Apricot crop takes a hard hit

Joel Lopez, above, dumps apricots he picked into a large bin at Gonzales Orchards. VICTOR MACCHAROLI/Photographer

San Benito County’s apricot crop has been nearly wiped out this
year because of abnormal rains that struck late in the season and
unexpected heat waves, according to area growers.
Heavy rains in April and May caused the fruit to acquire
blemishes, and, combined with temperatures that reached 105 degrees
that heated the pits, it resulted in a fruit that was cracked,
dried and sunburned, growers said.
San Benito County’s apricot crop has been nearly wiped out this year because of abnormal rains that struck late in the season and unexpected heat waves, according to area growers.

Heavy rains in April and May caused the fruit to acquire blemishes, and, combined with temperatures that reached 105 degrees that heated the pits, it resulted in a fruit that was cracked, dried and sunburned, growers said.

“Out of 100 acres, approximately 20 to 40 percent of our crop is salvageable,” said Mary Rossi of B&R Farms. “We must be versatile in the farm industry. You never know what is going to come next.”

In 2002, the county generated $1.6 million in revenues from apricots while in 2000, profits had soared to $3.3 million. The only differences throughout the three years was better weather and more land – an additional 355 acres in 2000, according to the San Benito County Farm Bureau.

The statistics include profits generated from all three apricot varieties – Castlebright, Patterson and Blenheim, which is the most dominant in the county, according to farm bureau officials.

At Gonzales Orchards, the news is no better. Last year, the company harvested 300 tons of fresh apricots, but this year the total plummeted to between 90 and 100 tons.

Most farmers allowed the apricots to drop to the ground for “spot picking,” according to District Agriculture Commissioner Mark Tognazzini.

Local farmers said they have learned to deal with occurrences such as this year’s weather.

Some farmers, however, have been unable to continue taking such risks. A high point of 50 countywide growers a few years ago has dropped to eight this year.

“People never believe us, they think that as farmers, we just complain about every harvest,” said Patti Gonzales. “You won’t believe it until you see it. The apricots look like coal.”

Earl Parks of Thomas Orchards, which neighbors Gonzales Orchards, told Gonzales that in 47 years of growing apricots, he had never seen a crop this bad.

“I really feel bad for the workers. Some of them rely on us every year to support their families. But this year, instead of 30 to 40 strong days of picking, we only have 10 or so,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales Farms hired workers to pick approximately one-half of their crop, but it used only one-fourth of the crop after inspections.

San Benito County is the fifth largest apricot growing area in the United States, according to the Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the California Apricot Council. Fresno is the largest, the Tracy area is second and Patterson and Westley are third and fourth, respectively.

“Most shippers are already done with their harvest by mid-June or early July,” Tjerandsen said. “Because most of San Benito County grows a different variety, the harvest is later. This means that the heat waves hit hard in that area due to the fact that the fruit was still maturing.”

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