Monday, February 6, 2012

Santa Clara County: 99.4% prunes.

A couple people have asked me this week "just how big a deal were prunes in Santa Clara County?" That's a good question, and a quick search turned up a a San Jose News article from Dec. 30, 1941 summarizing the numbers.

So, first, some caveats - these numbers are for 1941, ten years after the era I model, with twelve years of bumper crops and horrible prices. Numbers for 1931 might be higher or lower, depending on how much faith the local farmers had in the prune market returning.

Overall, Santa Clara County measures 825,000 acres. Of those, 126,000 acres (15%) are in agriculture. Of that 126,000 acres, there are:

  • 59,494 acres of prunes (producing 40% of all the prunes in California!)
  • 18,584 acres of apricots.
  • 7,511 acres of pears.
  • 2,628 ares of cherries.
  • 7,117 acres of grapes.
  • 1,000 acres of mixed fruits and nuts.
  • 23,000 acres of vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, spinach, sugar beets, broccoli, garlic, potatoes, celery, beans, peas, peppers, and cauliflower.
  • 1,500 acres of berries.
  • 6,000 acres of alfalfa.
  • 1,500 acres of seed and nursery stock.
  • 7,372 acres of walnuts.
That's 135,000 acres total, so something's double-counted, but that does give us an idea of the importance of prunes - almost half of the land is covered with prune trees, and apricots are the next largest crop with only a fraction of the land covered by the plum trees. If you're looking at a typical Santa Clara Valley packing house - maybe Del Monte's Plant 51 on Bush Street, or the Sunsweet packing house in Campbell - prunes dominated. Only some of the apricots would have been sold as dry fruit; others went to the canneries, with the ratio varying depending on prices. dominated.

All that fruit was packed in 35 canneries in the county, 32 dried fruit and fresh fruit packing houses, and 102 evaporators and dehydrators (!). They county as a whole was responsible for 3-400,000 tons of dried fruit a year, shipped by rail and water - that's around 5,000 freight cars a year.

But, yeah, if you're modeling a packing house or drying yard, it'll all be prunes. Don't put any yellow fruit on those drying flats.

That Dec. 30, 1941 issue of the News is worth a bit of a look even beyond the prunes article. Between the lack of hot news action over the Christmas holidays and any self-censorship about the war a month after Pearl Harbor, I suspect an entire edition of puff pieces was one of the few ways to fill the paper. Luckily, the puff pieces are handy for those of us trying to understand what the town was like then.

[Postcard of "California Orchard in Bloom" from

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