As their 2001 harvest got under way, how close their crop will come to the 525,000 tons estimated by state statisticians wasn't the only thing on the minds of California's 700 cling peach growers.

Cling Peach Board members recently made their own crop estimates, falling in a range of 478,600 to 529,650 tons, according to the Dinuba-based board's recent newsletter.

The 14 varieties of the California crop, utilized as halved, sliced, or diced fruit and fruit cocktail, account for virtually all the U.S. cling output and come from about 31,000 acres in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

Meanwhile, with good prospects for an average crop of about 500,000 tons, the board raised the industry assessment from $1.90 to $2.50 per ton and wheeled out a new $2.6 million budget.

Strong features of the spending plan are nearly $1.2 million devoted to domestic and foreign promotion, a record allocation of $455,000 for research on pests, varieties, and postharvest practices, $235,000 for governmental and trade relations, and administration costs trimmed 20 percent to $154,000.

Greek exports

The increased promotion is in response largely to the continuing and disruptive Greek exports of cling peaches. Funding of the foreign promotion program for clings is shrinking, with some $424,000 allotted for the 2001-2002 season, well down from about $636,000 for last year. That's due to fewer California clings finding their way to markets around the world being supplied by Greece.

Practically 90 percent of this year's foreign promotion purse will be spent in Canada, the cling industry's sole foreign outpost. The program is a cooperative venture between peach, pear, and fruit cocktail industries. Five years ago, the cling board also had representatives in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Mexico.

Representatives of Canadian brokerages, retailers, foodservice, and trade media, hosted by industry leaders, were scheduled for a close-up look at California orchards, grading stations, and processing plants late in July. Part of the tour was a first-hand look at how the fruit typically goes from orchard to can within 24 hours to preserve nutrition.

For the home front, the board allocated $500,000 and engaged a public relations firm to forge a new publicity program. It replaces the previous campaigns of personal contacts encouraging foodservice outlets to use more California clings in their menus.

The new approach doesn't deal in paid advertising but captures exposure by distributing recipes and other materials, set off by a new California cling logo, to food editors of newspapers and magazines.

California cling leaders are also tapping into the “Buy American” campaign. Often foods such as imported canned peaches are cheaper than domestic products, and schools often purchase additional stocks of peaches over and above those supplied by USDA.

A pamphlet distributed at the recent American Foodservice Show in Nashville, Tenn., reminds schools across the country that the National School Lunch Act requires them to buy American when federal funds are used.

Raw fruit dumping

Board chairman Randy Fiorini, a Delhi producer, told an International Trade Commission hearing earlier this year Greek producers, encouraged by European Union subsidies, have expanded production since 1972 to twice the amount they can market, causing so-called “withdrawal,” or widespread dumping of raw fruit.

The cling industry's complaints of subsidies and distorted trade are echoed by many other U.S. food industries, ranging from tomatoes to meat.

Greek subsidies can exceed the $225 per ton California cling growers might receive from processors, putting the California industry at a profound competitive disadvantage, Fiorini said. In Canada, for example, a case of Greek peaches may sell for $10, half the cost of the California product. He and other California cling leaders will confront the problems at the World Peach Conference in Spain in October.

The problem for the California industry, already deprived of foreign markets varying from zero to 750,000 cases, is how to retain the 18-million case U.S. market, said Fiorini.

The California cling crop, typically valued at harvest at more than $110 million, increases to more than $500 million after processing.

e-mail: dan_bryant@intertec.com