Last Sunday, this paper had an ad about the 50th anniversary of Mistlin Honda, an institution on the North McHenry auto row.
Paired with it was a reprint of The Modesto Bee’s front page from June 20, 1964. It featured a story on the summer fruit harvest, led by cling peaches bound for canneries.
“A ponderous monster is awakening in Stanislaus County,” the article read. “Like a huge grizzly bear coming out of hibernation, grumbling slightly, moving slowly as it fights off drowsiness from the winter’s layoff, the tree crop harvest moves unsteadily but assuredly into the life of Stanislaus County.”
The English major in me loves that language. But reading it 50 years later also brings a twinge of sadness, because the industry is nowhere near its size during the heyday.
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Cling peaches were the county’s No. 2 crop in 1964, according to its agricultural commissioner. The 256,000 tons brought $17.7 million in gross income to growers, trailing only the $29.9 million from milk.
Dairy remains on top today, but almonds and walnuts have far surpassed peaches among tree crops. Clings remain an important product, but the volume was down to 167,000 tons as of 2012. The Modesto area is at the heart of the reduced industry, with canneries owned by Del Monte Foods and Seneca Foods employing a few thousand people each summer.
Industry leaders have cited a few reasons for the decline. Peaches still need picking by hand, an especially tough job on a hot summer day when the fuzz hangs in the air. And the industry faces the perception that canned peaches are not as good as fresh. It has responded with campaigns pointing out that the fruit is picked ripe, unlike most of the fresh-market crop.
Studies have shown that the canning process seals in most of the nutrients. Just this week, the newsletter of the California Cling Peach Board told of Harvard University research on how peaches might reduce the risk of breast cancer. It did not matter if they were fresh, canned or frozen.
The industry also notes that canned peaches are convenient, affordable and available all year. The same goes for the canned tomatoes from our region, which are selling better than peaches.
Peach growers have ripped out much of the acreage to plant more profitable crops, notably the machine-harvested almonds and walnuts. This has helped to bring peach supply closer to demand, and to boost the average price per ton to growers. It will be $379 this year, based on negotiations with processors by the California Canning Peach Association, compared with $239 a decade ago.
There’s even talk of a shortage of peaches, and nurseries report increased sales of trees for future orchards. But it’s highly unlikely to match the industry of 1964.
That old front page also told of a riot in Harlem, an attack by the Viet Cong and a fire in Napa. Meanwhile, around Modesto people got to work on the peaches.
“The farmer will worry about weather and the labor supply,” the story said. “The thousands of housewives who supplement their income with cannery wages will worry whether the season … will last long enough that they might earn the extra money needed to replace the worn-out washing machine.”
The writer went on to say the industry “will have poured millions of dollars into the economy of the county in the form of wages to workers and for the purchase of supplies.”
The bear – one very fuzzy bear – had stirred.