Members of the California prune industry have begun meeting monthly to address market uncertainty created by trade barriers, increasing world production and the global economic crisis.

The initial purpose was to find solutions that prevented growers and packers from reaching a field price agreement in 2008.

Strong participation from both packers and growers has resulted in several joint initiatives, including working together to mitigate the European import duty on California prunes, says Greg Thompson, general manager of the Yuba City, Calif.-based Prune Bargaining Association.

The groups also have increased communication and participation among smaller packers in price negotiations.

“Packers and growers face new pressures,” Thompson says. “California shipments are down 7,000 tons or 10 percent year-to-date at a time when market conditions should have been favorable. Growers and packers are working together to overcome adversity.”

Unfair trade barriers have caused part of the market imbalance, according to a news release.
In 2003, South America gained free trade access to Europe, funding increased prune production. 

Since then, production in South America has grown from 64,000 tons to an estimated 105,000 tons this year.

“They have an unfair advantage in Europe since they have zero duty while we face a 10percent tariff,” Thompson says.  

He blames the economic crisis for the problem.

“This year some of the key markets for South America have suffered large economic setbacks,’ Thompson says.

Due to reduced world trade, expected demand on the California crop may only be about 120,000 tons compared with 134,000 tons forecast by the Prune Marketing Committee last year. 

“Growers are watching to see how the fruit will set after last month’s bloom,” Thompson says. “If the set is heavy, growers can have significant impact on crop tonnage through pruning, thinning, and harvest screening.”

Growers are encouraged to talk with the packers who buy their crops about their needs for the coming year.

"Given the current situation, growers should be prepared to keep production in line with the market through cultural practices," he says.