As peach acreage drops, price for growers rebounds

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comDecember 20, 2012 

As disheartened peach growers continue to rip out their trees, prices continue to climb for those who remain rooted in the fickle industry.

Peach-processing giant Seneca Foods recently agreed to pay $350 a ton for clingstone peaches, up from $317 last year. The California Canning Peach association, which is still in negotiations with several major processors, happliy approved the deal just last week.

"For us it means if we get through the winter good we should have a profitable crop," said Glenn Arnold, a peach farmer near Delhi. "Fuel, labor, basically everything -- the price hasn't kept up with that. This is going to really help us out."

At the same time, the Canning Peach Association reported roughly 10 percent of the bearing acreage statewide for clingstone peaches has been yanked out of production after this year's harvest.

"To me it seems like a dying industry," said Robert Chad, a former peach farmer outside of Livingston. "I mean, who eats canned peaches anymore?"

He said he stopped growing peaches several years ago when the price was under $300 a ton. "Low production, low prices and labor issues, we were losing money. We'd been growing peaches for almost 20 years, but we kept reducing the acreage."

In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, including Merced and Stanislaus counties, about 8.2 percent of bearing acres for clingstone peaches, or 667 acres, have been pulled out of production this fall, according to industry figures.

Many environmental factors can significantly compromise a peach harvest, said Maxwell Norton, University of California Cooperative Extension adviser.

"For tree fruit you need to have a greater net profit than you do raising tree nuts because growing tree fruit is so much more risky," he said. "The biggest risk of all is not being able to find enough labor during harvest. Peaches, when they're ripe, you have very few days to harvest."

You can lose significant tonnage if they see rain close to harvest, as well as sustain damage from hail or frost, he added.

"So many trees have been pulled out that it appears that the processors are responding by increasing the price that they're offering," Norton said. "By increasing that price, they're hoping more people will keep more trees in the ground."

Arnold said he's clinging to his peaches for now. While a recent late-season hail storm missed his trees, he said they got hit with frost damage.

"I was happy when I heard the price because it's a fair price," he said. "A hail storm can take your whole crop in two minutes. If you don't get compensated adequately for the risk, you might switch to an alternative."

In 2002, 559 tons of clingstone peaches were delivered to processors in California. In 2011, that number was 391, according industry figures.

From 2000 to 2005, clingstone peaches fetched between $230 and $240 a ton for California farmers. Since 2006, prices have continued to steadily increase.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 835-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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