Outlook bright for table grape growers in 2016

Issue Date: June 22, 2016
By Ching Lee
The table grape season in California extends from May to January. And in the last few years, harvest has started as early as April and has gone into February, with more than 85 different grape varieties being produced.
Photo/Matt Salvo

Weather permitting, California table grape production could reach a new record this year, thanks to newer plantings coming online and more productive varieties, with growers continuing to see higher prices for their crop.

Preliminary estimates from the California Table Grape Commission show the 2016 crop at 117.4 million 19-pound boxes, up from 109.3 million last year and eclipsing the record 2013 crop, which was 116.3 million.

Regardless of whether volumes will be higher, crop value appears on track to set another record as well, said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. She noted that table grape prices this year are tracking ahead of 2015, when the crop was valued at a record $1.83 billion, surpassing the previous record set in 2014 of $1.76 billion.

Whereas higher volumes could put downward pressure on prices in some sectors, Nave pointed out that record crops for table grapes have not hurt prices and in many cases have pulled values higher.

"There's plenty of demand in this domestic market and there's plenty of demand all over the world," she said. "If growers can produce it, there's demand for it somewhere in the world, either in the U.S. and Canada or in other export markets."

While total table grape acreage in the state has held steady at or near 100,000 for years, according to commission estimates, growers agree that replacement of older vines with newer and higher-yielding varieties has boost state production.

Plantings of older varieties such as Thompson seedless, Crimson seedless and Red Globe have dropped dramatically, making way for varieties such as Scarlet Royal and Autumn King, now the state's top two varieties.

With increased labor and other production costs, growers are transitioning to varieties that not only yield better but require less labor such as leaf removal and vine girdling, said Kern County grower Tom Oglesby. At the same time, they also want varieties that produce bigger and better-tasting fruit with good color and that ship well, he added.

Jeff Simonian of Simonian Fruit Company in Fresno County noted that Thompson seedless, which used to be the state's top green variety, yields about 1,000 boxes per acre, whereas the newer Autumn King typically yields 1,500 to 2,000 boxes per acre and doesn't require as much cultural practices.

"The concern over labor is a major one moving forward," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. "I think growers think twice before planting labor-intensive crops, and that may be muting some of the increase in acreage that we see out there. There's no question that we're still dealing with some of the most labor-intensive crops when we're dealing with table grapes."

Nave added that the drought has also driven growers to remove marginally profitable vineyards and replant them.

"Farmers are very mindful about water use and we're forced to grow on a limited quantity," said Oglesby. "If you have vineyards that are not performing, they're going to come out. You're going to farm what's going to give you the best potential for making a profit."

The newer varieties have also allowed growers to extend the table grape season, with more volume in the fall, said Rob Spinelli, a salesman for Anthony Vineyards, which grows grapes in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys.

Nave noted the season has been stretching longer during the last decade, with grapes available from May into January. And in the last few years, harvest has started as early as April and has gone into February, with more than 85 different grape varieties being produced. Having a longer season and different varieties that aren't harvested all at once allow growers to keep their crews working throughout the season, Spinelli said.

"The biggest point is for labor: You can't send your labor away and expect them to come back," he said.

That the state's acreage has remained stable is indication that growers are choosing to reinvest in table grapes and that they are seeing good returns, said Simonian.

"It means the crop has been profitable," he said. "At the retail level, I see consumption growing. The bottom line is growers are making money."

Per capita consumption of table grapes in the U.S. was 8.7 pounds in 2015, up 8 percent compared to 8.1 pounds in 2014, according to the commission.

Nearly 35 percent of the state's crop is exported to more than 55 foreign markets, the top three being Canada, Mexico and China. Growers and shippers agree that the higher value of the dollar has made California grapes less competitive in many overseas markets, with total export shipments slipping 15 percent last year compared to 2014. But they noted that marketers have been able to move more of the fruit to domestic markets.

While growers continue to increase production, Nave pointed out that the growth is incremental and "very planned, which allows the creation of demand to keep up with or stay slightly ahead of production."

Growers say they remain optimistic that they will be able to produce a record crop this year, but warned that there is still a long season ahead and that high heat and fall rains could hurt some of the fruit, lowering the initial estimates.

Spinelli noted the heat wave in early June already pommeled some of the fruit in the Coachella Valley and triple-digit temperatures throughout the state's grape-growing regions this week are expected to do further damage.

In Kern County, where harvest is just starting, Oglesby said high temperatures could impact some of the later varieties but the size of his crop so far looks "pretty decent."

"If all the stars line up, it looks like it could be a very good crop," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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