The dried fruit category continues to enjoy growth as industry associations communicate the high nutritional value of raisins, prunes, dates and dried cranberries and producers add to their product lines.

Foodservice products and promotions also are helping keep dried fruit in front of consumers with restaurant chains such as Wendy’s and McDonald’s offering salads and oatmeal with raisins and sweetened dried cranberries.

Paul DeFranco, co-owner of DeFranco & Sons, Los Angeles, said dried fruit is a small category but as health-conscious Americans increasingly embrace trail mix and similar snack options it will continue to grow.

With harvest having just begun in the last 10 days of September, the Cranberry Marketing Committee, Wareham, Mass., was sticking by earlier estimates of 7.36 million barrels for the 2011 U.S. crop. If the berries come in as expected, 2011 will be the second largest crop on record, behind the 2008 harvest of 7.6 million barrels.

The vast majority of the country’s cranberries are not sold fresh, but the marketing committee’s chief operating officer Michelle Hogan said the organization does not track how many go to the sweetened dried category.

Ocean Spray Co. put the sweetened dried cranberry on the map with its trademarked Craisins about 20 years ago. Now about 20% of Ocean Spray’s revenue comes from the sweetened dried cranberries, making them the fastest growing part of the company’s business. Ocean Spray produces about 2.8 million barrels of sweetened dried cranberries annually, according to spokesman John Isaf.

Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif., is giving the dried red berries another boost with a product announced Sept. 22. Part of its PowerMeal line, the Earthbound Farm Cranberry Wheat Protein Boost salad includes fresh organic greens along with the berries and whole grains.

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, Wisconsin Rapids, said Sept. 27 that the quality of the berries was looking very good but it was too early to tell about size because all of the varieties were not into harvest mode yet.

“Prices are showing good returns for the Ocean Spray growers so far,” Lochner said, “but there is a disparity between them and the independent growers. We’d like to see those prices come up.”

Although less than half of the state’s growers are in the Ocean Spray co-op Lochner said they account for about 65% of the Wisconsin crop. The state produces more than half of U.S. cranberries, with 438 million barrels anticipated this year.

Referred to as a “naturally dried fruit” by their growers, dates have a moisture content of about 30% at harvest. The 2011 crop in California is expected to come in at 122,000 dried tons, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service.

Lorrie Cooper, manager of the California Date Administrative Committee, Indio, said production out of the Coachella Valley was just more than 38 million pounds in 2010. This year they are predicting 45 million pounds, with similar growth expected in the coming years as additional acres come into production.

The Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association, Bard, Calif., projects a 10% to 15% increase in yields this year for a total crop of about 10 million pounds. There are about a dozen growers in the association, which accounts for 70% of the U.S. medjool date crop, according to Dave Anderson, marketing director.

Fresh medjool dates and deglet noor dates from California recently earned certification from the American Heart Association to carry the heart-check mark, signifying they meet nutritional guidelines set by the association for low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol.

June rains in California’s prune orchards aggravated problems some growers were having with brown rot, according to Joe Connell, University of California farm adviser. He said many orchards also suffered hail damage, which means more fruit will be going to less profitable juice processors instead of the fresh market.

The USDA’s crop prediction from NASS shows a 4% decrease for 2011 volumes of dried plums (prunes). That could help boost prices for the fruit, which has seen decreased demand in recent years.

Joe Bauer, director of Stapleton-Spence Packing Co., San Jose, Calif., said he expects about 120,000 tons this year, compared to the 170,000 tons harvested in 2010. It is an off-year for prune plums, which means the fruit is larger.

“We don’t have any idea on pricing yet. It’s too early to tell,” Bauer said Sept. 21.

Prices for raisins could be in the record range with the 2011 crop because of shrinking acreage and higher demand from the wine industry, which is increasing competition for thompson seedless grapes.

The Raisin Bargaining Association, Fresno, Calif., reported earlier this year that prices have nearly doubled since 2002 to a near-record high of $1,500 per ton. In late September, the Fresno Bee reported the pricing war had caused two raisin packers to increase prices to a record $1,700 per ton.

Weather stepped in to delay the California raisin-type grape crop by at least two weeks, according to the USDA. Early summer rains also created mildew problems in a number of vineyards. When NASS released its annual raisin grape objective measurement in August, it suggested a harvest of 2.05 million tons, down about 7% from the July forecast.

Raisin packers’ offers are at 14% more than they were for last year’s field price while winery offers are 20% more than last year, according to the bargaining association. However, if fall rains come too early, valuable crops could be left on the vine.

“Now the question is, can we get the crop in on time and without any major problems?” Glen Goto, association chief executive officer, said in a news release.