Ag at Large: Seasonal favorites leave us in wraps

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Name a dozen or so of your California favorite fruits, nuts, vegetables, dairy products, poultry or fish and you may be surprised to learn how many are shipped to markets in canned, frozen or other processed form. Food processing is a big deal in the state.

And why not? What might be left to rot on the vine, so to speak, or cause price depressions because of oversupply or quality reduction, is being craftily preserved by canning, freezing or other treatment and utilized in the marketplace.

In a few cases, the processed form has become the volume leader over the fresh market variety, and nobody is a bit upset about it, especially consumers. Growers have adjusted by setting separate standards for the canned forms, working closely with those who wrap the commodities in tins, glass or closed packages and provide specialized transit to market.

Tomatoes are a prime example. Sure, you can find fresh market tomatoes anytime in every produce department and farmers market, some even at odd times of the season because they are grown in greenhouses, even hydroponically, without soil. Farmers take great pride in producing them and seeing them displayed appetizingly, but they don’t despair the majority of their crop that processors turn into catsup, sauce, whole fruit and dozens of other products.

If you enjoy plums as part of the summer menu of fresh fruit, you probably haven’t even tasted one of the varieties that are shaken from trees and dehydrated within hours to become prunes. Some still like to call them dried plums, rightfully so.

California’s fresh peach crop is huge, but a very small amount shipped fresh was composed of cling peaches. The majority of those were canned as whole peaches, halves, slices, dices or other formats. Clings can be found for fresh consumption, but in almost isolated cases or locations. Fans say they have a firmer, fresher taste and texture than their freestone cousins, but canning, freezing or dehydration consumes most of them.

A substantial portion of the cling peaches are canned as part of fruit cocktail, included with pears and cherries and sometimes another fruit or two. They add up to a substantial amount of the state’s processed peach crop.

Fresh strawberries are a seasonal item, something of a bellwether of summer. Standing by, however, are the canning, freezing and dehydrating specialists who buy from growers, often by pre-arranged contract, large volumes of the fruit for their customers. For them, the beauty of processed strawberries is their availability year around.

For many people, no other fruit has quite the flavor and freshness of apricots. “Cots” begin to soften shortly after they reach full ripeness. Even growers who concentrate on selling them in the fresh form usually count on diverting some of the crop to canners, freezers and other processors.

Some research has been aimed at developing varieties, particularly of apricots and cherries that maintain their freshness for extended periods, or will produce in climates warmer than their traditional locations. But, the canning-to-fresh ratio seems to remain steady.

California’s gigantic dairy production is a prime example of the diversification of the fresh product, milk, to derivatives of butter, cream, yogurt, and a huge selection of cheeses, many of them specialty or artisan varieties.

The economic outreach of the state’s food processing industry extends well beyond the Central Valley and other established growing areas. The leading county for food processing is Los Angeles, which enjoys a huge employment benefit.

Packaged fruit and vegetable products – canned, frozen, dehydrated, irradiated – extend the state’s marketing season and the influence and economic benefits of its native agriculture.

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.