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Grape growers cope with weather and competition

Issue Date: May 25, 2011
By Steve Adler
Table grape growers in both the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys report a slight delay in their crops this year, due to cool spring weather.
Photo/Matt Salvo

After working through an early frost and continuing cool temperatures, table grape harvest is actively under way in the Coachella Valley, with growers reporting good quality and large bunches.

Harvest in the Coachella Valley will continue through May and June, before the grape harvest moves to other production areas in the San Joaquin Valley. Growers in the Coachella region harvest an average of 6 million 19-pound boxes with a value of more than $100 million.

"The cool weather pushed us back from where we thought we would start based on the normal, telltale signs," said John Burton of Peter Rabbit Farms in Coachella. "We might go a couple days longer at the end of the season, but it doesn't necessarily equate to the same extension. It usually means you bunch up somewhere in the middle."

Burton said growers in the Coachella Valley are currently harvesting early varieties of table grapes such as perlette and flame seedless. Prices have declined somewhat as harvest picks up momentum, but overall the return to growers is acceptable, he said.

"Prices started off in a safe zone and they have tumbled a little faster than I would have liked to see. But, all in all, we are happy with where the market is now. I would say the value for the grapes the consumers are getting is right in line," Burton said. "The grapes are sweet and our brix count right now is at a level that we had hoped for at this time of year."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Coachella Valley grape growers is the competition from grapes coming into the United States from Mexico. This head-to-head competition will continue until the table grape harvest begins in the San Joaquin Valley in July.

"Mexico's window is now and they are coming across the border with lots of Mexican grapes. It affects our market in a very big way. The market solely belongs to California when the San Joaquin Valley guys start up. Until then we are going to battle Mexican product for the entire months of May and June," Burton said. "Every year we have the same thing."

California farmers also participate as active sellers in international markets. Table grapes ranked No. 7 among California's agricultural exports in 2009—the most recent year for which full statistics are available—with international sales of $594 million. Canada is the top foreign market for California table grapes, buying more than one-third of the state's exports.

"Strong demand in export markets has been a key to the strength of California's fresh grape industry," said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. "Expanding markets and maintaining strong demand in the U.S. and in export markets has been vital to this industry's ability to survive and even grow despite the challenges that farmers everywhere in the U.S. face."

Farther north in Kern County, table grape grower Mark Hall of Wheeler Ridge reported that this year's crop set is "really good" on most varieties, including flame seedless, crimson seedless, red globe and autumn royal.

"In general, everything indicates that we will have a big crop this year. I have heard that some people have had a few problems with autumn royal, a black seedless variety, that some people have had some light crop this year," he said.

Hall said grape development is running about six days behind average. He estimated that harvest in Kern County will start up around the 4th of July and continue until Thanksgiving. There are several varieties of table grapes grown in California—some with early maturity and some with later—which allows for a longer harvest season.

"I've been growing table grapes for 30 years, and it is more of an art than a science," he said. "We are selling our grapes for about the same amount of money that we sold them for 30 years ago, but we are still in business because we are getting higher yields."

In Fresno County, Kerman grower Paul Lanfranco said all indications point to a table grape crop that is larger than last year's.

"I grow crimson seedless grapes, and this year the bunches look longer with bigger shoulders than the previous year. The bunches were smaller than normal last year so in comparison, the bunch count looks to be better and the formation of the bunches looks better," he said.

While table grape production is more labor intensive than many other crops, farmers report that they expect to be able to hire an ample number of experienced employees.

"As of right now we have no labor shortages," Lanfranco said. "At the present time, we are pulling leaves to get better sunlight penetration through the vine canopy. We should start harvest in the middle to latter part of September and it will go about six weeks."

As in all areas of agriculture at the present time, higher production costs are taking a toll.

"Our input costs for fuel to fertilizers and everything else have gone up. Hopefully, that will be reflected in a better price this year. But prices for all other commodities are up, so I see no reason why it shouldn't be the same for table grapes," Lanfranco said. "We need to get a higher price to just pay for our increased expenses."

Overall, California growers produced nearly 100 million boxes of fresh grapes during the 2010 season. The total value of the crop for the 2010 season was $1.3 billion.

California's fresh grape season runs through January. Last season, 45 percent of the volume was shipped between October and December. The top variety by volume was crimson seedless, with 19.3 million boxes, followed by flame seedless, red globe and Thompson seedless.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

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




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