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California stone fruit crop has shifted toward the late season

by Rand Green | August 22, 2010
Nearly every commodity in California so far this year has started later than usual due to an unusually cool, wet spring, and peaches, plums and nectarines were among the items affected.

But as the weather has warmed to near seasonal norms, in some commodities such as table grapes it now appears that the start dates for later varieties will be closer to normal. Not so for stone fruit.

"The crop has shifted later," and for some inexplicable reason, the later varieties now appear to be even more delayed than the early varieties, according to Gary Van Sickle, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement in Reedley, CA.

"Our timing [on most varieties] is anywhere from six days to 12 days later than last year, and we are getting just slightly later for some reason" as the season progresses, Mr. Van Sickle said Aug. 6.

The O'Henry peach, "which is kind of the beginning of the late-season varieties," would normally have started "a week ago," he said. It was now "scheduled to start in another week or 10 days."

That would actually make the first pick for that variety more than two weeks late.

Roughly 40 percent of the crop still remained to be harvested as of Aug. 6, he said. That is more than normal for the date, but only because the harvest dates have shifted, not because the crop is larger, Mr. Van Sickle emphasized.

For the peach sector, it has been a tough year. "A couple of years ago, when we had those big crops" and prices were low due to overproduction, many in the industry were saying that when the combined volume for peaches, plums and nectarines gets down to about midway between 40 million and 50 million boxes, "things will be much better."

This year the combined volume is in that mid-40-million-box range, but "it is not necessarily any better." The reason is that this year there is a big national peach crop, and California peaches have had a challenge competing during peak season.

The cool, wet spring had "a devastating effect on the startup of the season," Mr. Van Sickle said. "We had just a tremendous problem ... getting into volume," and going into Memorial Day weekend, many packingsheds that "had pre-sales of fruit for that holiday" had to cancel orders. "Many of those sheds lost the equivalent of probably a million dollars of business" due to the crop being a week late in that timeframe.

"Then in early June, as the California crop finally started to come on, "we immediately bumped heads with the Southeast, which had a huge [peach] crop" with a lot of small sizes, he said. As a result, California shippers did not pack a lot of fruit that normally would have been packed, particularly size 64 and in some cases even size 56 fruit, so varieties are coming in under estimate.

However, "we are now at a point in the peach deal where ... the inventory situation is starting to get better," plus the current varieties "produce all big sizes, so now we don't have the small fruit issue," he said.

Peach prices also affected the nectarine market, but nectarines have been packing out just over estimate. Plums, too, are coming in close to estimates. "We still have a lot of nectarines left" and a good amount of peaches. In plums, "our last major variety, Angelino," was yet to come, he said.

Volume will taper off toward the end of September, although "we still have a significant number of peaches that will go through the month of October," he said.