It’s evolution, natural selection, survival of the fittest.

Growers, packers, shippers and marketers come and go in the fresh produce industry. In my home state of California, there have been more departures, it seems, in the past year than in any other similar period in recent memory.

George Bros. Packing, Ito Packing, Sunny-Cal Farms, and now Ballantine Produce. All of them gone since the end of the 2008 tree fruit season, and there are likely others that have slipped into the shadows of my gray matter.

The reasons for the door shutting are many. The economy is to blame in part. Offshore competition played a role. And, yes, stone fruit grower-shippers overproduced the past two years.

Part of the dilemma, you see, is that teaching peach trees — or nectarine trees or plum trees — to produce only as much fruit as demand dictates is a skill the growers have yet to master. Then there are the breeders who develop new, better-tasting varieties that produce greater and greater yields.

Politicians far and wide are urging us to pull together to bail the country out of our national fiscal quagmire. The phrase “buy American” is sprinkled repeatedly throughout the rhetoric. Easy for them to say. They don’t face the challenges shouldered by retailers and foodservice operators. A nickel a pound can transform a regular customer into a former patron. Lowering margins can be the death knell for an entire chain.

We journalists are taught to be objective — not easy when we witness grown men and women cry. I’ve seen it numerous times in my San Joaquin Valley during the past six decades. For these folks, growing is not simply how they pay the bills. It’s a way of life. It’s their passion.

One grower told me he lost $1.5 million last year. Big deal. Shucks, General Motors can lose that much in an hour. To farmers, however, that’s serious money — regardless of whether the orchard is in the Southeast, the Midwest or the West. 

The first half-million or so cartons of California peaches have been shipped, and another 20 million will follow before the season winds down in the fall, according to the California Tree Fruit Agreement, Reedley. The first of some 19 million cartons of nectarines are hitting store shelves, and the plum harvest is on the launching pad.

The stone fruit harvest is under way, too, in Georgia and South Carolina. Michigan and Washington will join shortly.

If memory serves, stone fruit orchards are not listed in the Endangered Species Act. Tell that to the hundreds of former employees of George Bros., Ito Packing, Sunny-Cal and Ballantine. Tell that to shoppers a decade or so down the road when a few score more stone fruit grower-shippers have closed their doors — and when domestic peaches, plums and nectarines occupy smaller and smaller shelf space.

The Tree Fruit Agreement estimates the volume of California stone fruit will be down 10 million cartons — about 16% — from last year’s near-record deal. That translates to “adequate, promotable supplies throughout the season,” the staff said, and a more balanced supply-demand ratio.

Grower-shippers said they don’t expect to recapture the millions lost in 2007 and 2008. They just want to feed their families and to continue growing — to continue their passion. Sure beats watching grown men and women cry.

Far be it for me to understand politics. But this buy American lingo does pluck at the patriotic heart strings. Perhaps we are all in this together.