(Sept. 23, 8:50 a.m.) After prolonged talks with processors failed to reach agreement on a price structure, the board of directors of California’s Prune Bargaining Association, Yuba, City, Calif., has proposed field prices for the 2008 crop.

“We’ve announced the price because the harvest is done, and packers and buyers need guidance,” said Greg Thompson, the association’s general manager. “On a one-year deal, this is what we think the price should be.”

The foundation of the field price is a two-year agreement that ran out after the 2006 season, Thompson said. That agreement contained a sliding scale, depending on variety, size and quality, that peaked at $1,600 per ton. The association’s proposed field prices are slightly higher than those in the two-year pact. Larger prunes will fetch 10 cents more per pound, Thompson said.

“Going forward, we need some way to average out the highs and lows of the crops and the highs and lows of the marketing, so we’re more unified as an industry and there’s more stability and more profit for everyone,” he said.

A roadblock to reaching agreement is the lack of “normal” seasons in recent years. A bumper crop in 2003 was followed by two disastrous seasons. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the 2005 volume was 90,000 tons, nearly double the 48,000 tons produced in 2004.

In 2006, the industry’s volume skyrocketed to 180,000 tons only to fall last year to barely half that amount. An April 20 freeze dealt a blow to the 2008 crop. At the time, the association estimated that 3,000 acres of prunes had been destroyed. That projection turned out to be optimistic, Thompson said.

“We later discovered it was the middle of the orchards that was wiped out,” he said. “That was damage that couldn’t be seen just driving around. The damage loss will be higher than the $12 million projected after the freeze.”

The Department of Food and Agriculture’s post-freeze forecast was 120,000 tons. Grower-shippers said the deal will not reach that volume, Thompson said.

There is a consolation.

“It’s a vintage year in many ways with good sugar content and excellent quality,” Thompson said.

Because of the high sugar content, the prunes will retain more weight during the drying process, he said.