History of the prune industry in Australia

Mechanical harvesting with a prune catcher

The first known reference to prunes in Australia was recorded in June 1892 when the Camden Park Orchard of the Macarthur's was awarded 1st prize in the 1891 National Prize Competition for orchards over 10 acres. The record refers to the original Prune d'Agen, the famous French dried prune of commerce, which was imported by Sir William Macarthur in 1866. The prune had been extensively propagated at Camden Park, approximately 50 km SW of Sydney, and was seen as potentially a "great source of wealth" to the country. A further reference in the 1893 Agricultural Gazette mentions the sale of nursery trees and prune growing in the Albury district of NSW as early as 1861. But these are not thought to have been used for commercial purposes.

Following that, prunes were grown successfully at Koorawatha (near Young in NSW) at the turn of the century and, in 1901, a crop was harvested from trees planted by the Department of Agriculture near Burke in far western NSW. And during the early 1900's there were several plantings between Koorawatha and Greenthorpe (between Young and Cowra in NSW).

Prunes were also included in some First World War soldier settlement blocks at Kunama near Batlow. Although the crop produced well in such a cool climate (elevation 1,000 metres), the high rainfall was not conducive to sun drying and the industry failed to develop.

The first sizeable crop in NSW was harvested in 1927, with a recorded production of 1,000 tonnes. Since then, the state has dominated prune production with over 90% of annual crops originating there. The only plantings outside New South Wales were in South Australia, mainly in the Riverland, Barossa and Clare Valley regions. The first plantings in South Australia were by the Evans Family at Evandale. Other orchards were established at Keyneton (SA) and Mexican Valley in the Barossa valley.

THE INDUSTRY AT YOUNG

Soldier Settlement blocks were planted in the Young district around 1920 at Kingsvale, Prunevale, Maimura, Quamby, Waterview and Wirrimah settlements. Each block contained 4 hectares (ha) of prunes and 2 ha of pome fruits.

The land was acquired under the Closer Settlement Act from a number of large land holdings. The Kingsvale area amounted to about 60 orchard blocks, with another 10 at Prunevale. Prunes were the main crop, supplemented by apples and pears. Originally, a total of 60 families made their living from the 29 blocks in the main area. This number had dropped to just 16 by the mid 1940's, and by 1994 only 4 descendants of the original families (all grandsons) remained on their blocks in the Kingsvale area - 1 at Prunevale and 3 at Kingsvale itself.

The early plantings at Young were mainly the d'Agen variety (75%), with the balance being Robe de Sergeant.

THE INDUSTRY IN THE MIA (Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area)

The first plantings in the area were in 1912 following the establishment of the MIA. Initial plantings included the First World War Soldier Settlement scheme when prunes were included in blocks at Corbie Hill near Leeton and at Lake Wyangan near Griffith. Further plantings around Yenda, Yoogali and Hanwood saw a very gradual expansion of the industry in the area. It wasn't until the 1980's that considerable expansion of the industry took place.

MECHANICAL HARVESTING

The first attempts at replacing hand picking with mechanical harvesting took place at Young around 1963 using limb shakers and mobile catching frames. This practice developed rapidly and by the 1970's most growers used some form of mechanical harvesting. Most of this development took place at Griffith where locally produced machinery is widely used.

DEHYDRATION

The first method used was sun drying, but this produced a variable product. The first dehydrators used a wood fire to heat a flue pipe running the length of the drying chamber. Convection currents from this pipe achieved drying.

Oil fired burners were introduced after World War II and incorporated parallel flow dehydration with greatly improved efficiency. Next came the LP Gas burners, giving a much cleaner operation.

INDUSTRY ORGANISATION

The Prune growers Association of NSW was known to have been operating as early as 1926. In 1927 the NSW Dried Fruits Board was established via an Act of Parliament. The Board was originally restricted to dried vine fruits but in 1934 was extended to include prunes and other dried tree fruit.

PRODUCTION HISTORY

Production and sales of about 1,000 tonnes in the late 1920's rose to a peak of 5,000 tonnes in the 1960's. A significant drop in production over the following years followed, however the figures have steadily improved since 2002. It is estimated that production has the potential to reach 8,000 tonnes by 2010.