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IN SEASON

A Peach of a Spring

May 21, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

This year's first peaches and nectarines are already showing up in the market--a week or two ahead of schedule--thanks to a warm, dry spring.

Stone fruit country, roughly the part of the Central Valley that runs from Bakersfield to Fresno, has seen a little bit of everything lately.

The 1995 harvest was one of the worst on record; spring storms and floods disrupted the pollination. Last year, growers sweated out the warmest winter on record, with very real fears that the lack of chill would severely damage the harvest.

As it turned out, 1996 was one of the best years ever. Not only was there record volume of both peaches and nectarines, quality was very good as well. And because bad weather wiped out the crop in the Southeastern United States--California's main competition for tree fruit--there were also record high prices.

Already this year has swung between floods and drought. In December and January, of course, parts of the San Joaquin Valley saw some of the heaviest rains and worst flooding in years. But after that came one of the driest springs ever, and that may turn out to be one of the best indicators of fruit quality (last year's spring was also very warm and dry).

There won't be quite as much fruit this year as last, but not a whole lot less. The actual harvest in 1996 was about 243,000 tons each of peaches and nectarines. This year will be about 237,000 tons; that's a drop of about 2 1/2% and certainly within the margin of error to equal last year.

Moreover, because the Southeast is looking solid again, prices should be much lower than last year.

This week's wholesale price for peaches, for example, is roughly 90 cents a pound, compared to $1.05 a pound at this time last year, $1.30 a pound in 1995 and 60 cents a pound in 1994, the previous best year.

"Prices are pretty soft, at least at the start," says Kevin Day, a Tulare County farm advisor specializing in tree fruit. "That should be a boon to people buying fruit, provided the marketers are willing to pass that price along."

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