The cultivation of plums that are then dried into prunes began in ancient western Asia and gradually spread to Europe and, by the mid-1800s, America. The 19th century was a time of many new arrivals in the young country as the California Gold Rush was on and the state was a hub of immigration, innovation, optimism, and fortune-seeking in general. It was here and then that the California Prune industry was born.
This Tree Plus That Tree
Among those drawn to the golden West was Louis Pellier, a Frenchman from the Agen region, which happened to be famous for its “Pruneaux d’Ente,” or prunes. 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 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.
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, disappointing consumers and degrading 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.)
The 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 softer, moister, ready-to-eat prunes
To War and Back…
World War II brought labor 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 hopes of increasing domestic sales. Nonetheless, 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.
One Valley to Another
Technology changed the landscape of the industry in the 50s—literally and figuratively. The industry replaced prewar harvesting methods with more innovative practices and modern machines. At the same time, high-tech companies were starting their colonization of the Santa Clara Valley — which would eventually become known as “Silicon Valley” — pushing farmers into other California regions. By 1960 the epicenter 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, still, the most popular variety sold today; the rise of modern-day targeted advertising, sales promotion, and public relations programs, including a “High Fiber Fruit Campaign” that netted four consecutive years of domestic shipment growth; the growth of nutrition and culinary research in the prune industry, paving the way for more health-oriented marketing efforts; culinary outreach positioning prunes as a fat substitute in baking and as a moisture and taste enhancer in various applications; nutrition research that broadens the role in gut health and connects it to heart and bone health as well; and even a flirtation with officially changing the name of prunes to “dried plums.” The alternative never entirely took root, though. And today, the world comes to California for prunes, pure and simple. Prunes. For life.