Demand for organic raisins means profits can be made
There is a shortage of organic raisin growers, and a demand for organic raisins, according to Stephen Vasquez, University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor for Fresno County.
Raising organic raisins can be a real challenge, according to Ed Niksfarian, grower representative for Boghosian Raisins in Fowler.
Weed control is high on the list of challenges because there isn't a good organic herbicide available to growers, Niksfarian said. "Most of it (weed control) has to be done mechanically."
Vasquez agreed weed control is a big challenge for organic raisin production.
"There's really no products that do very well against some of the weeds that we have here in the valley," he said.
There are some herbicides labeled for organic use, Niksfarian said, adding, "I'm just starting to experiment with them now, and right at the moment I'm not all that happy with them."
Other weed control options for organics include mechanical control like French plowing, Niksfarian said.
Charles Hansen is owner of the Running Quail Ranch in Madera County. He has been certified organic since 1990, and he produces, packs and ships organic raisins. His son and grandchildren also work the farm.
Hansen uses mechanical weed control in his vineyard. "I go around a row with a steel weed blade on the tractor, and then I finish up with hand crews with shovels," he said.
The blade doesn't cut the weeds off, Hansen explained. What is does is it goes underneath the ground and cuts the roots.
"I do that once a year," Hansen said, adding he has good control with this method.
A drip irrigation system can create weed problems for organic growers, Niksfarian said. "It's going to add to your issues because you keep wetting the top of the berm."
"If you're flood irrigating, you're actually better off because you don't wet it (the berm) while you're irrigating," Niksfarian explained.
With furrow irrigation the water stays in the middle row, whereas drip is applied right where the weeds have to be controlled.
Irrigating in the middle of the row means the weeds can be mowed and/or disked, Niksfarian said. "It's easy. Everything under the vines is your biggest issue."
Powdery mildew can also be problematic depending on the variety a grower is raising, Niksfarian said.
Some varieties of grapes are much less prone to powdery mildew than others. The Selma Pete variety, for example, is more resistant to powdery mildew than Fiesta, Niksfarian said.
Not only does the Selma Pete have some resistance to powdery mildew, but it ripens early and has a high maturity. "Even in a year with low maturity, it's just pumping out beautiful raisins," Niksfarian said.
The vine mealybug is another challenge for organic growers.
"We don't have any organically approved products for dealing with vine mealybug. It's probably the worst pest we have," Vasquez said.
"It's just a real challenge for the grower who is trying to produce organic raisins, winegrapes or table grapes," Vasquez said, adding the vine mealybug attacks the vine and the fruit.
"You'll find it on the fruit and on the leaves and underneath the bark. And over a period of years, that vine or vineyard will decline because the population of vine mealybug can explode in a short period of time," Vasquez said.
Conventional chemical applications are much more effective for controlling vine mealybug and last a lot longer compared to the organic methods that are available, Niksfarian said. Organic growers only have organic oils and insecticidal soaps at their disposal to combat this pest, he added.
What it comes down to for organic growers is the vine mealybug is more of a control maintenance program, Niksfarian said.
Initially, the vine mealybug was only in isolated areas, but it's been spread by birds, animals, workers and machinery so that now it's a problem pretty much throughout the growing regions, Niksfarian said.
If the vineyard is still producing pretty well, another option for controlling vine mealybug is to take the vineyard out of organic production and switch it to a conventional vineyard, Vasquez said.
A big breakthrough for organic and conventional raisin growers has been the advent of the dried on the vine system vs. paper trays for drying, Niksfarian said.
"DOV gives higher production at less cost per ton. (A farmer) is saving three quarters of his labor with it. I mean the difference is huge. You can save up to $250 per ton with the dried on the vine method," Niksfarian said.
"The days of being tray dried are on their way out because of the cost of labor," Niksfarian said, adding another advantage is that the fruit is never touched by a human hand.
"In the future that's probably going to be a huge role in marketing this stuff as being a safe product," Niksfarian said.
The organic raisin market is continuing to grow, Niksfarian said. "It's growing and there's more coming in," he said.
Hansen agreed the demand for organic raisins continues to increase. "The baking trade probably uses up most of the (organic) raisins," Hansen said.
The export market is also big for organic raisins right now, Hansen continued, adding the European market is the strongest, but he's had inquiries worldwide.
Even with the additional challenges to grow organic raisins, growers can make it pencil out, Vasquez said: "They do get a higher price because there is a demand for that product, but it is more work."
(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Corning. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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