Prunes and dehydrator provide grower market stability

The Lindauer River Ranch is a California family farm with a long history with prunes, first in Dairyville starting in 1934 and later since 1961 in Red Bluff.

Ken Lindauer is partners with his brother, mother, and two daughters. Lindauer and his father planted a portion of the trees now growing on the ranch. After his father's death in 1968, he took over management of the ranch and continued to plant additional acreage. Today, he farms 400 acres of prunes.

In 1979, when the orchards were in production, Lindauer had enough capital to build a dehydrator for the ranch. Lindauer, with experience from their dryer in Dairyville, decided to invest in another. This was when the government was trying to stimulate the economy and offered the Investment Tax Credit of 10 percent for expanding a warehouse, factory, or business.

"For a small operation like ours, it was just a wonderful thing, and it also gave us the impetus to expand," Lindauer says. "I started with six tunnels, which is 12 tracks, and now I've got 27 tracks, so I've a little over doubled it."

Having his own dehydrator gives him more stability in the market, but he hesitates recommending other growers do the same because building costs have increased dramatically over the years. The price per track runs $40,000 to $60,000, so building a 27-track dehydrator comes to well over $1 million, something few growers can afford.

"If you start like I did and keep adding, you could do it, particularly if you have some capital, but with a million-dollar investment, you'd probably be better off putting it in the stock market."

Higher fuel prices Skyrocketing fuel prices are impacting Lindauer's dehydrating operation, which uses natural gas. In 1999 fuel costs alone ran $6 to $8 per green ton of fruit. For the 2000 season Lindauer estimates it will run $12 to $14 a ton. "Whether there will be a surcharge, or fuel tax on this year's drying, I don't know. The price of prunes is so low that the dryers hate to add on any more money to the grower. But on the other hand, you've got to cover your costs."

In the early 1990s prunes prices were up, which encouraged many growers to plant. During 1994-95 11,000 to 12,000 acres were planted, which equates to a million and a half trees or five times more than needed to sustain the acreage.

Increased production from these plantings was expected, but the 1999 crop came in at only 172,000 tons and estimates for the 2000 crop are 181,000 tons.

Some in the industry feel the price of prunes is low because of overproduction, but Lindauer disagrees. "Our production runs between a 180,000 to 200,000 tons, and we're selling about 160,000 to 170,000 tons, so we're producing a little bit more than we're selling, but not a lot more.

Prunes to plums "The industry is down 10 percent on sales from 1999," he points out. Part of the problem is a decline in consumers. The largest segment of the prune buying population is over age 75. As this portion of the population ages and dies, consumers are lost, and they aren't being replaced.

The California Prune Advisory Committee has taken several steps to combat this problem. The most recent is having the name "dried prunes" changed to "dried plums." Market research showed younger consumers (ages 35 to 50) are more willing to try dried plums.

Lindauer says the name change will be more of a revelation than a market-ing strategy, since 50 percent of the population is unaware dried prunes are dried plums.

"I don't know where the industry is going in the next five years. No one really knows the answer to that, but working together to develop a strong marketing effort will strengthen the industry.

"It's been done in the past, and it needs to be done again. If we can work together and put all our resources together, I think we can build the market."

Lindauer cites the healthfulness of prunes as vitally important to this effort. Recent research at Tufts University in Boston measured the antioxidant power of 40 popular fruits and vegetables. Prunes was listed as No. 1 with twice as many units as the next leading fruit or vegetable. Antioxidants reduce the human body's aging process, as well as the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.

Lindauer is hopeful the industry will see a boost in sales through USDA purchases. In 1999, USDA purchased pitted prunes and trail mix. While these purchases weren't large, they are important because their stamp of approval can generate consumer interest.

In recent years, schools have gone to precooked patties to avoid the risk of an E. coli outbreak, but students dislike precooked meat because it is dry. Adding prune puree moistens the meat and makes it more palatable, so the industry is also trying to interest USDA in prune puree as an additive to lean meats as well as a fat substitute in baking.

To survive in the coming years, Lindauer sees three main challenges facing prune growers. "One is trying to become as efficient as possible. Another is for independent growers to join the Prune Bargaining Association to make it bigger and more effective in bargaining for the price of prunes. The third and biggest challenge for growers is to become more educated about their own industry."

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