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California stone fruit on target for good season

California does not appear to have an especially big crop of stone fruits this year, and combined with production problems in the Southeast, that very well could make for a tighter-than-usual marketing situation.

It has been reported that 90 percent of the South Carolina peach crop was destroyed by a devastating freeze, and other production areas in the Southeast have also experienced some losses.Nect2

“It’s just one of those situations when unfortunate circumstances in one region ends up making a good situation for another region,” said Stephen Paul, stone fruit category director for Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA.

While Paul was optimistic that California growers would be able to capitalize on the shorter supply situation, he cautioned shippers about trying to squeeze every dollar they can out of the market and killing it instead.

“The problems in the Southeast will definitely have an effect,” he said, “but I hope shippers don’t get too greedy. You can’t get the price so high that it’s not promotable.”

California had a lot of rain this year, which certainly helped the crops, but Paul said some orchards were hit with rainstorms during the middle of their bloom, resulting in more bloom drop than usual.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “If the rain comes at the right time, you have a good crop. If it comes at the wrong time, you have a light crop.”

On the other hand, he said the rain itself is like giving a shot of vitamin B-12 to the fruit. “It’s a jolt of energy. We may see this year a size up across the board,” he said, meaning individual fruit could be, on average, a size larger than last year.

While there has been some stone fruit production in April over the last couple of years, this year experts are predicting a more normal pattern, with mid-May arriving before a plethora of fruit hits the market. But from about May 15 on, supplies should be fairly steady with many promotional opportunities.

Wayne Brandt, president of Brandt Farms Inc. in Reedley, CA, told The Produce News April 25 that while some packers were putting a few nectarines in cartons this week, in general “we are five to seven days later than last year.” He acknowledged that production has come early the last couple of years, but hesitated to label this year as normal.

“What’s normal anymore?” he asked.

As far as promotable volume is concerned, he expects strong volume by the third week in May and noted that the firm has committed shipments to several retailers for Memorial Day weekend ads.

Brandt, who has been involved in the California stone fruit deal for many years, believes the decline in acreage that has been occurring over the last decade has stopped. Noting that without the marketing order, which was eliminated several years ago, there is no firm accounting of acreage, but it appears to him that equilibrium has been reached with regard to orchards being pulled and those being planted.

He added that the main crops growers were transitioning to — most notably almonds and Mandarins — appear to have waned in popularity as production has caught up with demand.

All in all, Brandt is anticipating a fairly good California stone fruit year with good demand, especially in the foreseeable first half of the season. By July, he said fruit production from other eastern production areas could have an impact on the supply-demand curve.

Jeannine Martin, director of sales at Giumarra Bros. Fruit Co. Inc. in Reedley, CA, concurred with Brandt’s assessment.

“We are going to start with white peaches on April 27, followed by yellow nectarines on May 1, white nectarines on May 10, and black and red plums by the middle of May,” she said April 25. “A survey of all the varieties coming up reveals that they will each be between four and nine days later than last year.”

Martin agreed that the Memorial Day weekend is about right as far as promotable volume for the whole spectrum of California stone fruits. However, what she is most excited about is Giumarra’s proprietary peaches and nectarines, which will hit the market mostly in the June-July time frame.

From France, these varieties will be marketed under the DulceVita brand. The Giumarra executive said they are very aromatic and sweet, with the brand name itself meaning “sweet life.”

This new line will be marketed in one-layer flats.

On the organic side, which is Homegrown’s forte, Paul said there probably will not be as many “promotional buys” as there were last year. Last year’s timing resulted in the bunching up of volume at various times during the season leading to a downward pressure on market price.

“I don’t see that happening this year,” said the veteran stone fruit salesman. “I expect the spread of volume to be more consistent.”

But Paul again cautioned about getting too far ahead of the game. “The season is like a book — it unfolds page-by-page. You can’t get ahead of the chapters.”

He did say the volume of organic production continues to grow as more and more growers and shippers add it to their lineup. But he then made an unabashed argument for using Homegrown Organic Farms for organic supplies rather than someone late to the dance.

“Some people added organics reacting to demand and wanted something else in their portfolio,” he said. “And then there are the purists who are in the deal from end to end and offer it year round. That level of commitment is what we do. It’s proactive vs. reactive.”

As far as the California apricot season is concerned, Jim Lucich, who handles sales for Blossom Hill Apricots in Patterson, CA, told The Produce News April 20 that harvest was less than two weeks away. “It’s looking like the first week of May, but it depends on the weather we get between now and then.”

He said no rain appeared to be in the forecast, which is a good thing. California has had lots of rain this year, which is good for the crops, but the timing can cause issues.

“It looks like there is a high-pressure system building, which should help us avoid any more rain,” said Lucich.

The weather also was heating up, which is exactly what the growers are looking for to increase the size of the fruit itself. Lucich said it appeared to be a fairly normal crop and he expects good supplies through most of May and all of June, with production winding down around July 1.

Because Chilean stone fruits finished up, for the most part, before California’s shipments are getting under way, Lucich said there has been a bit of a gap in supplies in apricots and the other stone fruits, which should lead to good demand at the consumer level.

Retailers, he said, are also looking for some new commodities to promote, which, he believes, bodes well for this year’s stone fruit crop.