History of the Prune

   

Credit for this artical goes to Christian AMBLARD
Comité Economique du Pruneau, 
and the California Prune Board

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   HISTORY OF THE PRUNE INDUSTRY

What is a Prune?

Plum comes from Latin a prunum, a "plum." Prunum was borrowed into the Germanic languages at a very early date, before the Anglos and Saxons settled in Britain.

Thus, these orchards produce fruit with maximum flavor, ideal fruit size, fine texture, high sugar content, and smooth small pits - all characteristics inherent in high quality dried plums.

Dried plum varieties can be dried without fermenting while still containing the pits. This is not true of all varieties of plums. The California dried plum is an offshoot of La Petite d'Agen, a native of Southwest France. At maturity, it has a royal purple outer skin and amber cplored flesh.

Today, there are more than 80,000 high production acres concentrated in the Sacramento, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Napa and San Joaquin Valleys. Currently, these acres produce more than twice as many dried plums as the rest of the world combined: approximately 99 percent of the U.S. supply and 70 percent of the world supply.

California’s rich valley soil, the long, warm growing season, an abundant supply of irrigation water and the application of the most modern agricultural practices, enable the fruit to reach full maturity on the trees under continuous ideal growing conditions. Thus, these orchards produce fruit with maximum flavor, ideal fruit size, fine texture, high sugar content, and smooth small pits — all characteristics inherent in high quality dried plums.

Other commercial varieties produced in California are Imperials, Robes de Sergeant, Sugar, and other varieties, all of which constitute less than one percent of the state's production.

Dried Plum History

Dried plums are a fruit with an ancient heritage. Western Asia, more specifically an area near the Caucasus Mountains bordering the Caspian Sea, is the recorded point of origin. From there, dried plums were carried westward and eventually found their way into South Central, Western Europe and the Balkans where they have thrived ever since.

Plum trees were introduced to North American soil in 1856 by Louis Pellier. Pellier was a French nurseryman who came to California in 1848 in search of gold. After his unsuccessful mining venture, he purchased land in the fertile Santa Clara Valley (1850) and went back into the nursery business. His brother, Pierre, joined him in 1851, and in 1854 Pierre returned to France to secure a variety of fruit cuttings for nursery stock.

The original d'Agen plum graft stock was in the selection he brought back to California in 1856. By 1900, dried plum orchards in California covered approximately 90,000 acres.

The Search For Gold (1850-1870)
Gold in California - a shout which was answered by thousands of men; men ill-prepared to turn from their professions or trades to the back bending work of gold panning; men who met disappointment, not success, in the hardships of the Western Gold Rush.

Although failure to find hidden riches came to many in the gold fields, there were those among the newcomers who found a different kind of gold. Men of agriculture, whose hands knew the feel of a plow far better than the unfamiliar miner's pan, caught the scent of the soil and the wealth which lay beneath the furrow. Louis Pellier was one such man. A French vineyardist, he recognized that California had a wealth of land for the taking, and in 1850 he acquired a tract of rich top soil near Mission San Jose. He called his small kingdom Pellier's Gardens. Here, where the warm sun brought to life the growing seasons, Louis began experimenting with the growing of dried plums which established the famous and profitable California dried plum industry.

Louis Pellier was not a novice as an orchardist. He had lived in a country famous for the Pruneaux d' Ente, grown in the Agen district of his homeland. New challenges beset him in this land which he farmed with his brother, Pierre, and together the men struggled to find an orchard crop suited to this undeveloped valley soil. Pierre left the raw West for a visit to his native France and returned in the year 1856 bringing his new wife. Before leaving the District of Agen, he carefully packed choice cuttings of the famous dried plum known throughout Europe. After months of travel the carefully tended shoots arrived at their new home and the brothers hastened to graft the cuttings on wild plum trees which grew in the valley. As the seasons turned, the patient work of the Pellier brothers began to bear fruit and a great industry was born, an industry from which the bulk of today's dried plum crop is derived making California the largest dried plum producing area in the world.

The California Boom (1870-1890)
By 1870, there were 650 acres of plum trees (the variety which can be dried) in the State of California. Development of the California dried plum industry was slow until the mid-1880's when a glut of the principal fruits, apples and pears, prompted growers to look for alternatives. Noting the growing imports of dried plums from Europe, which had reached as high as 22,000 tons one year during the 1870's, growers rapidly shifted their plantings to plums.

Supporting this growth were nurserymen like California's own Luther Burbank who filled a rush order for 20,000 plum trees by introducing the technique of June budding. The tremendous growth of the industry would not have been possible without the favorable environment of California's valleys, with their ideal climate, soil and water.

Impetus for dried plum sales growth came from the opening of the trans-continental railroad in 1869 which expanded markets for dried fruits in the more populous Midwest and East. The continuing Western population migration also fueled sales growth in the West. California succeeded in displacing imported dried plums which reached a high of 46,000 tons in 1887.

The expansion of California dried plum acreage caused an increase in dried plum processing plants since plants had to be within horse-and-wagon hauling distance of growers. There were an estimated 85 dried plum packing plants spread throughout the California growing area in 1900.

The California Bust 1890-1920
Following rapid expansion and profitability of the late 1880's and 1890's, the industry was faced with overplanting and overproduction. By the turn of the century crop acreage had extended itself to 90,000 acres in the California valleys. This led to an oversupply situation which was compounded by the large number of dried plum sellers who had no coordination in their marketing efforts.

In 1905, one grower thought he had the answer to rising labor costs. He would import workers that required room and board, but no pay! He brought 500 monkeys to the Santa Clara Valley from Panama to pick plums. Organized into gangs of 50, with a human foreman overseeing each crew, the monkeys were set loose into the fields to scamper up the trees and do their work. Unfortunately, although the monkeys picked the fruit according to plan, the grower never saw the harvest since the monkeys ate the fruit as fast as they could pick them, with nothing left over.

In the early 1900's, quality standards were non-existent. Eastern packers bought 100-pound bags of natural condition dried plums, packed them and sold them in competition with California dried plum packers. Their quality was usually lower, as were their prices, which created havoc in the marketplace.

Quality problems overseas were even greater as both standard and substandard natural condition dried plums were shipped to Germany where packing plants sometimes blended sub standard dried plums into their regular packs and even blended in French and Yugoslavian dried plums. These were still sold as California dried plums to the frustration of California exporters.

This led in 1908 to the organization of the Dried Fruit Association of California (now the DFA of California) to deal with sales contracts, transportation, pure food laws and legislation. Later, the DFA set up an independent inspection service to certify the condition of dried fruit on the dock before shipment. While this change initially met resistance from importers, it was adopted and resulted in much better protection for California packers.

Technological and Product Innovation (1920-1940)
While dried plum processors once acclaimed California dried plums as being dried in God's pure air and sunshine, sun drying of dried plums was converted to mechanical dehydration with the development of commercial dryers in the 1930's.

In 1932, prune juice was introduced after several years of development and testing. The following year, tenderized dried plums, a high-moisture, tender fleshed product packed in cartons, were introduced. This was the beginning of the movement by the industry to sell softer, moister, ready-to-eat dried plums. In early 1934 the industry's first automatic bulk pack line consisting of an automatic wax paper liner inserter, an automatic scale and box filler, and an automatic lidder were introduced.

World War II (1940-1946)
When Adolf Hitler came into power in Germany, trading policies changed dramatically with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria becoming the beneficiary of declining California dried plum imports. In 1940 the rest of Europe began to curtail dried plum purchases with devastating results on the industry.

With the drop in export demand, the industry turned to developing the domestic market. In March 1940, radio, newspaper and magazine advertising were launched featuring consumer contests. Service men were hired to encourage retailers to build dried plum displays.

The onset of World War II in December 1941 stimulated the heaviest buying of dried fruit in history. This period was not without problems; however, as there were farm labor shortages, limited inventories of farm equipment and supplies and rising costs. In March 1943, dried fruits were added to the list of rationed foods, which prompted many American housewives to discontinue their purchase of dried plums with their limited ration points.

The Creation of the California Dried Plum Board and Industry Technological Advancements (1947-1960)
California Dried Plum Board
Following World War II, to deal with the oversupply problem, the industry turned to variations of pre-war programs. It adopted the Federal Marketing Agreement and Order for dried plums in August 1949 to establish volume and quality controls. The State Marketing Order for California Dried Plums followed in January 1952. This resulted in the creation of the California Dried Plum Board whose mission is to expand worldwide demand for dried plums through trade promotion, consumer advertising, education and research. Both programs have operated continuously ever since.

Technological Advancements
Plantings peaked at 171,330 acres in 1929. The increased food requirements of World War II kept dried plum acreage stable at about 139,000 acres, but by 1951 acreage had dropped to 107,000 acres. Major changes to the industry followed as urbanization pushed orchards out of the Santa Clara Valley. Prior to World War II, there were two methods of harvesting this fully tree ripened fruit. The fruit could either drop naturally or the branches would be gently shaken with poles. Of course, the ground around the trees was prepared to make it as soft as possible for the falling fruit. Pickers then gathered them and placed them in lug boxes, being careful not to bruise or break their skins.

However, rising labor costs prompted the industry to replace lug boxes with bulk bins for both fresh and dried plums about 1946. Mechanical bin dumpers followed as did adaption of warehouses to bin storage, which allowed the process to be totally mechanized. It was at this time that a variety of shakers (cable, pneumatic, hydraulic and mechanical) and harvesters (pick-up machines, tractor-drawn, self-propelled catching frames) were introduced.

A Time of Change (1960-1970)
The growth of high tech companies in the Silicon Valley forced agriculture to branch out to other areas of California. However, increased yield per acre in the Sacramento Valley more than offset the old orchards being pushed out of the Santa Clara Valley. In 1960, for the first time in history, Sacramento Valley dried plum production exceeded that of the Santa Clara Valley.

In addition to increased yields, in the early 1960's, a more attractive pitted dried plum was successfully test-marketed. Pitted dried plums are the most popular variety sold today.

Plum Good Marketing (1970-1990)
From 1975 through 1979 funding for marketing programs was discontinued. However, when faced with declining sales, the California Dried Plum Board resumed its marketing programs (advertising, display contests, recipe releases to food editors) which fueled both domestic and export sales recovery.

In 1985, the California Dried Plum Board launched a new positioning for California dried plums as the high fiber fruit in its advertising, sales promotion and public relations programs. This campaign capitalized on the multi-million dollar advertising efforts behind high fiber cereals which touted their ability to reduce the risk of cancer. "The High Fiber Fruit Campaign" plus increased handler marketing support contributed to four consecutive years of domestic shipment growth.

In September 1988, the first California Dried Plum Festival was held in Yuba City, which unofficially bills itself as the Dried Plum Capital of the World. This festival was so successful that it has become an annual event attracting over 30,000 people.

The Versatility of Dried Plums (1990- present)
During the 1990's the California Dried Plum Board began looking for other applications for dried plums. Research demonstrated that dried plum puree could be used as a successful fat-substitute in baking. Further research showed that dried plum puree (called Plum Juicy for meat applications) could be used as a meat-moisture enhancer. Plum Juicy enhances taste and increases juiciness in hamburgers, hotdogs and other meat products.

Throughout the 1990's there has been an increasing trend of dried plums on restaurant menus across the United States. Now more than ever, world-renowned chefs recognize and tout not only the well-known health benefits but also the great taste, texture and flavor of dried plums.

Fun Facts

Mighty California Dried Plums
California is the world's largest producer of dried plums, supplying 70 percent of the world's supply and 99 percent of U.S. supply.

Monkey Business
In 1905, a labor shortage in California resulted in farmers turning to monkeys to harvest dried plums.

The Dried Plum Capital of the World
Yuba and Sutter counties are home to one-third of the plum acreage in California. In 1988, Yuba City, Calif., started the annual California Dried Plum Festival where 30,000 visitors learn about the dried plum industry and taste famed recipes like Dried Plum Chili and Dried Plum Ice Cream.


A Golden Dried Plum
In 1856, during the Gold Rush, the La Petite d'Agen plum was brought from France to California by brothers Louis and Pierre Pellier. The plant was grafted with the wild American Plum and the California dried plum was born.

A Whole Lot of Dried Plums
The La Petite d'Agen of plums have a high sugar content that allows them to fully ripen on the tree without fermenting around the pit. Each tree produces up to 300 pounds of fruit. It takes three pounds of the fresh fruit to make one pound of dried plums.

 

From Plum to Package

Growing
Ordinarily, a dried plum tree starts to bear fruit four to six years after planting and reaches its full production capacity (150 to 300 pounds of raw fruit per year) some time between its eighth and 12th year in the ground. The orchards will then continue to bear fine quality fruit on a commercial basis for about 30 years. The plum tree is deciduous and goes dormant during the winter months. It is at this time that the grower cuts back and prunes each tree to regulate shape, control fruit size and maintain a healthy growth pattern.

While much of the nation still shivers under a blanket of snow, Springtime literally explodes in the California valleys. Blossoms burst in orchards stretching over more than 80,000 acres, producing a fragrant mantle of white as far as the eye can see. The blossoms last for about a week, and as they fall, white translates to a deep chartreuse as the new fruit begins to form and the leaf buds burst.

It is at this time that irrigation has to take over for natural rainfall, California valleys have a Mediterranean-type climate that confines its total rainfall to the late fall, winter and early spring months. Only rarely does it rain during blossom time or thereafter. While this necessitates the inconvenience and added expenses of irrigation, it also contributes to fruit quality assurance. California plum growers can plan and execute irrigation programs to eliminate the "chance" element inherent in an agricultural operation that is dependent on natural rainfall. In this way, the trees are given just the amount of water they need to augment the available ground water.

Harvesting
By mid-August, the orchards are ready for harvesting, which generally takes about 30 days. The predeterminant of harvest time for dried plums is ripeness, in that they are one of the few fruits allowed to fully ripen on the tree before they are picked for processing. Fruit firmness and natural sugar content determine the picking date.

Today, most of California's dried plum production is harvested by machine. In this process, a mechanical shaker takes hold of a main limb or the trunk (a fabric catching frame is spread under the tree) and in a matter of seconds the fruit is shaken off the tree and transferred via conveyor belt into bins in which carry the fruit to the dehydrator.

Due to the ever-increasing industry emphasis on fruit quality, the historical method of allowing fruit to ripen and drop before gathering has disappeared. Formerly, the ground under the tree was smoothed and the soil pulverized to a powder to provide a soft blanket to catch the fruit as it fell. Then the fruit was gathered and taken to the dehydrator. This method required three to four "pickings" to completely strip an orchard of its fruit and is now obsolete.

Drying
Immediately after the harvesting, the orchard-ripe fruit is taken to the dehydrator yard where it is washed, placed on large wood trays and dehydrated in a series of scientifically controlled operations that are fully automated, strictly sanitary and highly efficient. Here, super-sensitive thermostats take over and produce the uniform high quality dried plums that California is known for. This is where three pounds of fresh fruit become one pound of dried plums.

Packing
From the dehydrator, the dried plums go to modern packing plants where they are graded for size, inspected and put into storage to await final processing and packaging. Since dried plums store best when their moisture content has been reduced to about 21 percent, they are dehydrated to this degree immediately after picking. This is what is generally referred to as a "natural condition dried plum." The dried plums remain in cool storage facilities until they are needed for further processing.

Unlike a majority of other processed fruits, most dried plums are still packed to order. Once an order is received, the dried plums are rehydrated, sterilized, put through a final inspection and packaged for shipping. This procedure is followed whether the order is packaged in 25-or-30 pound bulk cases - or the one- or two-pound packages sold through the retail grocery outlets.