Eric Spycher has started to harvest peaches for Modesto canneries that will employ a few thousand people into early fall.
The industry has shrunk over the past quarter-century, but Spycher sees a stable future if it can overcome challenges with consumer tastes, labor and other issues.
He grows peaches and almonds in the Ballico area of Merced County and is vice chairman of the California Canning Peach Association. His fruit goes to the Del Monte and Seneca canneries in Modesto and the Dole fruit-freezing plant in Atwater.
Spycher took time as his early varieties ripened to reflect on the state of the canned peach industry:
Q: What is the industry doing to increase demand?
For many years, U.S. consumption of peaches has been trending downward despite new products packed in new juices and syrups. Single-serve plastic cups and cans have been developed for on-the-go families, and most school children have been introduced to our product at their lunch counters. Our most recent focus has been on expanding the export market, much like nut crops have done. In 2013, peach farmers have assessed themselves 15 cents per ton to be used along with processors to open new markets overseas. Our hope is to move more products beyond our northern and southern borders.
Q: Do consumers see canned peaches as a nutritious food?
The short answer to this question is, yes! However, some consumers feel that fresh is better than canned in many commodities. When it comes to our product, a recent Oregon State University study shows that they are nutritionally on par with fresh peaches. In fact, canned product was found to have four times higher vitamin C and 1½ times higher antioxidants than fresh. To me, this study shows that canned peaches are healthy and available year-round with a low cost per serving.
Q: Could new packaging and other innovations help?
For many years, the canned peach industry sold the bulk of its crop in three sizes of cans. Over the past 10-plus years, other options have begun to emerge, such as plastic cups and bowls along with glass jars and, recently, large plastic bags. At the consumer level, we realize that new forms of packaging can only help with movement. However, there is only so much time at harvest for packaging different forms. This is where the large aseptically packaged plastic bags can help. They are able to hold large amounts of product to be repackaged in new forms after the rush of harvest.
Q: What are the main challenges for peach growers in and near Stanislaus County, such as labor, water and land prices?
I see labor as the No. 1 problem in the peach business because of both availability and cost. I'm not sure where the labor has gone, if it is competing crops, other industries, or if the job is just perceived as too difficult for this generation, but we are very short of the labor needed, especially at harvest. Water has become more of a problem even in our area recently, both with the shortage of district water and wells dropping. Land prices require a different area of expertise, but I don't believe they are sustainable.
Q: Do you see Modesto remaining a center of the industry for the long term?
At this time, Modesto is home to the only canning facility for two of the three big processors. Many believe that where the bricks and mortar are is where the industry will remain. There are two things that could change that. The first possibility for change comes with the age of trees in the area closest to Modesto. A large portion of trees in the surrounding area is close to or over the 20-year life span. The challenge is keeping peach farmers replanting peaches and not more profitable, less labor-intensive crops. When the fruit is gone, there is no need for canneries. The second problem would be to lose our business to overseas businesses. Buy American.
Q: Do you remember the industry's heyday and how important it was for the job market?
The peach industry has had more than one heyday. The first was in the 1960s and the second in the 1980s. I was born in 1962, so the 1980s were my heyday. On our family farm, we employed over double our current work force. Grading-receiving stations were much closer and more available, each with many employees. Bin manufacturers were busy, and can plants were local. Lots of equipment was purchased and rented for harvest, and most of all, there was excitement.
Q: What's your favorite way of eating canned peaches?
I have a couple of favorite ways. The first and most basic way is to keep a can in the refrigerator and enjoy it as a side dish at any meal. The second is as a dessert called peach Melba, which is made up of canned peaches and raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream. We first enjoyed this dessert at a neighbor's home, and it has since become one of our family's party staples.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.