Fewer but Sweeter Raisins this Year
By Brian German, Associate Broadcaster
After last year’s tremendously successful raisin harvest, Steve Spate a fourth generation farmer, said it is understandable to see a bit of a decline in tonnage this year. Spate, who is also a grower representative for the Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA), which has been representing the raisin industry for nearly 50 years, said, “Just by nature, the year following a high crop year could potentially be down—especially for Thompson Seedless Grapes,” noted Spate.
Raisin grape harvest in the central San Joaquin Valley is a two-month process for growers, typically running from late August to mid-to-late October, depending on crop maturity. Hard numbers on this year’s overall crop won’t be available for a few more months, but growers are reporting a significant decline from last year’s harvest. “Last year was a large crop,” said Spate,” so definitely we were considering that this year would be down—but not as severely as some growers have reported. We have people reporting differences in yield from 10% to as high as almost 50%.”
There are various possible reasons for this year’s drop in yield, aside from the cyclical nature of grapevines. “I think drought conditions last year may have played a big role, while the buds were setting basically for this year,” said Spate. He also suggested water was a significant factor this year as well, particularly if growers lacked enough surface water deliveries or a grower had a pump issue and there was a critical time where he or she didn’t get water on the field.
The overall reduction in acreage of this year’s harvest is yet another factor to consider. Industry experts report approximately 10K to 15K fewer raisin grape acres compared to last year. This shrinkage is attributed to growers replacing raisin crops with higher-value crops such as almonds.
As many industries struggled with the cost and availability of labor, Spate commented that it wasn’t too difficult to fill their labor needs this year. “Going into the year growers made different decisions and chose more mechanized harvests. The handpicking crews were much larger and seemed to be readily available,” Spate said.
While grape growers were thankful for the amount of available labor this year, they have some serious concerns regarding the cost of labor in the next few years. Between a minimum wage that will incrementally climb to $15 an hour in a couple of years and the newly established shorter workday for farmworkers [before reaching the overtime threshold of 8 hours, as opposed to 10 hours], growers consider the investment in mechanization as being more cost effective in the long run.
“I think we will continue to see shifts towards any type of mechanization possible due to some of those minimum wage [increases].” Before the governor signed the overtime bill, Spate said, “We used to have the ability to have workers work longer hours before overtime kicked in.”
Raisin grape growers will still be harvesting for the next few weeks. Although it appears overall tonnage is down a bit, sugar levels seem to be higher than last year, resulting in better quality raisins.