"It seems when times get tough, consultants are the first thing to go, and maybe that’s not the smart thing to do," says Maxwell Norton, Merced County farm advisor.

"An independent consultant can review your programs as an impartial party and help you decide what you can cut out and what you can keep. Then you can shop around or put the services you need out to bid."

During a recent meeting of dried plum growers in Tulare, Norton listed ways to reduce production costs and noted some methods might apply as well to other tree crops.

Instead of debating whether you can afford each spray, sit down ahead of time with your pest control adviser and develop a strategy for the whole season. Discuss the situation with your PCA and determine what would be the minimum acceptable program.

"When you are trying to cut costs, remember to step back a moment and look at the whole picture rather than deciding at the last minute."

Norton also suggested the following:

—In managing credit, reduce interest costs by relying on cash flow as long as possible before drawing on production loans. Compare interest rates and utilize least-cost alternatives. Consider whether it is cheaper to finance a piece of equipment through your bank or through a dealer.

—Do a block-by-block analysis and treat each block as a separate enterprise. Pull any block that is not profitable. Perhaps keep the block out of production and let it rest for a couple of years before deciding to go back into a permanent crop.

Dormant sprays

—Unless you have an aphid problem, consider alternate-year or alternate-row dormant sprays. Small amounts of russet scale do not usually affect grade. Consider whether you need to treat if it doesn’t rain during or just after bloom.

—Rust sprays are usually not necessary in the San Joaquin Valley, although they may be in the Sacramento Valley, if it does not rain during May. If there is no rust six weeks before harvest, don’t spray.

—Orchards do not need to be spotless. If the cost of water is not an issue, you can tolerate more weeds. However, weeds around the trunk can interfere with harvest and may contribute to a costly vole or squirrel problem.

—If trees are vigorous, you can skip a nitrogen application. Use leaf analysis in July to verify your nutrient needs. Check the NO3 in well water, and have a lab calculate how many pounds of nitrogen per acre-foot of water you apply.

—Do not skimp on potassium, and remember deficiencies are difficult to correct.

—Do not harvest early. If at all possible, wait until optimum maturity. Even with some pre-harvest drop, improved maturity will result in better returns per ton and per acre.

—Do not pay to dehydrate fruit that will return very little per ton. Dehydrating costs are going nowhere but up. Use a sizing chain at harvesttime to eliminate small, worthless fruit it the field.

—For pruning economies, get rid of ladders (the moving of which account for nearly half the costs) and use the cheaper methods of pole-mounted shears from the ground. If the trees need to be lowered to reduce shading, use a topper ahead of the crew to save labor costs. For dried prunes, alternate year pruning does not lower yields, although it can reduce fruit size if trees over-crop.

"That’s a just quick check-list. Although most of you are already doing these things, there might be something you haven’t thought of, and if anyone has other things to add to the list, let me know," Norton said.