Biting into a sweet, juicy dried plum is a pleasure almost as old as civilization itself. The fruit’s ancestors come from western Asia near the foothills of the Caucasus region and the shores of the Caspian Sea. The prune plum followed migration westward into Europe and the Balkans, where the tradition of its cultivation and enjoyment continues today.
But it had a ways to go before making it to California and the orchards where it would earn its present-day fame.
A Fruit as Good as Gold (1850–1870)
When gold fever swept the young state of California, thousands fell under its spell. Ready for riches, but ill-fit for the back-bending work of gold panning, these daring dream seekers more often struck disappointment and poverty than the precious metal they sought.
Striking gold was only one way to get rich, and the most successful prospectors set their sights not on the gold fields but on the fertile land running the length of the state’s endless valleys.
In 1850 Louis Pellier, a French vineyardist, acquired a tract of rich topsoil near Mission San Jose that he christened Pellier’s Gardens. Here, where the warm sun brought the growing season to life, Louis began experimenting with the cultivation of dried plums that would one day spawn the California Dried Plum industry.
No novice in the orchard, Pellier hailed from a country justly famous for its Pruneaux d’Ente, which grew in his homeland’s Agen region. With the help of his brother Pierre, they grafted choice cutting of the d’Agen rootstock onto wild plum trees growing in valley. As the seasons turned, the Pellier’s patient work began to bear fruit, and the California Dried Plum was born.
An Industry Is Born (1870–1890)
The dried plum industry really got underway in the mid-1880s, when a glut of principal fruits like apples and pears inspired growers to find profitable alternatives. Noting the mounting imports of dried plums from Europe—which reached as high as 22,000 tons at one point during the 1870s—savvy growers followed the market and shifted their plantings to plums.
The transcontinental railroad increased the market for dried plums across the nation and in time California’s crop displaced imports, which reached a high of 46,000 tons in 1887.
The bountiful valley environment and pioneering horticulturists like Luther Burbank helped support the tremendous growth of the dried plum industry. As the California Dried Plum acreage grew, so did the number of processing plants, as such facilities had to be within a horse-and-wagon haul of growers. By 1900, an estimated 85 dried plum packing plants had taken root throughout the growing area.
What Goes Up Must Come Down (1890–1920)
By the turn of the century, crop acreage in California’s valleys had overextended to 90,000 acres, setting the stage for an oversupply crisis made worse by the large number of dried plum sellers who didn’t have the foresight to coordinate their marketing efforts.
Labor costs put a pinch on the industry too, and in 1905, one grower thought he had the answer to rising worker wages: He brought 500 monkeys to the Santa Clara Valley from Panama to pick prune plums. Organized into crews of 50 with a human foreman overseeing each, the monkeys hit the fields and scampered up the trees to their pickings. But while they proved reliable at harvesting the fruit, they could be equally counted on to gobble up every prune plum they picked.
But the biggest threat to the industry was the state of its quality standards—which as late as the early 1900s were still effectively nonexistent. Packers in the eastern U.S.A. and overseas would sometimes sell repackaged poor-quality fruit or blend lower quality French and Yugoslavian products with California fruit and sell them as Californian grown. These products were naturally cheaper and caused havoc in the marketplace.
Industry Unity Breeds Product Improvement (1920–1940)
Unwilling to watch their reputations erode, concerned parties organized the Dried Fruit Association of California (now the DFA of California) in 1908 to oversee sales contracts, transportation, pure food laws and legislation. The DFA even eventually established an independent inspection service to certify the condition of dried fruit on the dock before shipment.
What was good for packers and processors, however, was ultimately good for dried plum consumers, as well. The industry’s increasing organization fostered a slew of quality improvements and technological innovations that officially brought dried plums into the 20th century.
In 1932, the industry introduced prune juice after several years of development and testing, and the following year, tenderized dried plums—a high-moisture, tender-fleshed product packed in cartons—made their debut in an industry movement toward pitching softer, moister, ready-to-eat dried plums to the public.
A World at War (1940–1946)
As trading policy changed during the war, many European countries began importing dried plums from other countries with devastating results for the California Dried Plum industry.
When export demand fell, California’s dried plum producers began developing the domestic market. March 1940 saw the launch of a radio, newspaper and magazine advertising campaign that featured contests aimed at consumers.
In fact, America’s entry into World War II, in December 1941, actually provoked the heaviest buying of dried fruit in history. But on balance, the war years were tough: Farm labor shortages, limited inventories of supplies and farm equipment and rising costs all took their toll, and in March 1943, dried fruits were added to the list of rationed foods, and many American housewives opted to spend their limited ration points elsewhere.
The CDPB and Technology (1947–1960)
When World War II ended, California Dried Plum processors had a glut of fruit on their hands. The industry adopted the Federal Marketing Agreement and Order for dried plums in August 1949, thus establishing volume and quality controls, and the State Marketing Order for California Dried Plums followed in January 1952.
One lasting effect of this move was the creation of the California Dried Plum Board (CDPB), whose mission was to expand worldwide demand for dried plums through trade promotion, consumer advertising, education and research. Both programs have operated continuously ever since.
Meanwhile, the changes were coming fast and furious in the orchards. While plantings peaked at 171,330 acres in 1929 and World War II’s increased food requirements kept acreage stable at about 139,000 acres, by 1951 acreage had dropped to 107,000 acres as urbanization began nudging orchards out of the Santa Clara Valley.
Rising labor costs prompted the industry to replace prewar harvesting methods with more innovative practices and equipment. Growers moved from using simple tools such as a "mallet" or a "rubber mallet" and a "knocking pole" to harvest fruit from the trees' branches to more modern mechanical harvesting machines.
A Time of Change (1960–1970)
As high-tech companies colonized the Santa Clara Valley and it became known as Silicon Valley it was clear that agriculture was no longer the valley’s primary business. Growers began to tap other California regions for raising the popular fruit.
Yet even as old orchards faded from the Santa Clara scene, increased yield per acre in the Sacramento Valley more than offset the loss. In 1960, for the first time in history, Sacramento Valley’s dried plum production exceeded that of Santa Clara’s. Adding to increased yields was the successful test marketing in the early 1960s of the more appealing pitted dried plum, still the most popular variety sold today.
Getting the Message Across (1970–1990)
Marketing has always been a priority for the CDPB, but in response to declining sales in the late 1970s, the Board reinstated the funding for marketing programs that it put on hold from 1975 to 1979. By resuming advertising, display contests and recipe releases to food editors, it hoped to spark an uptick in domestic and export sales.
Concerns about cholesterol and a growing interest in fiber-rich foods in the mid-1980s gave the Board’s marketing arm a shot at highlighting California Dried Plums as the high-fiber fruit through targeted advertising, sales promotion and public relations. This “High Fiber Fruit Campaign", not to mention increased handler marketing support, deserves credit for four consecutive years of domestic shipment growth.
Dried Plums Face the Future (1990–present)
Dried plums are more than just a healthy and nutritious snack. During the 1990s research showed that dried plum purée could function as a fat substitute in baking and as a moisture and taste enhancer in meat applications from hamburgers and beyond.
In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration granted the California Prune Board permission to use “dried plums" as an alternative name to prunes. Why the name change? Because 90% of consumers told us that they’d be more likely to enjoy the fruit if it were called a dried plum instead of a prune.
One of the most impressive developments to hit California Dried Plums during the past decade is the extent to which their profile has risen in the eyes of chefs at white-tablecloth restaurants, both here and abroad. Cutting-edge menus feature the likes of dried-plum and walnut phyllo triangles, or roast duck with dried plum and ancho chile port-wine sauce, and diners are lapping it up.
Now more than ever, professional culinarians and armchair foodies appreciate not only the well-known health benefits but also the great taste, texture and flavor of dried plums. The future can’t be anything but delicious.
Photos courtesy of California Dried Plum Board.