Despite efforts in recent years by savvy public relations professionals to improve their image, dried plums by any other name are still simply prunes. Although they have now disappeared as a viable cash crop in the area, prunes were once king of the Napa Valley's thriving fruit industry. Their presence shaped the late summer season around the harvest, offering job opportunities to area residents for both young and old alike with a wealth of memories, both good and bad, as their legacy.
Unlike the ubiquitous grapevines that now reign over the valley floor, the lowly prune reminds Valley residents of a simpler time — an era when farming was a family enterprise — devoid of corporate red tape and technological innovations. The Register spoke to several Valley residents and asked them to recall their memories of this misunderstood and nearly forgotten former mainstay of the Napa Valley's economy.
Napan Dorothy Wurz said her husband Al worked with his father, who started planting prune trees in the 1930s. Like many farmers back then, her father-in-law also planted apple, cherry and pear trees as well to supplement the family's income.
Wurz, like others the Register spoke with, has good and bad prune recollections — most which center around the harvest season which usually came in September.
"In some ways, I hated prune season. We had four kids and we all worked picking prunes. It was kind of a dirty job — and hot."
Wurz said the farm lasted until her father-in-law died in 1960. The acres were sold off and the family left the prune business and went on to other endeavors. Still, she has more fond memories than negative ones about pruning.
"We had some bad years. We would think we had a really good crop then there would be a frost and it would be ruined. We didn't get rich, but we made a good living," Wurz said.
Even with setbacks like losing an entire season's crop, the family stayed in the business borrowing on the next year's crop like everyone else in the valley. With the next harvest, they would pay off their loans to the bank and carry on.
Asked if she misses prune farming, Wurz answered after a short pause.
"Yes, in a way — what was so great about prune farming is it was a really good way to raise a family. Many kids picked prunes to get extra money to buy school clothes and supplies. They worked hard for their money,"
Russell Wight of St. Helena moved to the area in the sixth grade and remembers as a young man picking prunes every year to earn extra money.
"Back then, school didn't start until after prune harvest," Wight said. The late starting date allowed school children the opportunity to participate and help the growers bring in the season's crop, he stated.
"Picking prunes was hard work. You had to knock them down out of the trees then get down on your hands and knees to pick them up. They would squish (when you knelt down on them) and really hurt your knees. We even picked by moonlight one time because of a hard rain and had to get them off of the ground before they were ruined," Wight said.
Lois Battuello, also of St. Helena, has fond memories of the time she spent helping first her grandfather, then later her own father, harvest prunes when she was a young lady. The family farmed 81 acres of fruit — 32 of which were prunes. Like today, harvest time brought an influx of migrant workers into the valley to supplement the local labor force in the harvest.
"We would have to hire more labor for the two critical times of the year — pruning and harvest. As children we started as early as the first grade raking prunes out of the road to keep them from being run over by the machinery and carrying water to the workers," Battuello said.
Most of the fruit, she recalls, was dehydrated through a cooperative used by all of the farmers.
Battuello said in the early 1960s, several factors began to erode the economic base in the Valley that made prune farming a viable cash crop. The move to production of grapes, which has a higher ton yield per acre, made economic sense for farmers. Grapes, she said, were just more profitable.
Another important element in the destruction of the prune farming in Napa County, she noted, was that many of the orchards planted in the 1920s and 1930s were reaching a point where they were in need of being replaced in the late 1960s early 70s. Facing the prospect of tearing out the old orchards and replanting a new crop, farmers chose the more economically profitable grapevines.
Add to the equation competition from surrounding counties for the increasingly limited number of buyers and the shift from a cooperative to corporate mentality by local farmers, and the loss of the Napa Valley prune orchards is understandable.
"The biggest loss from (the demise) of prunes was the ability for the entire family to participate in the livelihood of the family business — everybody had a job — everybody had a place," Battuello said.
Regardless of the reasons, prunes have gone the way of the Wappo Indians and cattle ranches that once dotted the Valley hillsides. Left behind are only the memories of a time when families took to the fields to work together to bring in the harvest.
Gary Brady-Herndon can be reached at 256-2219 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Agriculture Commissioner Crop Reports: Napa Valley
Prunes 2,385 tons — $836,000
Grapes 21,000 tons — $1,260,000
Prunes 10,085 tons — $581,750
Grapes 32,000 tons — $560,000
Prunes 6,290 tons — $2,264,400
Grapes 23,776 tons — $2,211,168
Prunes 2,256 tons — $699,000
Grapes 24,212 tons — $7,100,00
Prunes 62 tons — $37,200
Grapes 80,112 tons — $49,863,000
Last stand alone listing for prunes
Prunes 33 tons — $23,000