year's 46.6 million, but there has been a change in distribution.

The plum crop is estimated at only 8.7 million cartons, which is down more than 7 percent from last year's 9.4 million packages. Peach volume has been estimated at 21.6 million cartons, which is 5 percent more than last year, while the nectarine crop is expected to total 16.4 million cartons, which is virtually the same as last year.