Prune. Thin. Size. Those are the words of wisdom from prominent California apple growers and marketers in answering the biggest question of the day for state's apple industry - Will the industry survive?

California apples have been sinking to the bottom of the barrel since 1996-97 as worldwide production soared and consumption faltered. California's apple acreage has fallen from almost 40,000 acres in 1995 to 23,000 now. Grower numbers have declined from 520 six years ago to a little more than 350 this season.

This year's California crop was down 40 percent from last season. It was the smallest in 20 years, Ken Kidd, president of the California Apple Commission told the 200 people attend the industry's annual apple day in Fresno, Calif., recently.

This crop decline was partly due to acreage removal, largely Fujis in the southern and central San Joaquin Valley, and problems with pollination, Kidd said. However, quality was good and sales improved for varieties synonymous with California. "We heard good thing about Granny Smiths and Galas and even a few good stories about Fujis," he said.

Overall sales nationwide were up on Grannys, Fujis and Galas, while sales of Red Delicious and Golden Delicious, varieties synonymous with areas outside of California, were down, said Kidd.

"We shipped one million boxes of California apples to Taiwan this year, and will be working to increase sales in Mexico," said Kidd. "With the price of fuel and the distance from Washington to Mexico, there is a freight advantage for California apples into Mexico and we should take advantage of that."

"I don't think Japan wants us in there," added Kidd.

The industry's North American marketing effort this season will focus largely on the West, specifically California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

Must deliver quality However, to be successful there or in any market, California must deliver a quality product, according to growers and markets at Apple Day.

"If we try to be a low cost producer, we are going to lose," said Jeff Columbini, a 1,400-acre apple producer from Lodi and president of the Mid Valley Apple Association.

"We need to be high quality producers," he said, who said the economics of quality are simple. "Reduce your volume by 25 percent; double your revenue by packing extra fancy fruit."

Columbini, Steve Blizzard, general manager of Valley Sweet Packing in Tulare and Kern County producer Gary Suthers, chairman of the California Apple Commission, all said quality requires heavy thinning and pruning to produce a big, quality apple.

"As California orchards get older, they are losing their juvenile vigor, which makes pruning and thinning much more important," said Suthers.

"A stronger flower makes big fruit," said Suthers, who relies on Dormex to offset low chilling in his Kern County Granny Smith orchards. "There is a correlation between sizing and winter chill."

Both Suthers and Columbini said they would follow chemical thinning with hand thinning this season. Columbini added, "significantly shorten hangers."

"The market wants size and color (for Fujis). If you cannot produce size and color, you need to get out of the business," said Columbini.

Blizzard said a key to producing that is to develop renewal wood each year. "Grin and bear it" and prune heavily, he said. He admitted severe pruning would take fruit off. Nevertheless, he advocates, "get off the old system and rejuvenate the wood. Don't put it off," he said.

The oversupply facing the industry is driving the need for quality. "You cannot sacrifice quality," said Blizzard.

Unfortunately, the current economic situation is not likely to change soon, said Blizzard. "You can blame everything that moves for our problems. The reality is we have almost planted off the planet. Other states and the world have too many apples," he said.

Earliness is the one thing California apple producers have going for them, said Blizzard, who is also director of operators for Lagomarsino Farming in Tulare County. "Get in and get out before northern growers start," he said.

Too late, too early He added, California producers pick Granny Smith apples "way too late, and they pick other apples too early."

Marketers echoed the growers' sentiment on quality.

California apples are a niche market, considered by most retailers as a source of apples before Washington State or other states come into the market. That must change, according to the marketers.

The California Apple Commission has initiated a promotional effort to identify California as a season-long source of apples.

Rich Sambado, sales manager for Primavera Marketing in the Stockton, Calif., area, said California's future in apples is to "take care of the home state first. Put priority on the top California retailers," he said.

Consistency also sells, said Byron Albano, who markets apples from his family's 130-acres of orchard in Cuyama Valley. "Flavor is very important," he said. "If a buyer does not taste California apples, I know he will not buy. If a buyer taste them, he will buy," he said. And that includes Fuji. California Fujis have suffered from the perception of poor quality because their color is not as red as Fujis grown elsewhere.

Albano markets exclusively in the Los Angeles area, and he said California Fuji taste beats color in that area. "A California Fuji eats better than a Washington Fuji," he said.

"National buyers want price. Local buyers want quality," he said.