History of Prunes in the Santa Clara Valley

From Packing Houses of Santa Clara County
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This page documents important events in the history of the dried fruit industry in the Santa Clara Valley.

1850 high prices.

1858 market glutted by oversupply of fruit.

1859 John Ballou ships 130 lb of French prunes from San Jose to San Francisco.

1867 Ferron & Ballou Company Ballou, selling only locally til now, exports 500 lb of prunes to east coast by ship.

1868 slump in apples and pears because of overproduction. Apricot growing begins in response.

1869 transcontinental railway opens new markets.

1869 500 acres of prunes in California, much in Santa Clara county..

1880 5400 acres of prunes in California.

1880 in last 10 years, imports of prunes from Europe to US grew from 14 million pounds to 45 million pounds.

1890 15090 acres of prunes in California, 6175 in Santa Clara County.

1894 Fruit was sold both in bags and 25 pound boxes[1]. England, Scandinavia, and Germany are all major markets for California prunes.

1897 California prunes displace French prunes from the market. Partially production, partially tariff raising from 0.5cents per pound to 2 cents. Prune production: 1885: 3.1m. 1886: 4.3m. 1887: 7.5m 1888: 8.05m. 1889 17.15m. 1890 16.2m.

1900 California Cured Fruit Association tries to tie up 75% of crop. They get sign-ons, but much fruit sold outside of the organization.

1900 crop in Europe is huge, and California fruit can’t be sold there. Huge crop in California means that 47% of California Cured Fruit Association’s crop is still in warehouses in June 1901.

1901: In November, A & C Ham buys the leftover stock from the California Cured Fruit Association.

1902 Expansion of packing houses in San Jose[2].

1905 Colonel Philo Hersey comments on effect of prune prices on growers, land prices. San Jose Evening News, December 20, 1905.

1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed many plants, congestion of incoming rail cars. Crop initially estimated at 165 million pounds reaches 185 million pounds, prices dropped from expected 3.5c/lb to2 c a pound.

1907 Sulfur controversy restricts California prune exports to France. State of Pennsylvania bars cured fruit preserved with sulfur. After government action, no restrictions made on 1908 crops.

1907 Highest prices ever received for dried fruit up to that time

1908 Most unsatisfactory prices

1909 Appeared to be another low-price year.

1912 Butte County growers created the “Chico Pool” to keep prices high. They held out too long and didn’t compromise when packers met their price, and failed to sell that year, and finally had to sell out lower.

1913 Largest single sale of prunes: Mineral King Fruit Company sells 750 tons of 1912 crop, 450 tons of 1913 crop to J. K. Armsby.

1914 Outbreak of World War I blocks delivery of dried fruit. "If the Germans lose their navy so shipping is safe on the sea, the dried fruit market will probably resume its natural condition, with perhaps an upward trend in prices, depending on how the war continues" said Max Schuckl of Schuckl & Co., San Francisco. "Just now, we can't get boats to leave New York, we couldn't get insurance if they did, and we can't get the London financial exchange necessary to do business on."[3].

1915 Cupertino growers learn that speculative packers who’d been insisting on buying the crop at 3c/lb before harvest had actually sold significant amounts short at 3.5 c/lb. Growers spread the news to hurt the speculators.

1916 Courts finally determine that forcing members to sell to association is legal.

1916 Field prices in 1916 about 25% higher than a year earlier- 13c/lb dried apricots, 5.75-6c for dried peaches, 5.5 cents/pound for prunes.

1917 U.S. Government reserves large quantities of dried fruit for military. 1916 and 1917 crops quickly sold at “prices that were most acceptable for growers.”

1917 Largest prune crop ever produced. Sunsweet set its prices moderately, angering independent packers who’d already paid more.

1918 U.S. reserves all 50-60, 60-70, and 70-80 grade prunes for the army. Prices for the season rise[4].

1918 Two-thirds of prune crop destroyed by heavy rains at the peak of drying season[5][6]. The storm was the remnants of a tropical cyclone that had come from Baja California[7][8]. Many growers lost their entire crop. CPGA decided not to sell sub-grade, damaged fruit. Mechanical dehydration increasingly becomes popular; August 1922 Western Canner and Packer still remarking on losses four years earlier.

1919 Bumper crop, bumper prices. Prices were high, orchard land prices quadrupled. Huge crops overload packing houses[9].

1920 Prices plummet in September and October for all foodstuffs. CPGA hurt badly by prices, wholesalers stop buying speculatively, forcing risk on packers. Risk moved back to packers and growers, and packers needed to operate the packing houses throughout the year. Prices end up low at 4c/lb, half of what the association paid out in August requiring some growers to pay back significant amounts from advances.

1921 Germany starts buying again in early summer, and last of 1920 crop goes quickly.

1922 January 1922 Canning Age says that sales are very slow, with no speculative interest and few buying for more than immediate needs. Everyone wondering how Genoa conference (on rebuilding eastern europe) will affect things. Long editorial on European problems, nothing available to buy in Germany.

1922 February 1922 Canning Age: “Probably all who are interested in tomatoes as a cannery crop would agree that the tomato industry has been sick.” Problems are varieties grown, grading, marketing.

1922 Sunsweet refuses to set prices for prunes in August 1922 because of uncertainty with multiple strikes. Appears in August 1922 Western Canner and Packer.

1922 95% of dried peaches are from California. June 1922 Western Canner and Packer.

1922 July 1922 Western Canner and Packer cites large numbers for dried fruit, and talks about differences in what different countries are buying.

1922 December 1922 Western Canner and Packer notes buyers pushing for concessions from smaller canners in price.

1922 December 1922 Western Canner and Packer notes that freight cars are still scarce, and some canned goods are going by ship.

1923 January 1923 Western Canner and Packer notes cost for shipment by SP: West Coast ports to New York via Sunset Route to Galveston and SP Steamship lines: canned goods 70c/100 lbs (down from 1.05), dried fruit 80c (down from 1.25), dried fruit in sacks $1.00 (down from 1.45)

1923 February 1923 Western Canner and Packer summarizes the 1922 crop. PRevious page notes the reduction of canned and dried fruit going by rail, losing out to steamships. Tomato paste broke all records, and outdid the bumper year of 1919.

1923 April 1923: German businesses dumping bumper crop Yugoslav prunes in UK kill business there; association had 40m pounds of prunes left over from crop of 1922. (Sunsweet book)

1923 The year's crop came in at 335m pounds, instead of 255m. By July 1924, association still had 40m pounds in storage. (Sunsweet book). Oregon growers were dumping prunes at 5c/pound while association was still selling at 10.5c.

1925 Year's crop: 146,000 tons. Grower prices drop from 12c in 1924 to 7c in 1925.

1926 Crop was 150,000 tons. Prices fall to 6c for growers. Industry-wide fund to market prunes.

1926 April:25,000 tons of prunes unsold on west coast. Sunsweet sold the unsold prunes to a pool of the four largest packers: California Packing Corporation, Guggenhime, Richmond Chase, and Rosenberg Brothers. Warren Hyde explains it as quick returns for growers.

1926 [[[California Prune Producers]] set up as grower’s organization to create a producer monopoly. Intent was to get 90% of prune acreage under two year contract. Organization fails by August 1927, prices immediately weakened.

1927 Crop was 225,000 tons, prices for growers drop to 3c lb.

1927 Evening News June 24 1927 hopes California Prune Producers works. Sunsweet hasn’t controlled more than 50% of prunes for years.

1928 Packers think that Sunsweet will go under when growers do not renew in 1928.

1928 Proprietary packers sold 1928 crop prunes at 2.5c without actually contract for fruit. When O.A. Harlan took over, he declared a price of 4c/lb and said that CP&GA would no longer sell at convenient price to the packers. Independent packers lost several million dollars. (Wonder if related to Hyde collapse?) In response, the packers spend the next few years trying to get growers to leave the association.

1929 Prune prices high - 10c pound

1930 By May, prices dropped back to 5c, by July 3.25c.

1931 Prune Growers Pool attempted, limit production to 35,000 tons. Major packers cooperating. Plan dropped.

1932 Another attempt at Prune Pool. They get enough growers, but can’t keep off-grade prunes off the market.

Overall Prune Acreage and Production

Year Acres, Santa Clara County Acres, California Tons Produced Notes
1869 500 500
1880 5500
1885 1,550 tons
1886 2,150 tons
1887 3,750 tons
1888 4,025 tons
1889 8,575 tons
1890 6175 15090 8,100 tons
1893 West Side Fruit Growers Assocation sold crop for $87.50/green ton[10].
1894 5-7 cents/pound for dried prunes[11]
1906 92,500 tons (185 million pounds)
1923 167,500 tons (325 million pounds)
1925 146,000 tons
1926 150,000 tons 25,000 tons unsold on west coast.
1927 225,000 tons
1931 limited to 35,000 tons


  1. Charter/Agreement for California Dried Fruit Association. Eighteenth Fruit Grower's Convention], November 20-23, 1894, Sacramento. Organized by State Board of Horticulture, State of California
  2. Need to find exact article. August 23, 1902 San Francisco Call.
  3. War and the Dried Fruit Market: August 15, 1914 Pacific Rural Press.
  4. Selling Prices of Prunes To Trade Made Public Today: July 15, 1918 San Jose Evening News.
  5. Salvaging Rain-Damaged Prunes. Report of the Agricultural Experimentation Station of the University of California. Circular #212, April 1919. Reports 50% of the prune crop ruined, $5,000,000 lost, names causes and shows photos of damage and mold.
  6. RAIN BEATS RECORD: Tremendous Damage To Tomato and Prune Crops By Storm. September 12, 1918 San Jose Evening News. 3.46 inches of rain fell by 2 p.m., with more expected by nightfall.
  7. General Summary, September 1918. Climatalogical Data, California Section, U.S. Department of Agriculture Weather Section.
  8. List of California Hurricanes. Wikipedia. Accessed 2014-11-17.
  9. Prunes Swamp Packing Houses. September 19, 1919 San Jose Evening News. "The warehouse workers found themselves almost helpless to handle the great amount of fruit, but were nevertheless establishing a record in their speed with which they worked and thousands of tons of prunes had been handled in the last two days."
  10. How To Co-Operate: Organization of the Growers at West Side, and Working of a Dryer: July 15, 1893 Pacific Rural Press.
  11. Charter/Agreement for California Dried Fruit Association. Eighteenth Fruit Grower's Convention], November 20-23, 1894, Sacramento. Organized by State Board of Horticulture, State of California