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IN SEASON

Harvest Up, Costs Down

June 20, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

It's taken a while to get going, but this year's summer fruit harvest is finally kicking into high gear. Expect prices to fall accordingly.

The spring and early summer fruit varieties were the ones most hindered by warm winter weather. Cherries and apricots, in particular, were devastated for the second year in a row.

Early varieties of plums, peaches and nectarines were also affected. But later varieties--including most of the better-known big names--were less bothered.

As a result, the 1996 harvests of peaches, nectarines and plums will be pretty close to the five-year average, which is a big improvement on last year. The peach picking will be about 430 million pounds, up from 370 million in 1995. Nectarines will be about 430 million pounds as well, up from 345 million last year. Plums will be about 420 million pounds, up from 220 million.

So far, prices have not really reflected the increased harvest. In fact, wholesale prices are almost identical to what they were at this time last year. Primarily, of course, that's because the majority of the increase is in varieties that are just coming on.

But there's another important factor as well: the effects of cold weather that hit the southeastern United States this spring. Georgia and South Carolina are usually the No. 2 and 3 peach growers in the United States, after California. Last year, they accounted for almost 25% of all the peaches sold in the U.S.

This year, those states are expected to harvest only 10% to 15% of their normal total. That shortage has kept prices for California fruit high.

Along with improved prices, look for good-quality fruit. Marilyn Watkins of the California Tree Fruit Agreement, an industry group, says that, on average, tests for the fruits' soluble solids (that's sugar to you and me) are running much higher than normal.

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