processing prunes

How Prunes Are Made

Two weeks ago, we had the pleasure of visiting with Western Growers, an association that represents family farmers (like us!) who grow fresh produce and tree nuts in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. They filmed several videos, including this one about our involvement with NASA. We enjoyed walking them through the steps of how prunes are made at Taylor Brothers Farms and wanted to share more about the process.

processing prunes

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, all prunes are plums but not all plums can be prunes! The California Prune (New Improved French) was created in the 19th Century from the La Petite d’Agen, a French plum variety that fully ripens on the tree without fermenting prior to harvesting. Our special plums go through an extensive harvesting, drying, pitting, and steaming process, turning three pounds of fresh fruit into one pound of delicious dried fruit that we’re proud to call our own. (You can learn more about the drying process in our 2018 harvest recap.)

Once harvested and dried, our prunes are transferred to our state-of-the-art packing facility, located in Northern California, where our trained personnel hand-inspect them for quality. Any prunes with cosmetic damage are turned into juice. (Nothing goes to waste at TBF!) After the initial inspection, the prunes are washed and sent to the steam line to be softened for 5-8 minutes. Once steamed, our prunes are then graded for size and the pits are mechanically pitted before undergoing another round of quality control.

Hand Inspecting Prunes

Post-dehydration, we steam the prunes to 25-32 percent moisture — known as "natural condition" — because this is the condition at which prunes store best. Unlike other processed fruits, most prunes are packed to order, whereupon they’re rehydrated, sterilized, and put through a final inspection. Some prunes will go into retail packs sold around the world, while others will become ingredients in manufactured or confectionery goods. It depends on the specifications of the client; however, until those specifications are made, our prunes will remain in cool storage facilities until final processing and packaging.

And there you have it — the process of turning a plum into a prune is a unique transformation that we’re proud to carefully oversee at Taylor Brothers Farms.

2018 harvest fresh plums

2018 Post-Harvest Recap

Our 2018 prune harvest is officially in the books! Taylor Brothers ended last month with a successful crop of sweet, juicy prunes. While it is our busiest time of year (our staff almost doubles during harvest), it’s also our most favorite time of year. Harvest is the culmination of our year-long farming efforts. As owner John Taylor says, “Harvest is seeing all of your hard work come together. It’s the point where you’re reassured that your timing of weeding, spraying, fertilizing, and watering was spot-on.”

Typically, harvest lasts about a month, starting at the beginning of August and ending around mid-September. This year, we harvested 1600 dried tons, which is equivalent to 4800 tons of fresh fruit, over the course of six weeks. That’s a lot of fruit! Because we are fully integrated as a grower, dryer, processor, and exporter, we manage every step of the process from turning a fresh plum into a dried prune.

Fresh Plums On Tree

For Sweeter Fruit, Practice Patience

Taylor says that eating the fresh fruit off of the tree is one of his favorite parts of harvest. The fruit is perfectly sweet straight off of the tree, though not all farmers can make this claim. We pride ourselves on our ability to harvest at just the right Brix, which is a measurement of sugar content. While other prune farmers harvest at 20-22 Brix, we don’t begin harvesting until the fruit has reached 24 Brix and sometimes as much as 30 Brix by the end of harvest. The key is patience.

“Farmers are their own worst enemies. You have to be patient,” says Taylor.

Once we’ve determined that the fruit is ripe enough, we can begin to shake the trees. It takes us about 10 seconds to harvest, or shake, a tree of its fruit. How does it work? The shaker has two sides: shaker and receiver. The shaker side has a big crab’s hook that grabs the trunk of the tree and will shake the tree, causing the fruit to land on the shaker side. The plums are then deflected into the receiver, where a conveyor belt will then push the fruit into a bin as a fan blows through the fruit to make sure no leaves travel with the fruit.

Harvest 2018 California Prune Shaker

Our Drying Process

Once a tree has been harvested, the fruit must be dried within 24 hours. The most difficult part about harvest is making sure there is a steady flow of fruit through the dryer. If the fruit sits for too long, it will develop “box rot”, which is when the skin slips off the fruit and you lose the integrity of the plum. You can’t dry a skinless plum!

Once the fruit is harvested, we deliver it to the dryer and put it through a water bath dip. After the fruit has been cleaned, we spread it on trays and put the trays, which are on carts, in the dryer to dry for 18 hours at an average of 185 degrees Fahrenheit. There are nine carts in a tunnel and as one comes out, another goes in! This happens every two hours. The goal is to make sure there is enough fruit to run the dryer for 24 hours. It’s a delicate balance between harvesting and drying as we also can’t overfill the dryer. After the fruit is dried, we sort it and put it back in the bin for 10 days to cure or “sweat” as moisture continues to leave the prune. After 10 days, we flip the fruit to make sure both sides are evenly cured.

2018 California Prune Harvest Fresh Prunes

And that’s it — our entire 2018 prune harvest process! It’s a busy season, but one that rewards us with the literal fruits of our labor. Stay tuned for more farming recaps and if you’re interested, you can try our organic California prunes here!

Prunes in the NY Times

In 2017, the New York Times printed the article "In Praise of the Prune" in their Sunday magazine. The writer, Teja Rao, understands what it's like to enjoy a quality prune.

"In most parts of the world, including the small town east of Paris where I lived as a kid, prunes were never a punch line. Good prunes were considered a serious craft, a worthy, occasional expense, a perfectly conventional thing to love. They’d be simmered with game, whipped into a boozy mousse or slipped into baggies to eat as a snack."

We couldn't agree more -- good prunes are a craft, one that we've perfected with over 100 years of farming.

Read the full article here.

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