Several years ago, my Nice Dad married a farmer. It was really considerate of him, don't you think? Marrying to suit my food-nerd-side-hobby--what a guy!
I kid, of course. But he did choose well. Because in addition to being a pretty great Step-Mom and a very fun Grandma, my Nice Step-Mom is now running her family's farm.
Actually, they call it "the ranch". In the Midwest, that would mean cows, but Nice Step-Mom primarily grows rice and prunes. (The differences in terminology would make an interesting study by themselves--in the Midwest, it's a "combine", in California, it's a "harvester", and so on.)
Although, the rice fields were in the process of drying out while we were there, Nice Step-Mom estimated they wouldn't be ready to harvest for several weeks. Because of the odd weather this year, we did manage to end up visiting right in the middle of prune harvest however.
(And speaking of terms, I've been told that the fruits Nice Step-Mom grows are always "prunes". In their undried state, they are correctly referred to as "fresh prunes", but they are never "plums".)
I don't know why I expected it to be complicated, but I was surprised at how low-tech the process of harvesting prunes is. The machine in the picture comes along and shakes each tree. All the prunes that fall down are caught by the panels on the side, and funneled down into a big wooden crate that rides on the back. When the crate gets full, it's dropped off right there in the orchard for later pick-up.
The smell of the orchard--which was, I think, a combination of the harvested prunes as well as some of the rotting windfalls laying under the trees--was incredible. It was just ever so slightly wine-like. I tried to resist the urge to sniff the fruit on the trees, but it couldn't be helped.
A few days later, Nice Step-Mom took us out to the Sunsweet drying facility to see how the fresh prunes are made into what you buy at the store. Again, surprisingly low-tech. Although there's some washing and sorting involved, it was basically just a much larger scale of my little home dehydrator.
The fresh prunes are popped onto these tall wooden trays, and dried at 180 degrees in huge "tunnels". I sampled a hot prune fresh out of the dryer. The inside wasn't solid at all, but rather had transformed into a gooey and sweet and sticky paste...it was like the wild--and maybe even slightly naughty--cousin of a cooled prune.
And because they sort by farm at this stage, we were also able to try some of Nice Step-Mom's prunes. I had to limit myself to just a few, but I could have kept snacking much longer!