Fresno County grower Monte Schutz finished boxing his Thompson seedless raisins on Oct. 6. That was about seven to 10 days earlier than last year when early October rains set back the drying crop.
Harvest started 10 days earlier than last season in what many are calling one of the best San Joaquin Valley raisin-drying seasons in decades.
Schutz, a third-generation raisin growers and president of the Raisin Bargain Association, grows 350 acres of raisin grapes, include a few Zantes, near Caruthers, Calif.
He began cutting canes Aug. 24 on the two-thirds of his vines that he harvests by machine. Three days later he started hand-picking the rest of the grapes.
Once the machine-harvested grapes were on the trays, they dried in 10 days or less. His hand-picked grapes lay on the drying trays for just 12 to 14 days before the raisins were ready to pick up.
“The weather was excellent for drying,” Schutz says “Temperatures were in the 95 to 100-degree range throughout the period.”
Earlier this season USDA/NASS projected an almost 18 percent decline in raisin type grape production from last year’s 346,000-ton crop to 285,000 tons this year. That’s in line with the RBA’s estimate this past spring of a 21-percent reduction in bunch counts, Schutz notes.
However, based on what he’s been hearing from growers, 2012 production is down at least 25 percent. “The crop seemed to get smaller as the harvest progressed,” Schutz says.” It was taking more trays to fill bins and bin weights were lighter. Some guys say their crop is off as much as 40 percent from last year. We’ll know the actual size when we deliver the raisins and they cross the scales. While improved quality of the raisins could make up for a little of the lower weights of the bins in the field, it won’t be enough to make up for the big reduction in tray counts.”
Despite its smaller size, the 2012 crop is much improved over last year in terms of the number of raisins grading B or better.
“Quality is really good,” Schutz says. “We’re looking for a 65 percent to 75 percent B and B. Last year it was horrible, not even 55 percent.”
Despite an anticipated labor shortage, Schutz says he was able to complete his harvest in a timely manner, because he lined up his harvest crews early this year and paid workers 30 to 32 cents per tray, 3 to 4 cents more than last year. However, Mother Nature also contributed in a big way to a successful harvest.
“We got by this year because we were saved by the favorable weather,” Schutz says. “It enabled us to get an early start. That gave the fewer workers we did have more time to pick the grapes and avoid any rain damage.
“The shortage of labor is an ongoing concern for all of us. If the problem isn’t solved, one of these years, fruit will be left on the vines. We need Congress to reform our immigration laws to include some type of guest worker program.”