Raisin crop will be high quality, but smaller


Issue Date: September 12, 2012
By Steve Adler
Harvesting equipment picks up raisins that have been dried on continuous trays, one of three methods used by growers to harvest raisins. The continuous-tray method is gaining in popularity because the raisins can be picked up mechanically.
Photo/Ryan Jacobsen
Continuous-tray raisin drying allows for the crop to be picked up mechanically after the raisins dry down.
Photo/Ryan Jacobsen
Fresno County grower Ray Jacobsen checks on dried-on-the-vine raisins in one of his vineyards.
Photo/Ryan Jacobsen

Raisin harvest is going fast and furious in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, as growers enjoy the benefits of a near-perfect growing season. On the downside, though, a lighter crop and increased labor costs are having an impact on farmers' returns.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service projection for the 2012 raisin crop stands at 285,000 tons, far below last year's crop of 346,000 tons. As a result, the Raisin Bargaining Association board of directors voted to offer this year's crop at 95 cents per pound, 10 cents higher than last year. But even at that higher price, growers say they will make less money overall than in 2011.

"The price increase for most growers would not even net them as much income as they received last year," said grower Steve Spate of Selma, who said his harvest is about 60 percent complete. "The reason for that is a crop that is (nearly) 20 percent less than last year, coupled with a substantial increase in cost to get the crop harvested.

"We anticipate the quality of this year's raisin crop to be exceptional," Spate said. "The grapes have really good sugar content and they came in early. So it has been an ideal growing season. We didn't have a lot of issues with pests, in most cases."

But Spate said farmers have had to offer significant increases in labor costs in order to attract workers. For example, pickers earned 25 cents to 27 cents per tray last year for traditionally harvested raisins, and this year they are earning 30 cents to 32 cents.

Compounding the problem is that because of the lighter crop, there is less fruit in each tray, further impacting growers' returns.

"With traditional tray pick, a grower would expect a minimum of 18 to 20 pounds of fruit on each tray. But this year, we are seeing 14 to 16 pounds in a lot of cases, so there just isn't as much fruit on each tray, which ultimately costs the grower more money," he said.

But the lower yields led to enhanced raisin quality, and the crop reached maturity more quickly, which shortens the season so that the raisins can be safely picked up before inclement weather strikes the vulnerable trays.

"We are probably ahead of normal by a couple days. With the good drying weather, those couple of extra days in August make a whole lot of difference on the tail end," Fresno County grower Ray Jacobsen said. "Yields are going to be down from last year and that is probably one of the reasons for the early ripening."

Jacobsen said his crews completed boxing flame seedless raisins this week. Those grapes are harvested using traditional trays. He also has dried-on-the-vine raisin grapes, which are in the process of drying so they can be machine harvested.

"We had a sprinkling of rain, but not enough to create any problems for us. So far, we have had a pretty good drying season and very few obstacles. There are some labor shortages in the area but we haven't been affected," he said.

Other growers have not been as fortunate. Spate noted that when raisin harvest began in mid-August, the labor force was adequate, but as more raisins matured and the labor demand increased, there were several reports of labor shortages by the end of the month.

"Around Aug. 27, which is the premium time when growers want to be picking, many of them could not access labor to get (the grapes) picked. They just weren't available and the growers as a result were offering a higher wage to try to get workers to come to them," he said. "We have growers who want to be picking right now because the fruit is ready, but they haven't been able to get the labor they need. So they are being forced to wait for a later date and then run the risk of inclement weather."

Spate said raisins are just one of many labor-intensive crops that are vulnerable to shortages of harvest help.

"As an industry, we are in need of some type of viable program to get immigrant labor in here to help us. There are a lot of other needs for hand labor at the same time, such as tree fruit and table grapes, so this causes a very high demand for the labor force," he said.

One factor that is driving up the price to growers is the versatility of the grape crop, which doesn't have to be made into raisins if growers want to choose another option. A grower can sell grapes to a dehydrator to be made into golden raisins or to the green market for either juice concentrate or for blending purposes for wine.

"Growers can make that decision each year based on what they feel is the best option at the time. And there was definitely a good price from the wineries to attract growers this year," Spate said.

Glen Goto, chief executive officer of the Raisin Bargaining Association, agreed there has been strong interest from wineries.

"Wineries have been actively buying raisin grapes this year and they are currently paying $325 per green ton for this season's crush. This represents a 23 percent increase from the 2011 price," he said.

Raisin grape acreage continues to be removed annually and is typically replaced with other permanent crops, such as almonds, pistachios, oil olives or pomegranates, Goto said.

"These crops do not require the large amount of hand labor necessary to farm and harvest grapes to be dried into raisins," Goto said. "We were hoping that last year's price would stop the continued reduction in acreage, but it really hasn't."

One grower who won't be switching is Jacobsen, who said he is quite comfortable staying with his grapes, which he grows for both raisins and winery markets.

"Some guys are pulling out grapes and putting in other crops like almonds and pistachios. But we are going to stay with the grapes. All of our equipment is set up for grapes and grapes are something I know a lot about," he said.

(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.