As raisin harvest peaks, growers see high demand

Issue Date: September 28, 2011
By Steve Adler
Fresno raisin grower Steven Spate checks some of his recently harvested Thompson seedless grapes. Raisin harvest is nearing an end as growers race to get their crop on the ground ahead of any autumn rains.
Photo/Tracy Sellers
Because of a tight labor supply, an estimated 50 percent of this year’s raisin crop will be harvested mechanically.
Photos/Tracy Sellers
Raisin grapes that have nearly completed the drying process.
Photos/Tracy Sellers

A combination of factors that include a late crop, a shortage of harvest workers and demand for Thompson seedless grapes for both raisins and wine production has prompted a price war that benefits farmers as harvest in the San Joaquin Valley continues at full swing.

Thompson seedless growers have found themselves in an enviable position of having to decide whether to sell their grapes as raisins—$1,700 per ton—or grapes for crush—$250 to $265 per ton. It takes about four and a half tons of fresh grapes to make a ton of raisins.

"Right now, we are in a situation where we have stable pricing and there is the opportunity that the price could go up based on field activity by some of the processors that need more raisins," said raisin grower Steven Spate of Fresno. "We work for one payment a year. Our entire investment is laying on that one thin piece of paper out there."

Growers report that the crop is picking out heavier than expected, although the brix (sugar content) has been running behind normal, which has delayed harvest by a week to 10 days. Because of the delay in crop development, harvest time was compressed in mid-September as raisin growers raced to get their crop on the ground ahead of a federal crop insurance deadline.

Sept. 20 was the cutoff date for crop insurance for farmers using paper trays to dry raisin grapes. Growers harvesting their grapes by machine had five more days to harvest their grapes and still meet the crop insurance deadline.

"There is still a lot of picking going on, but most people did get their raisins on the ground ahead of the deadline," said Glen Goto, chief executive officer for the Raisin Bargaining Association in Fresno. "But driving around, I still see plenty of crews out there working, so those people are in jeopardy of not having insurance."

It was the delay in sugar development in the grapes, combined with the fast-approaching crop insurance deadlines, that led to a worker shortage.

"Labor costs have gone up significantly because of the shortage of labor. Labor is stretched very thin right now," Goto said. "Across the board, contractors have been saying that there never was an overabundance of labor this season. And with only a 10 day to two week window to get the grapes on the ground before the Sept. 20 deadline, there just wasn't enough labor to get that done."

In a typical year, about 40 percent of the raisins are harvested mechanically while the majority of grapes are harvested using traditional, individual paper trays. This year, because of the labor situation, the percentage of mechanically harvested raisins is expected to increase significantly.

"We could be well over 50 percent mechanically harvested raisins," Goto said. "It is a cost-saving method to get the crop harvested, but there is a large capital investment that you have to pay up front to buy the machinery. And you still need crews out there to cut the canes to start the process."

At this point, raisin growers say they hope for a mild October so they can get their trays of raisins out of the vineyards before rains can cause damage.

"It will be a weather-driven issue from this point forward," Goto said. "Typically, the grapes stay on trays for about three to four weeks, but as the days get shorter and the shadows grow longer, the heat units are fewer. It just takes that much longer to dry these raisins. So we are going to need all of October to get this crop in."

Goto said bunch counts for Thompson seedless grapes are about average this year, although some vineyards were impacted early in the season with mildew and botrytis.

Growers of Thompson seedless grapes have three options for their crop each year: table grapes, raisins or grapes to be crushed for wineries. The decision to grow table grapes must be made very early in the production cycle because it involves a different way of pruning the vines. As far as drying for raisins or going green to the crush, that decision can be made right up to the point where harvest begins.

"Last year, there were 275,000 tons of raisin-type grapes crushed and sent to the wineries. This year, speculation is that it will be over 400,000 tons crushed—and it could be half a million," Goto said.

He said fewer raisin-type grapes may be made into raisins because more will be sold to wineries. Goto estimated overall raisin deliveries "are going to be less than last year, when we had 355,000 tons."

The Raisin Administrative Committee, which is the federal marketing order for raisins, meets on Oct. 5, at which time it will issue its first crop estimate for this year.

The vast majority of California raisins are consumed in the United States, with nearly 170,000 tons in 2009-10. The United States is followed by the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, China and Canada. Sweden, Mexico, Denmark and Taiwan round out the top 10.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, global raisin consumption is forecast to expand 4 percent to 1.1 million metric tons in 2011-12, driven mainly by China's rebounding domestic supplies. Europe, which consumes nearly one-third of the world's raisins, has seen little growth in recent years because of lackluster demand from food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers and institutional bakers.

On a side note, the high price of raisins this year has prompted the Fresno County Sheriff's Office to issue a raisin theft advisory. According to sheriff's detective Jennifer Evans, most of the thefts in recent years consisted primarily of rolled raisins taken from the fields at all times of the day and evening.

"Some prevention tips we can offer would be to place rolled raisin trays deeper in the vineyard, so as to limit visibility from the roadway. Remove raisins or bins from fields or unsecured locations as soon as practical," she said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Reporter Tracy Sellers contributed to this story.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.