With less than a week until the end of September, California’s raisin harvest had reached the midway point. About half the crop was in bins, safe from any damaging rain, while the rest would require about three to four weeks of continued favorable drying weather before they’ll be ready to take out of the vineyards, reports Victor Sahatdjian.
He’s president of Victor Packing, Inc., Madera, Calif. His company processes raisins harvested within about a 50-mile radius of Fresno, where most of the crop is produced, as well as some from as far south as the Bakersfield area.
“This year’s harvest has been going quite well,” Sahatdjian say. “All in all, it’s been an excellent season.”
That’s despite the on-going drought, which has forced most growers to rely entirely on groundwater to grow this year’s crop, a tight supply of labor to pick the grapes and lay them out on drying trays and light rain in the first part of September in much of California’s raisin country.
“We dodged a bullet,” Sahatdjian says. “It was a soft rain that settled the dust on the parched ground and didn’t splash much soil up onto the trays of the drying raisins, like a heavy rain can. Since then we’ve had very good drying weather and forecasts for the next several weeks call for more of the same.”
Most growers had their hand-picked grapes on drying trays by the Sept. 20 deadline to qualify for insurance against any rain damage before the raisins are put into bins, he notes. However, a few growers continued to machine-pick grapes up to a day or two ahead of the Sept. 25 deadline for getting mechanically-harvested grapes on trays.
The harvest of the early-maturing raisin-type grapes – Dovine, Fiesta and Selma Pete – kicked off in early August about a week ahead of last year’s pace. Harvesting of later-maturing Thompson Seedless grapes in vineyards, where yields were high this season, began around Sept. 1, the typical starting time for that variety.
The Aug. 13 report of the objective measurement survey, conducted by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, forecast a 13-percent increase in raisin-grape production this year from last season. That includes a 19-percent increase in the 2015 bunch count compared to 2014.
“The raisin crop in some vineyards is quite strong this year,” Sahatdjian says. “Except for growers who might have jumped the gun, those who waited for readings of 20º to 22º Brix before harvesting, should have excellent quality raisins.”
As in a number of seasons over the past decade, some growers faced delays in getting their grapes picked due to smaller-than-desired labor crews. That was the case for Sahatdjian, who represents the fourth generation of his family to grow grapes. “We wanted to complete our hand picking by around Sept. 14,” he says. “But, because we didn’t have the number of workers we needed, our harvest dragged on another five or six days.”
In addition to concerns about availability of water to grow grapes over the long-term, Sahatdjian is concerned about the continuing decline in acreage of raisin-type vineyards in favor of less labor-intensive crops as another challenge for the industry.
The USDA-CDFA estimate bearing acreage of raisin-type grapes this year at 185,000. That compares to 242,000 acres 10 years ago.
“For the past several years, raisin growers have been pulling out about 5,000 to 7,000 acres annually in favor of tree nuts and other more profitable uses for their land,” he says. “Also, wineries bought very few Thompson Seedless grapes this year. More and more bulk juice is being imported, and that puts pressure on the remaining Thompson Seedless vineyards. The challenge for the industry will be to keep enough vines in the ground for a viable raisin market,” he says.
Meanwhile, growers and packers continue to negotiate a price for this year’s crop. Currently, they’re assessing how much the crop in Turkey, the main overseas competitor for California raisins, was affected by frost and hail damage this past spring.
“Last year, Turkish growers harvested a huge crop,” Sahatdjian says. “Currently, the international market for raisins is unsettled. Even though Turkey’s crop is reported to be smaller this year, that hasn’t been reflected in the market place yet.”