Prune problems

Spring storms wreak havoc on Butte County’s No. 4 crop

Vic McGowan shows a sampling of prunes that were damaged by recent hailstorms.

Vic McGowan shows a sampling of prunes that were damaged by recent hailstorms.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Top crops:
Butte County’s leading ag products (by value):

1. Almonds
2. Walnuts
3. Rice
4. Prunes
5. Nursery stock

Source: Butte County Agricultural Crop Report 2014

Striding between rows of trees in his family’s orchards, Paul McGowan made an easy pivot and slipped his hand under a thin, leafy branch. He pulled it back, as if a street magician, and there in his palm lay a green oval fruit, perhaps an inch long: a prune.

Butte County (in fact, the valley region from Yuba City to Red Bluff) is a prime area for growing the variety of plum that’s dried to become the products associated with the name “prunes”; the process starts on farms like the McGowans’, along Nord Highway north of Chico.

The piece of produce in his hand Tuesday (May 17) was perfect. Quality is not the problem. What prune farmers—and everyone dependent on them—are concerned about is quantity.

“Normally, this time of year, there’s a lot of fruit on the tree,” McGowan said. “The limbs are lined, everything’s loaded; they’re bowing down—twice as much fruit as what we have on here now.”

Indeed, the McGowans (including Paul’s father, Rich, and sister, Vic) estimate they’ll wind up with a crop yield just half as large as usual. They and the county’s approximately 100 other prune growers got hit with a “triple whammy” of climate conditions.

First came late chilly rains, during the spring season when the trees usually bloom in warmth. Next came winds blowing young prunes off trees. Finally, hail struck swaths of the North State, taking a toll on fragile young fruit.

Louie Mendoza, the county’s new agriculture commissioner, said every grower has lost between 50 percent and 90 percent of the crop.

Considering that prunes represent the fourth-richest ag yield for Butte County—worth $41 million annually (per the most recent Agricultural Crop Report, 2014)—the impact is significant. The 2016 crop likely will have a value of $16 million, Mendoza said, so he filed for a federal agricultural disaster declaration on behalf of Butte County and the growers.

“We feel fortunate that we have any crop at all,” said McGowan, whose father sits on the board of the Butte County Farm Bureau. Talking to fellow Sunsweet Growers co-op members in surrounding counties, they’ve learned that “there are a good percentage of growers that will not harvest at all.”

The ripple effect of the crop loss will have local repercussions beyond supermarket pricing of prunes. Mendoza cited a UC Davis study that determined every dollar of crop value translates into $4 of local economic activity. Losing $25 million worth of prunes, then, could siphon $100 million from Butte County.

McGowan said tree crops such as prunes are different from others because many costs are fixed. Trees require the same watering whether they’re bearing fruit or not. At harvest, growers use the same equipment and need the same number of workers whether the branches are half- or fully laden.

Silver lining: “This year, with half a crop, the size will be really good—nice and big,” he said. Growing fewer, “the tree has plenty of energy, so it will produce nice, large, good-quality fruit.”

However, total tonnage still will be down.

Mendoza, upon relaying the dire news to the county Board of Supervisors, submitted paperwork via the state to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A disaster declaration not only supports growers when making crop-loss insurance claims, it also enables them to access low-interest loans and, when offered, federal reimbursement.

Mitigating the losses otherwise is the fact that “most of our prune growers are diversified,” Mendoza said. (Take the McGowans: They also grow walnuts, almonds and pistachios.)

“Prunes is a unique crop,” Mendoza said. “It seems you have years where you have a good crop and it works out well for you, and sometimes you have these odd years where you have no crop so you have to weather the storm …

“If you’re a prune grower and you’ve only got 100 acres of prunes, it’s going to be a rough year for you.”