With his Thompson Seedless crop rounding the curve for the home stretch, Fresno County raisin grower Bob Brar plans to start his 40th harvest on or about Labor Day. That’s when he’ll begin laying the clusters on trays for the two-and-a-half to three weeks he expects it will take for them to dry into raisins.
Crews to harvest the crop have already been lined up. “In the last week of July, my labor contractor told me that he has the workers we’ll need,” Brar says.
Brar, who grows 130 acres of Thompson Seedless grapes and 10 acres of pomegranates near Fowler. Calif., is a member of the Raisin Bargaining Association’s board of directors.
He likes to harvest his grapes at 20 º to 21º Brix. For the last two or three years, his raisin grapes were ready to pick in the third week of August. He plans to start harvest around Labor Day.
“This year, starting with bud break and initial growth of the shoots and continuing through bloom and veraison, the vines and fruit have been developing close to the normal timing,” Brar says.
In line with industry estimates, which indicate four to five fewer clusters per vine this year than the estimated 34 clusters per vine in 2016, Brar anticipates production in his vineyard to be down from last season. His 2016 raisin yields averaged about two-and-a-half tons per acre.
A smaller raisin crop this year could help boost the prices growers receive for raisins above the disappointing $1,100 per ton of 2016, he said. That was almost a third less than the previous year.
“At a price of $1,100 per ton, it’s difficult for many growers to even meet the cost of growing the raisins,” he says.
Brar notes several other market factors favoring a higher raisin price this year:
Unlike 2016, when high inventories of unsold raisins helped push prices downward, packers have been able to whittle those stocks down to much more manageable levels, reducing the carryover into the new marketing year, which began Aug. 1.
“In fact, some packers have no raisin stocks to carry into the new marketing year,” Brar says.
California raisin production this year is likely to fall short of the combined domestic and overseas demand for the crop, he says. One reason is California’s continually dwindling production capacity, as growers keep replacing raisin vineyards with more profitable crops, such as tree nuts.
In the past 16 years, the amount of land in the state devoted to growing raisins has shrunk by about 40 percent to 165,000 acres last year. That trend continued this year, as well.
“Because of these conditions, I expect the raisin price to go up this year,” Brar says.
Increased pumping of ground water during the recent drought to replace greatly limited deliveries of surface water has taken a toll on local ground water supplies, he notes.
During the past 10 years, his water table has dropped from a depth of about 40 feet below the surface to 90 to 100 feet or so below the soil surface. This past January, due to diminished output from his two existing wells, he drilled a new well to a depth of 400 feet. Also, he extended his two other wells to the 130- to 140-foot depth.
“I have plenty of canal water and ground water this year,” Brar says. “But, who knows what will happen next year?”
Vines in the small amount of sandy and hardpan soils in his vineyard suffered a little damage from an early-May heat wave and the high 90- and low 100-degree temperatures throughout much of July and into early August, he says.
“With their heavy foliage and by giving them the water they need, the vines should be able to handle the heat stress,” he says. “The quality of the fruit should be good this year.”
Like last year, powdery mildew pressure in his vineyards was high this season. He credits timely dusting with sulfur and two fungicide applications for keeping the threat under control. Beginning when shoots had grown to from 6 to 12 inches in length, he dusted his vines with 12 pounds per acre of sulfur every seven to 10 days for a total of seven applications until the disease threat subsided with veraison.
He also included a fungicide spray with his usual gibberellic acid treatment, which he applies at bloom to increase berry weight and total soluble solids.
Brar followed that with another application of that fungicide in the second week of June.
As usual, timely applications of insecticides were needed to limit damage to the vines from vine mealybugs, leafhoppers and mites. “The mites love the heat we’ve been having. But I was able to treat them in time before they caused any damage.
With California’s raisin grape production on track to matching demand better than it has in recent years, Brar is upbeat as he gets ready for this year’s harvest.
“I’m very optimistic about the health of our raisin industry,” he says. “The picture looks really good for at least the next three to four years.”