Prune farmer Matt Bozzo
California prune farmer Matt Bozzo feels "blessed" by the crop he harvested this year after devastating winter rains and floods threatened to wipe out his orchards near Yuba City, Cal

Prune grower finds sweet success after winter floods

Months after the Feather River inundated Matt Bozzo's prune orchard, the Yuba City grower harvests an "average" crop with good quality fruit.

They say farming isn’t easy. Yuba City, Calif. prune grower Matt Bozzo knows this full well and counts his blessings.

Earlier this year Bozzo was pumping 2,500 gallons of the Feather River per minute from his prune and walnut orchards in a valiant battle against Mother Nature.

By September, he was harvesting up to three tons of prunes per acre from trees that largely appeared unscathed by the flow of river water two feet deep in places for two months.

“Given all that happened this year with the weather and floods I feel very blessed with our crop and that we have trees that are still alive,” he said as harvest was winding down on his ranch south of Yuba City.

Bozzo is the farm manager of Golden Gate Hop Ranch. It’s not like it sounds – not anymore. Though hops once grew there, the farm now grows 130 acres of prunes and another 180 acres of walnuts just west of the Feather River. An old hop kiln still sits on the property.

Earlier this year, Bozzo and his family were among over 100,000 people forced to evacuate on a Sunday night when officials warned that the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam was about to fail as rain and runoff overfilled the giant northern California reservoir.

“We grabbed family photos, wedding photos, the dogs, and a couple pieces of luggage as fast as we could,” he said, recalling the evening last winter when residents from Oroville to Marysville and Yuba City were forced to find higher ground. “I think I even threw a quad in the back of my pickup as my wife threw stuff in her car before we left.”

Fortunately the dam held, and Bozzo returned home to battle the river which would run high for several months thereafter.

“We lucked out,” he said. “We lost a few trees, but not what some guys lost.”

2016 crop

This year’s prune crop looks good, according to Bozzo. It wasn’t the light crop of the previous year when growers across the state harvested half their usual crop load due to poor weather.

Bozzo looks across his orchard and sees good fruit size and quality. “Good, pitable fruit,” he calls it.

Bozzo is a fourth-generation farmer. His father Dan and generations before him grew crops in the Gridley area of northern California. Matt is the only one of three siblings to farm. His sister, Katie Thompson is a middle school teacher in nearby Live Oak and his brother Paul is in the Air Force.

“As soon as I could walk I was suckering prune trees,” he said.

Outside of the rain and floods, Bozzo says conditions were set for a decent crop, though fungicide sprays this year were more common and had to be applied by air because ground access was impossible due to running river water in the orchards.

Even with the standing water, areal applications were made possible because Bozzo controls all the drain water on his farm and is able to hold that water and keep it from moving off the farm – a regulatory requirement necessary to apply fungicides by air.

Still, the spring wasn’t all good as cooler weather during the bloom kept bees close to their hives instead of pollinating throughout the orchard. While he had good pollination and fruit set at the edge of his orchards, the center of the orchards apparently saw less bee activity as evidenced by the lighter crop loads.

Good weather during the pollination period would be sunny, warm days sufficient to bring out the bees, without being so warm that it accelerates the bloom period.

“If it’s too warm the pollen becomes non-viable,” he says.

Bozzo likes to use two hives per acre to pollinate his prunes. Not all growers agree that bees are necessary in prunes, he says.

“Bees are a good insurance that you’re going to get good pollination,” he says. “Some growers don’t put bees in at all.”

In a typical year Bozzo will leave ground cover – small flowers, clover and other plants – in the orchard to provide extra forage for the bees as they come out almonds and move to prunes.

Fruit counts done in late spring were sufficient to allow him to thin the crop by dropping fruit to the ground. Growers will do this to give the remaining fruit a chance to size properly. Guidelines for good fruit counts are provided by local farm advisors with the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE).

Bozzo likes the relationship he has with local farm advisors, saying they’re a benefit to the farming community in general through their applied research discoveries and advice. He is particularly appreciative of the crop thinning guidelines provided by his local UCCE office.

Growing prunes

Matt calls them prunes. He’s always called them that, though a rebranding effort years ago sought to change the name to “dried plums.”

Bozzo’s prunes are taken to a dehydrator across the river from his farm before going to National Raisin Company in Fowler.

He likes to pick his crop with brix levels between 28 and 32. This allows the fruit to dehydrate well.

“We pride ourselves on our quality fruit,” he said.

Most of California’s prune crop is of the Improved French prune variety. California produces about 40 percent of the world’s supply of prunes, according to the California Dried Plum Board.

Bozzo’s prunes are planted on Myro 29C rootstock, which he says gives them “a lot of vigor.” He is also experimenting with a rootstock called “M40,” thought that is said not to be as popular as other rootstocks.

His reasoning for choosing the different rootstock is to help avoid replant disease and susceptibility to soil borne pathogens.

“You can’t fumigate anymore; that tool is gone,” he said.

Later this year he will go through his orchards and remove the trees severely affected or destroyed by the recent floods and replant trees in the same location. His trees are planted 16 feet apart in rows that are 20 feet apart.

Several years ago Bozzo converted his fields from flood irrigation to micro sprinklers. The move reduced his water use by about 60 percent and allows him to better control soil moisture in the top 2-3 feet. While the move didn’t change his overall yields, it did help boost size and quality of the fruit.

Irrigation timings that were once 3-4 weeks apart are now 7-14 days apart, depending on the time of year.

Another benefit of micro irrigation was the irrigation timing around harvest. He is able to irrigate much closer to his harvest date, and then get water back on the trees quicker after harvest. Irrigate too soon before harvest and the cambium layer is still swollen and the shakers will debark the trees, he says.

Along with soil moisture sensors and a local weather station installed on his farm by Diamond Foods, he uses a pressure bomb to test the soil level in plant tissue to ensure proper irrigation timing.

Cultural activities include “short pruning” his trees for structure, maintaining a good ground cover to help harbor beneficial insects and provide forage for honey bees, and applying a pre-emergent herbicide to the berms in October after harvest.

He also likes to closely watch nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and boron levels in the soil.

Trees are trimmed from November through March, after the trees go dormant for the winter. Even the timing of when those trees enter dormancy can be managed, he says.

Like pistachios, prunes are shaken from the tree onto a catch-frame piece of equipment that immediately places the fruit into large bins for transport to the dehydrator.

Bozzo will shake his trees once, based on moisture samples taken of the trees. Those moisture levels will suggest the easy of the fruit falling from the trees when shaken.

Harvest activities are not done with speed, but with the goal of ensuring tree damage is prevented when shaking them.

“Some drivers will brag about harvesting so many trees per minute,” he says. “I like the pace we’re harvesting. It’s not a horse race.”

Bozzo believes the trade-off in going a little slower during harvest is an orchard that can last several years longer.

California Dried Plum Board

Bozzo is one of 16 alternates on the California Dried Plum Board, based in Roseville. The board has 22 members representing growers, handlers and the public.

Donn Zea, executive director for the plum board, says the importance of the marketing order is to grow markets and value in California prunes.

According to Zea, the plum board is in the midst of a rebranding effort that will culminate in mid-2018. A new public relations firm hired Aug. 1 will help with this rebranding effort. 

California can produce over 100,000 tons of prunes each year though last year a crop failure brought on by heavy rain and high winds, followed by low temperatures in March devastated the crop, said Sutter County Agricultural Commissioner Lisa Herbert in her 2016 crop report that highlighted the centennial anniversary of Sunsweet, the Yuba City-based prune processor.

Bozzo’s home county of Sutter has the state’s largest acreage of prunes at over 14,000.

This year’s prune crop estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests California growers will harvest 105,000 tons of fruit from about 48,000 bearing acres.

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