A History of Prunes

The cultivation of plums that are then dried into prunes began in ancient western Asia. It gradually spread to Europe and, by the mid-1800s, California. The 19th century was a time of many new arrivals in the young state with a gold rush, migration, immigration, innovation, optimism, and fortune-seeking in general. It was here and then that the California Prune industry was born.

drawing of a prune orchard in Santa Clara Valley

This Tree Plus That Tree

Among those drawn to California was Louis Pellier, a man from the Agen region of France, which was famous for its pruneaux d’Ente, or prunes. In 1850 with the help of his brother Pierre, Pellier turned a tract of rich topsoil near Mission San Jose into “Pellier’s Gardens,” where 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 increasing imports caught the attention of savvy farmers. With Pellier’s now-proven trees available, they began planting California Prune plums. 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.

trucks carrying prunes in wooden crates

Ups and Downs and 500 Monkeys

The turn of the 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 California grown, which disappointed consumers and degraded the market. Prices dropped while labor costs rose. (Fun fact: One farmer briefly looked to 500 monkeys for cheap labor. Yes, monkeys. The monkeys were surprisingly reliable at picking plums. But then, darn the luck, they ate them.)

These struggles and missteps 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 slew of quality improvements and technological innovations. Product advancements followed, including prune juice in 1932 as well as new drying technology that yielded softer, moister, ready-to-eat prunes.

To War and Back…

World War II brought labor and equipment shortages as well as increased production costs. Dried fruits joined the list of rationed foods, and upheaval in trade policies sent California prune exports plummeting. The industry came together to launch an advertising campaign in hopes of increasing domestic sales. Despite this, the industry came out of the war with more supply than demand, and it was time once again to reorganize. Farmers and packers adopted the Federal Marketing Agreement and Order for prunes in August 1949, thus establishing volume and quality controls. The State Marketing Order for California Prunes followed in January 1952.

men resting on prune drying trays in the WWII era
men working in a prune field in the 1950's

One Valley to Another

Technology changed the landscape of the industry in the 1950s — literally and figuratively. The industry replaced pre-war harvesting methods with more innovative practices and modern machines. At the same time, the Santa Clara Valley – later known as Silicon Valley – was attracting new high-tech companies, and this pushed farmers into other California regions. By 1960 the epicenter of California Prune production had shifted north to the Sacramento Valley.

Growth, Expansion, and a Return to Roots

The next several decades brought the debut of the first pitted prune, which is still the most popular variety sold today. They saw the rise of targeted advertising, sales promotion, and public relations programs, including a “High Fiber Fruit Campaign” that netted four consecutive years of domestic shipment growth. The industry began funding nutrition and culinary research in the prune industry, paving the way for more health-oriented marketing efforts as well as culinary outreach positioning prunes as a fat substitute in baking and as a moisture and taste enhancer in various applications. As the industry’s nutrition research program evolved, scientists discovered a role for prunes in gut health, bone health, heart health and more. At the turn of the 21st century, the California Prune industry changed the name of prunes to dried plums – but the alternative name never entirely took root, and the name was changed back in 2019. Today, the world comes to California for prunes, pure and simple. Prunes. For life.

Pictured to the right is Gene Tanimoto, 6 years old (left) and brother Glenn, 4 years old, with a prune cluster headed to the Butte County Fair. Photo courtesy of Satomi and Mike Tanimoto Farm, Gridley, CA (1959).

two young boys carrying a prune cluster in 1959
prune fields in the early 1900's