By Hayley Boriss and Henrich Brunke, Agricultural Issues Center, University of California.
Revised May 2013 by Diane Huntrods, AgMRC, Iowa State University.
Prune trees were introduced to North America in 1856 when cuttings from France were planted in California (CDPB). In 1900, California prune orchards covered approximately 90,000 acres, and prune packing plants had spread throughout the state. Today, California produces 99 percent of U.S. prunes, or dried plums, and accounts for roughly 60 percent of world production (CDPB and PBA).
In 2012 prune-bearing acreage in the United States fell for the third year in a row, dropping to 55,000 acres. Some 395,000 tons of prune-variety plums were harvested and processed, down from 2011. The total value of production was more than $156.2 million, down 13 percent from the previous year. (NASS 2013)
The dried plum industry has experienced some variability in prices from year to year. The price for dried plums peaked at $1,500 per ton in 2004 and then again in 2008. In 2012, the average price for prunes dropped for the third year in a row, retreating to $1,250 per ton. (NASS 2013)
To moderate the effects of a heavy crop, smaller prunes than usual and possible economic loss, some California growers mechanically thin the fruit set by shaking the trees. They also adjust their equipment, leaving small prunes in the field during harvest.
The fresh fruit is mechanically harvested and dehydrated shortly after being harvested. Only specific varieties of plums can be dried and used without severe fermentation. “French prune,” a descendant of “La Petite d’Agen” variety, is the most prevalent variety. According to the CDPB, prune-making plums contain twice as much total sugar at harvest than other varieties of plums. This high sugar content permits plums to be dried without fermenting. In 2012 one ton of dried prunes was equivalent to 3.2 tons of fresh prune-variety plums (NASS 2013).
In 2001 the Food and Drug Administration agreed to officially re-identify prunes as dried plums after a request by the industry and the California Prune Board, which subsequently also changed its name to the California Dried Plum Board (CDPB). The name change was done in an attempt to overcome the negative perception of prunes being a laxative for the elderly. Prunes were heavily promoted in 1985 as a high-fiber fruit to capitalize on advertising efforts by cereal companies publicizing high-fiber diets as a preventative against cancer (CDPB). Today, marketing efforts by the CDPB still highlight the nutritional value of dried plums, noting that they are a large source of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Prune production is overseen by a federal marketing order approved in 1949 by the prune producers. The Prune Marketing Committee was created to provide enforcement of the provisions of the order, which include minimum grade and size standards as well as reserve pools. A separate organization, the CDPB, was created through a state marketing order for dried plums in an attempt to increase worldwide demand.
The dried plum industry chain is comprised of growers, processors and retailers. There are relatively few processors. The increased mechanization of the industry has led to a more concentrated processing sector responsible for the dehydration of dried plums in a processing facility rather than by the grower on the field.
Over half of the growers in California belong to Sunsweet Growers Inc. Sunsweet Growers Inc. is the U.S. industry’s largest and only producer-owned processing/marketing cooperative for dried plums. In addition, approximately 20 independent dried plum processors are in operation in California, a small number of whom process the majority of dried plums marketed by independent growers (PBA). The Prune Bargaining Association (PBA) was voluntarily developed to represent these independent growers in securing a selling price with independent processors.
Several factors have been shown to significantly influence the demand for dried plums. Some studies have reported that dried plum consumption is higher in older people, but it is unclear whether this trend is likely to continue. It has been suggested that older generations preferred dried plums because fresh fruit was not available year round. This would imply that younger generations accustomed to year-round fruit production are likely to consume fewer dried plums as they enter into older age. An alternative theory is that preference for dried plums increases with age, which would mean higher consumption rates would continue in future generations. Increased health consciousness could increase consumption of dried plums as diets continue to include more fruits and vegetables. Also, improvements in technology for pitting have increased the percentage of pitted dried plums sold for consumption from less than 2 percent in 1961 to 86 percent by 2004. Marketing efforts have focused on increasing the use of dried plums in a variety of baking and cooking practices.
Dried plums can be consumed as a healthful snack or can be used as a versatile cooking or baking ingredient. They provide potassium, copper, boron, iron, fibers, antioxidants, sorbitol and vitamins A and K. They can play an important role in promoting good digestive health. According to a study conducted by researchers from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences, polyphenols present in dried plums help bone formation and reduce the risk of osteoporosis (Reuters). Dried plums also aid in glucose metabolism and cardiovascular health and are found to have anti-tumor characteristics.
Over time, the dried plum industry has moved from the majority of the crop going into the domestic supply to an export-oriented industry, eventually making the United States the world’s largest exporter of dried plums. U.S. dried plums are currently exported to more than 70 countries (FAS).
In 2012, U.S. exports of prunes totaled nearly 69,900 metric tons (MT) and were valued at $176.8 million. The leading export market for U.S. dried plums that year was Japan, with shipments valued at nearly $33.8 million, followed by Germany, with shipments valued at nearly $28.8 million; Canada with shipments of more than $13.1 million; and Italy with shipments valued at nearly $11.3 million. (FAS)
U.S. dried plum imports have been negligible. However, imports sharply decreased from 2009 to 2010, dropping from 432.5 MT to 198.3 MT. By 2012, the volume of dried plum imports had rebounded, increasing 120 percent to nearly 400 MT. The United States purchases a majority of its imported prunes from Chile and Taiwan. (FAS)
Fruit and Tree Nuts, ERS, USDA.
Fruit and Tree Nuts Yearbook, ERS, USDA.
Global Ag Trade System (GATS), Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA.
Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), USDA.
Prune Bargaining Association (PBA).
Sunsweet Growers Inc. Dataweb.
Created December 2005 and revised May 2013.