The cultivation of plums that are then dried into prunes began in ancient western Asia. The practice gradually spread to Europe and, by the mid-1800s, America. With the California Gold Rush in full flow, the 19th century was a time of many new arrivals into the young country. The state was a hub of immigration, innovation, optimism, and fortune-seeking in general and it was here and then that the California Prune industry was born.
This Tree Plus That Tree
Among those drawn to the USA’s golden West was Louis Pellier, who hailed from the Agen region of France. Situated in the southwest of the country, Agen was, and still is, renowned for its “Pruneaux d’Ente,” or prune.
In 1850, Pellier turned a tract of rich topsoil near Mission San Jose into “Pellier’s Gardens,” where, with the help of his brother, Pierre, he grafted a choice cutting of the d’Agen rootstock onto wild plum trees growing in the valley. In a few years, the special trees began to bear a special fruit – California Prunes.
While Pellier’s trees were growing, so was the U.S. market for European prunes. By the 1870s the mounting imports caught the attention of savvy farmers. With Pellier’s now-proven trees at their disposal, they began planting California Prune plum trees. Within 15 years, and thanks to a market growing by way of the transcontinental railroad, California Prunes overtook imports. By 1900, an estimated 85 California Prune packing plants were in business.
Ups and Downs and 500 Monkeys
The turn of the 20th century brought rapid ups and downs to the new industry; overzealous farmers over-planted and ended up with an oversupply of prunes. Packers in the East and overseas were selling cheap imported fruit blended with California fruit and misrepresenting it as Californian-grown, disappointing consumers and degrading the market. Prices dropped while labour costs rose.
(Fun fact: One farmer briefly looked to 500 monkeys for cheap labour. Yes, monkeys. The monkeys were surprisingly reliable at picking plums. But then, in typical monkey fashion, they ate them.)
The struggles and mishaps led to the creation of the Dried Fruit Association of California in 1908 to oversee sales contracts, transportation, pure food laws, and legislation. In time, the association drove a raft of quality improvements and technological innovations. Product advancements followed, including prune juice in 1932, as well as softer, moister, ready-to-eat prunes.
To War and Back…
World War II brought labour and equipment shortages and increased production costs. Dried fruits joined the list of rationed foods and upheaval in trade policies sent California prune exports plummeting. The industry turned inward and launched an advertising campaign in the hope of increasing domestic sales. Nonetheless, the industry came out of the war with more supply than demand and it was time once again to reorganise. Farmers and packers adopted the Federal Marketing Agreement and Order for prunes in August 1949, which led to the establishment of volume and quality controls. The State Marketing Order for California Prunes followed in January 1952.
One Valley to Another
Technology changed the landscape of the industry in the 1950s – litreally and figuratively. The industry replaced pre-war harvesting methods with more innovative practices and modern machines. At the same time, high-tech companies were starting their colonisation of the Santa Clara Valley – which would eventually become known as “Silicon Valley” – pushing farmers into other California regions. By 1960, the epicentre of California Prune production had shifted to the Sacramento Valley.
Growth, Expansion, and a Return to Roots
The next five decades brought the debut of the first pitted prune, which is still the most popular variety sold today. It also saw the rise of modern-day targeted advertising, public relations and sales promotion, including a “High Fibre Fruit Campaign” that netted four consecutive years of domestic shipment growth.
Nutrition and culinary research in the prune industry paved the way for more health-led marketing efforts, with culinary outreach positioning prunes as a fat substitute in baking and as a moisture and taste enhancer in various applications. Nutrition research has also broadened our understanding of the role prunes play in gut health and also connects it to bone health.
There was even a flirtation with officially changing the name of prunes to ‘dried plums,’ though this alternative never entirely took off.
Today, the world comes to California for prunes, pure and simple. Prunes. For life.