Central Valley

Fruit trees have fallen out of favor

A blossom trail of a different sort greeted motorists recently along Willow Avenue north of Shepherd Avenue -- flowering fruit trees lying on their side, roots in the air.

"We're tired of losing money" was how Pat Ricchiuti, a past Fresno County Farm Bureau president, explained why he felled the trees at that location and others in Fresno and Madera counties for a total of 400 acres.

He's not alone.

In recent months, farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley have removed thousands of acres of fruit trees. The exact number won't be known for about six weeks until an industry group releases its estimate.

Farmers cited a bigger-than-expected harvest last year that drove down prices, and many said they may replant with crops that are less labor-intensive.

It's common practice for growers of peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots to periodically remove some trees that have fallen out of favor with shoppers and replace them with trees that bear fruit more in vogue.

But it appears more growers are not replanting tree fruit. And some are leaving the cleared acreage fallow until they can come up with a viable alternative crop and afford to plant it.

"We're not getting support from consumers or retailers, and there are too many imports coming in to compete for shelf space," said Ricchiuti, general manager of P-R Farms in Clovis.

Ricchiuti said that last year farmers sold 28-pound boxes of red and black plums for $7 to $8 a box or about 25 cents a pound, while the fruit sold for $1.99 or $2.99 a pound in the stores. He said farmers just aren't getting a decent return for their crop.

Barry Bedwell, who heads the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said so many trees were taken out in recent months that, for a time, biomass plants, which burn chipped wood, could not accommodate the volume. Growers were given a variance that allowed them to temporarily burn wood.

"A third of tree fruit growers lost money last year, a third made no money and broke even and another third made money," Bedwell said. "Some started pulling out orchards right after the season ended."

Bedwell said the scale of pullouts is not unprecedented.

"We go through these cycles," he said. "Economics dictate that acreage has to be less, and farmers react to that."

Between 1974 and 2006, bearing acreage of California nectarines rose from 10,928 to 36,900 acres. In the same period, the acreage for plums rose from 24,524 to 36,000, and for peaches it rose from 21,161 to 36,000.

Ricchiuti still farms about 1,000 acres of tree fruit. His is a highly diversified operation that includes almonds and citrus, and he has not decided what he will plant in place of the trees removed.

But like other farmers, he is weighing his options. One is commercial development.

He said he plans to put a shopping center on 20 acres at the northwest corner of Shepherd and Willow avenues.

"We're just in talks on that now," he said. "We're going to try to maintain ownership of the shopping center and will build it from the ground up."

Ricchiuti is no stranger to developers, most notably home builders. He has sold thousands of acres of farmland for housing in the Clovis area, using much of the money to buy farmland outside urban centers. Yet, for now, he said, "with housing being depressed, farmers don't have the option of selling land for houses any more."

Bountiful crop

Bedwell said the 2007 harvest helped compound problems.

Estimates for last year's harvest called for 50.5 million boxes of California peaches, plums and nectarines to be shipped in 2007, but "it ended up at 55.6 million boxes," said Sheri Mierau, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement in Reedley, which represents growers of those fruits.

Those figures do not include other stone fruit -- including apricots and pluots -- that vie for shelf space in supermarkets.

Led by Fresno and Tulare counties, California's growers produce nearly 95% of the nation's nectarines and plums and 60% of its peaches.

Most of the Valley's tree fruit production can be found within a 20-mile radius of Reedley, including orchards in Dinuba, Kingsburg, Selma, Parlier and Sanger, said Gary Van Sickle, director of research and regulatory compliance with the California Tree Fruit Agreement.

Van Sickle said the region's thriving commercial tree fruit industry dates back to the 1920s. Twenty years ago, California -- largely because of the Valley -- displaced South Carolina as the nation's leader in production of peaches.

"In the early 1980s, people there were going out of business, the next generation didn't want to farm," Van Sickle said. "At that point, we expanded."

Adapting

Mierau said she expects retailers this year will "look to do more promotional activity" to sell extra fruit to consumers.

And Dale Jansen, director of industry relations with the Tree Fruit Agreement, said he is seeing more grafting of trees this year, which temporarily cuts production from those trees receiving the graft. The procedure is another way growers respond to changing market demand.

"Everybody routinely goes through some process of elimination of varieties that are too old or out of favor with shoppers," said Jerry DiBuduo with Ballantine Produce of Reedley and Sanger. "But this year, grafting and pullouts are at a greater percentage."

For example, he said, exports of white-fleshed peaches and nectarines are not as hot as they once were.

Not all growers are cutting back on tree fruit acreage.

Gerawan Farming in Reedley, for example, actually is planting more fruit trees -- as well as grapevines, said Steve Boos, ranch manager for Gerawan. Gerawan, which grows, packs and ships fruit, is a major player in the tree fruit industry, and Boos said its size enables it to better weather economic setbacks.

"We have the packinghouse and do our own marketing. We're vertically integrated," he said. "The individual farmer has to pay somebody to pack and market."

Rick Schellenberg, a Reedley farmer, said he is "taking out my tree fruit as fast I can afford to replace it with something else."

He has grown tree fruit for 25 years and at one time had 600 acres. Now, he has about 120 acres of tree fruit. He has converted land to grow a table grape, a mutation on which he obtained a patent, and mandarin oranges.

Schellenberg said neighbors who were small growers -- people with 20, 40, 60 acres -- made a good living.

"They're all gone now," he said. "They ended up having to sell to the large packinghouses."

What to plant?

Schellenberg said that the proliferation of new varieties and imports that keep fruit on market shelves year-round also has hurt the domestic industry.

"People used to wait with bated breath for that first peach," he said. "Now, there's not the excitement."

Shoppers have many more choices today.

"The produce pie is getting larger," Rick Johnson, director of produce and floral for Food Maxx, told a gathering of citrus growers recently.

Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the Perishables Group, an Illinois-based consulting firm, said there are 600 produce items in stores today, compared to half that number a decade ago.

Yet production costs continue to climb.

Tree fruit requires considerable hand labor, and that has sent some growers -- worried about the availability of workers and the cost of labor -- in search of competitive alternatives.

Gordon Wiebe, another Reedley grower, planted 50 acres of olive trees that can be mechanically harvested for oil.

"We started looking at olives because of the labor issues," Wiebe said, adding that -- when it comes to tree fruit -- "we're working harder and harder, spending more and more and getting less and less."

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