In a rare gesture aimed at fostering unity, Raisin Bargaining Association Chairman Dwayne Cardoza welcomed representatives of several packers to the 51st annual meeting and recommended better cooperation between packers and growers.
“We need to get this community back together,” said Cardoza to the conference, which represents 1,500 grower members.
He acknowledged that packers, through the years, were often at odds with the organization.
In a question and answer session, packer Dennis Housepian, president of Caruthers Raisin Packing Co. Inc., said, “This industry has to pull in the same direction.”
Cardoza asked all the packers in the room to stand. “Those are the guys that write the checks,” he said as they stood. “These are our guys.”
At 80, Kalem Barserian, general manager and CEO of the RBA, is no stranger to the challenges of arriving at a field price in negotiations between packers and growers.
Barserian worked on the processing side with various packers for 30 years. He also headed the RBA from 1969 to 1987, and the organization sought him out a year ago to step into a stalemate on pricing for the 2016 crop.
Record Price Expected
At the Fresno meeting, both Barserian and Cardoza predicted that this year’s crop could command a price that will top the previous record of $1,900 per ton in 2012.
The 2017 crop price was set at $1,800, well above the 2016 price of $1,100, blamed on a 20 percent uptick in world production.
In a press release, Barserian said, “Despite this price being the second highest in history, there will be no winners.”
He pointed out that the 2017 crop had one of the lowest grape bunch counts in history. A severe heat wave burned green bunches on the vine, destroying 5 percent of the crop. And two rain storms brought millions of dollars in losses.
In his opening remarks at the RBA meeting, Barserian pointed out that per capita consumption of raisins has declined since 1967, the year the RBA was started. It dropped by 33 percent, from 1.33 pounds to 1.16 pounds today.
The California industry has gone from 50 percent of world production to 20 percent.
“But there are opportunities,” Barserian said. “We’re starting over again, just like we did in 1967.”
The number of growers has shrunk from 4,000 to 1,800. Acreage went from 280,000 at its peak to 155,000. Last year alone, some 10,000 acres of grape vines were pulled out of the ground.
Some raisin growers hold other jobs, and many have diversified. To sustain themselves, some have turned some of their acreage into nut crops.
From 2010 to 2016, average production was 328,000 tons. “We’re still in a surplus situation,” Barserian said.
But he projects 2018’s crop will be no more than 230,000 tons, the shortest crop since 1982 when production stood at 205,000 tons.
The RBA membership is down from 2,200.
“We were producing the same amount of tonnage 51 years ago that we are producing this year and probably will produce for the next five years, maybe even 10 years; I see it as under 250,000 tons,” Barserian said.
When Barserian first got into the industry, half the raisin variety grapes were going to wineries. In 1967, wineries crushed 615,000 tons. This year they crushed 94,000 tons.
Among bright spots in the industry’s history is the export relationship with Japan, where raisins are used as a cooking ingredient rather than a snack. The industry has fostered Japanese development of new product uses, and Japanese imports of California raisins have more than doubled since 1967.
Barserian said he would like to work with Fresno State University’s culinary program to establish a faculty position and foster other product development efforts. But he said that “will be a while coming.”
Cardoza and Barserian talked of efforts to find more dried-on-the-vine varieties that could open the door to increased mechanization during pruning and harvesting. The industry is working with International Food Genetics in Delano on that effort.
The RBA membership is aging. The average age is in the 60s.
Cardoza, 65, hopes to give his 29-year-old son, Steven, more of a leadership role.
He emphasized to members that they should look for ways to bring younger people into the industry, perhaps through leasing agreements and in other ways.
Cardoza also praised the attitude of younger people when it comes to responding to the Food Safety Modernization Act. “Yes, it’s bureaucratic,” he said. “But young people are saying, ‘How can we benefit from it?’ We’re doing something (other nations) are not doing.”