With an estimated crop double the size of last year's, California apricot growers say some of their fruit will go unsold, as demand for the product continues to shrink and they remove more acreage.
"This year will really tell the tale if we are going to have a commercial apricot industry in the future or not," said Bill Ferreira, president of Apricot Producers of California.
Ferreira acknowledged that he's been warning about the disappearance of California apricots for at least 25 years, but he described this year as "critical," with the loss of another cannery and what he predicts will be "a very large tree removal" at the end of the season.
Fruit processor Seneca Foods closed its Modesto plant last year, but growers didn't have much of a crop to sell—about 23,000 tons, Ferreira estimated. With a more-robust crop this year, growers who lost their Seneca contracts have been scrambling to find new homes for their fruit, he said, adding that he expects several thousand tons of apricots will go unsold this year.
That is unusual, he noted, as production has become so small. Not only has California acreage dwindled, but growers produced "some very short, erratic crops" the last five years, he said.
Because production has been so inconsistent in recent years—mostly due to lack of chilling and other weather-related issues—Ferreira said demand for apricots has seen "a drastic reduction," as buyers went away or turned to cheap imports. Foreign competition, especially dried apricots from Turkey, has been a huge problem for years, he noted.
"You're getting to that point where there's just not many markets open to us anymore," he said
Apricots used to represent more than 90% of what Yolo County farmer Stan Lester grew. Now his main crop is walnuts, with apricots accounting for less than 1% of his production. He and other growers say the labor-intensive nature of apricots—with high pruning, thinning and hand-harvesting costs—has been a major reason for moving away from them. Growing apricots is also very risky, Lester said, as the trees need more chill hours than other stone fruit and often face inclement weather during bloom that could wreck fruit set.
What has allowed him to continue growing apricots is his ability to use them in value-added products, such as at Lester Farms Bakery in Winters for pies and other baked goods. Lester sells some apricots fresh and dries the remainder for year-round use at the bakery.
"It's definitely a niche crop," he said.
Most of the state's production still goes to processing—for canning, freezing, drying, preserves, jams and baby food—although fresh-market use has grown in recent years, as processors lose markets and take less fruit, Ferreira said.
The dominant variety remains the Patterson, harvest of which begins this week. The Patterson goes into processing and the fresh market, with about 75% of state acreage devoted to the variety. Despite its versatility, growers who raised the Patterson for processing likely won't be able to sell into the fresh market this year, said Dave Santos, a grower and packer in Stanislaus County.
He said not only are fresh-market prices lower this year because of an oversupply, but the market is also saturated with fresh peaches and nectarines. The main reason he said he turned away growers who don't have a home for their fruit is because processing apricots tend to be too small for fresh-market packing.
What would help, Santos said, is for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has promised to buy some surplus fruit, to act more quickly. Ferreira said USDA is set to announce this week how much it will buy.
Even though apricots have been "in the family" for nearly 100 years and he will continue to grow them, Santos said he plans to pull out some trees this year and plant either cherries or more almonds. To reduce employment costs and improve efficiency in his packing shed, he said the company invested in new technology that grades defects in the fruit. In the field, he's changed how the trees are planted, keeping them small for easier picking.
San Joaquin County grower Bill Koster said he used to sell his fruit to Seneca and said he was fortunate enough to be picked up by other processors—a freezer and a baby-food maker in Oregon. He said the $600 a ton he's earning for the fruit allows him to make money, if only the processors would take his whole crop, but his excess tonnage will likely not be sold.
"It's getting to the point where the canneries don't want it and the dry yards can't afford it," Koster said. "It's going to be a make-or-break year. Are we going to grow or are we going to fold?"
Jeff Simonian of Fresno County-based Simonian Fruit Co., which grows and packs only for the fresh market, said his season typically runs until late May, but it ended early this year because it "wasn't worth picking" much of his crop, a large percentage of which was damaged by storms last month.
Although he reduced his apricot acreage by half from earlier levels, he's kept it steady in the last five years. He said he would like to plant more apricots but said there aren't many "new and exciting varieties" that have caught his eye.
"Because there's not as much demand for it, breeders are not giving it much attention," he said.
Stanislaus County grower Daniel Bays, who grows the Patterson variety for canning, freezing, juicing and drying, said he will have more fruit than he has contracts for. He said he had hoped processors would take advantage of the bigger crop this year and buy "a little extra in case we don't have a crop next year," but noted they don't like to hold inventory.
Bays said he intends to remove some older orchards and plant something else, probably almonds, and further shrink his apricot acreage. He said he thinks other growers in a similar situation will do the same.
"As farmers, we look at the risk you take versus the return," he said. "With the apricot, it's not pulling that great of a return versus the risk you've got to put up with."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.