Ag at Large: Prunes regain homey identity

Prunes regain their identity as they were called “dried plums” for the last 20 years. FILE PHOTO

Once again, in mixed company it will be okay to call a prune a prune. Almost 20 years ago, the people who grow them, dehydrate, package and sell them believed a name change to “dried plum” was going to ensure an exciting new future for the fruit. The market, which seems to have a mind of its own, enjoys calling them “prunes.”

I didn’t ask who they talked to about making the original change, but my age made me skeptical at the time. Elder citizens in particular are familiar with prunes and why they buy them and enjoy them. They are unlike younger customers, many of whom seem to enjoy embracing anything new if it is bright and sparkly,

Prunes, of course, are anything but bright and sparkly.  As they grow on trees –– most of them in the Sacramento Valley –– the plums waiting to be converted to prunes are bright, tasty and juicy, Once harvested, mostly by large shakers that attach to the tree’s trunk, they are destined for a near 20-hour trip through a gas-fired dehydrator which replaces their brightness with wrinkles and a soft, sweet texture that senior citizens often rave about.

While the name on the package changed, the fruit inside did not. Growing, harvesting, dehydrating and packaging remained the same. Consumers, for the most part, didn’t seem to change either. They continued to ask for their prunes, probably causing confusion among younger supermarket workers who knew only that they had stocked adequate supplies of dried plums.

Reclaiming the identity for prunes is more than an incidental event. The campaign designed by the California Prune Advisory Board was reported in detail in the March 16 issue of Western Farm Press. It revealed that the prune board will launch a full-fledged campaign to re-establish the prune name, including a smashing announcement in May at the World Nut and Dried Fruit Congress meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. on May 23-25. A brand new logo will be introduced there.

The Prune Advisory Board, located in Sacramento, operates as a marketing agreement, meaning that all prune growers contribute to its program, along with other basic handlers and members of the industry. Consequently it is closely in touch with conditions in the industry, from crop size and condition to consumer attitude, responses and sales volume.

Executive Director of the advisory board for the past eight years is Donn Zea. He says the renaming of the fruit is part of the organization’s expanding portfolio of health and nutrition research.  That includes recent discoveries of how important it is to maintain gut health.  Recent findings “continue to give us cachet in the scientific community,” he told prune growers at a recent meeting.”

More than bells and whistles, the new campaign is based on solid dietary research. Recent findings show that a regular diet of prunes helps people achieve their recommended fiber intake levels and that eating five prunes a day may help slow, even prevent, bone loss.

One aspect of prune production that promotion and name changes can’t influence is the tendency of the trees to produce unpredictable tonnages from year to year. A crop of 80,000 tons last year was down 24 percent from 105,000 tons the year before.Industry leaders consider production in 2016 a crop failure, leading to an overload on the trees in 2017.

Rather than “messing” with mother nature and her determination of crop size, California’s prune industry will try to make the most of what she offers –– unless it’s another name change for this wrinkled delicacy.

Don Curlee
Don Curlee is your man when it comes to Agriculture. His Ag Alert column in our publication is sure to inform you on what you need to know when it comes to the agricultural industry.