According to prune grower Sandra Mitchell, Northern California is the perfect place for producing high-quality prunes due to the fertile soil, warm and dry growing season and cool winter temperatures. Sandra and her family work hard to ensure their business thrives and future generations can enjoy the same ideal growing conditions. Discover how technology, renewable energy and conservation practices are helping them achieve their goal.
Sandra and her husband, Neill, have more than a century of farming experience between them. Neill has been in agriculture since he left college, while Sandra got involved when she married into a farming family. Today, the couple farm with their son Joseph in Yuba City, Sutter County, located in the Sacramento Valley. They grow over 200 hectares (500 acres) of mainly prunes and walnuts on land previously owned by Neill’s parents.
Sandra reflects on the tremendous advancements in their prune business since it started 40 years ago, thanks to new technology and sustainable practices.
Mechanical shakers now replace the traditional approach to harvesting prunes – knocking the fruit on the ground using mallets with a rubber tip and putting them in lug boxes. The machines save valuable time by automatically catching the prunes and putting them in bins – work previously done by hand.
The drying process that turns the fruit into prunes has also improved significantly, saving time and energy. “We’ve gone from taking 24 hours to dry prunes to around 18 hours through new technology and advances that we’ve made and more efficient use of gas and electricity,” Sandra explains.
Adding a large solar array for the dryers has also considerably improved the efficiency of the Mitchell family’s operation. They now use solar power during the two months of the year when the dryers run and sell the excess electricity generated back to the supplier for the remaining ten months. Sandra says this approach works well for a seasonal business like running a prune dryer, especially with fluctuating gas and electricity rates.
Water conservation is another area of focus for the Mitchell family. “Even in Northern California, where we generate most of the water we use, water is essential for our crops. Therefore, conservation practices are key to being able to stay in this business,” Sandra explains.
They have moved from flood-irrigating their prune orchards to using micro-jet systems, which apply water in a more targeted way for greater efficiency.
However, for Sandra, sustainability means more than being responsible stewards of the land and resources. It also means preserving the business for the next generation. Sandra and Neill’s son Joseph returned to the farm after a career as a chef to continue the family tradition, and Sandra hopes that one day, his children will follow in his footsteps. She says, “We are always thinking about the future. Most growers want to be able to turn their property over to their children at some point, so it’s imperative to do everything right.”