Farm Beat: Apricot industry carries on in Stanislaus County

05/30/2014 6:25 PM

05/31/2014 11:15 AM

Apricots are just about right these days, whether you’re a fan of the springtime fruit or a grower in an industry that has struggled in recent years.

Growers say the state’s crop, most of it grown in Stanislaus County, looks and tastes fine despite the drought. The expected harvest of about 55,000 tons is less than half of what it was 20 years ago, but sales are picking up, said Bill Ferreira, president of Apricot Producers of California in Turlock.

“Our tonnage is reduced to the point where we have more demand than we have supply,” he said.

The industry’s troubles have not stopped the Patterson Apricot Fiesta from returning each year. The 44th version began Friday night and will run through Sunday, with a parade, pie-eating contest and plenty more.

If you can’t get to the West Side city, the heart of apricot production, you can find the fresh fruit into July at grocery stores, produce stands and farmers markets.

“They’re good and sweet,” said 6-year-old Zitlatly Naranjo after sampling apricots Thursday morning at the Modesto Certified Farmers Market.

The fruit, from DePalma Farms of Ripon, also impressed her mother, Araceli Juarez. “They’re not too sweet, and they’re not too sour,” she said.

The industry has shrunk from its heyday in the mid-20th century for several reasons: The fruit still is picked by hand, a cost not faced by growers of almonds, walnuts and wine grapes, which are all booming. Cheap imports cut into the dried apricot market. Canned apricots, mainly from the Del Monte and Seneca plants in Modesto, lost favor among consumers.

Apricots grew on just 10,800 acres in California in 2012, compared with 16,900 in 1990 and 32,600 in 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the reduced supply boosted prices for the farmers who remained – an average of $600 per ton in 2012, nearly doubled from a decade earlier.

Ferreira said growers are benefiting this year from a reduced supply of dried apricots from Turkey, a major producer. Over the longer term, they hope to boost the canned market by pointing out that the process seals in most of the nutrients, a claim backed up by several studies.

Growers this spring have not faced the harvest labor shortage of recent years, Ferreira said. He also said the crop is getting through despite the drought, as growers tap groundwater or try to buy surface water from others. He did note a concern about water in August, when the trees will need to start developing the 2015 crop.

Apricot demand is up in the fresh, canned, dried and frozen markets, Ferreira said, and the fruit has growing uses in yogurt and USDA-approved school meals.

The Patterson apricot variety remains a top seller. The DePalma Farms stand at the farmers market has a larger type called Poppy, employee Leticia Ruiz said.

“We were expecting a little less this year – quantity, flavor and sugar-wise – but they are doing very well,” she said.

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