At one time, Fresno County raisin grape grower Bob Brar pumped water from the ground to supplement deliveries of surface water to his 120 acres of drip-irrigated Thompson seedless vines near Fowler, Calif.
That was before the impacts of the on-going drought set in and deliveries of canal water were shut off.
This year, as he has the past two seasons, Brar has relied entirely on his two pumps and supplies of ground water to irrigate his crop.
Meanwhile, he reports, in the past three years, the level of his water table has dropped 45 feet to the current depth of 90 feet below the surface.
“Some of the wells in this area are starting to dry out,” says Brar, whose own wells go down 200 feet. One of his wells, which is 80 to 90 feet deep, dried out last year.
His fields missed out on much of the rain that drenched some parts of Fresno County, the third weekend of July. “The rain was pretty spotty. We got some showers in this area but not the heavy rain that fell in Fresno and some other places.”
While welcomed, rain at this time along with high relative humidity can cause slip skin which can lead to cracking of the skin and leave the crop more vulnerable to bunch rot, he notes.
“I’ve been able to give the vines the water they need,” Brar says. “Overall, it looks like a decent crop in this area. Because of water shortages for some growers and pressure from powdery mildew and insect pests, I think production will be about average, depending on the grower. Most raisin growers had a lighter-than-average crop last year.”
His bunch counts this season are normal, although higher than last year, while cluster development is better than in 2014.
Like budbreak, which began about 10 to 14 days earlier than usual this season, the berries on his vines started to ripen earlier than normal. “Usually, veraison begins around July 4,” says Brar, whose been growing raisins for 38 years. “But, this year, it started the last week of June.”
Disease and insect threats also appeared sooner.
“Powdery mildew came early,” Brar says. “Some growers got behind on their sulfur and fungicide treatments and had problems controlling it. Then, the weather turned hot and some grapes suffered sulfur damage.
Another early arrival in his vineyards this season was the leafhopper. In some years, like last season, no control is needed, he notes. However, this year, due to a high population, he treated his vines with an insecticide around the end of April.
For the first time in two seasons, Brar also had to spray for mites, making applications in early June.
Brar hand-picks all of his grapes. He likes to lay the clusters on trays when they test 21º Brix. At the current pace of ripening, he expects they’ll reach that mark no earlier than sometime in the third week of August.
Brar, a member of the Raisin Bargaining Association’s Board of Directors, is optimistic about price prospects for this year’s raisin crop. Raisin growers in Turkey, who export most of their production, are the main overseas competitors for California growers. About a third of California’s production is exported annually. This year, Turkish growers lost a significant portion of their crop to frost and hail. Meanwhile, the acreage of raisin grapes grown in California continues to decline as growers replace their vineyards with more profitable crops, such as almonds and pistachios.
“The supply and demand for raisins now is pretty close in balance,” Brar says. “So, I think raisin prices this year will be higher than last year.”