Battered by 2 inches of rain in a 24-hour period as his drying raisins lay rolled up in paper trays, Fresno County raisin grower Kelly Duley was still able to get his 2011 crop of Thompson seedless into the bin and covered with minimal loss of yield and quality.
It was a tough go, but making his achievement all the sweeter was the $1,700 per ton price he and other growers received for their Natural Seedless raisins — the second-straight year of record high prices.
Duley has been making raisins in his 30-acre vineyard near Fresno for the past eight years, and last fall was the fifth season he’s been hit with rain at harvest. The rain fell over a two-week period after he had picked the grapes and laid them out to dry on trays in row middles Sept. 19.
With rain in the forecast, he and his crew rolled the raisins. The storm blew out, but the clouds and cold temperatures, along with quite a bit of morning dew and little sunshine, remained for about another 10 days. Conditions were too wet to unroll the trays to promote more drying of the raisins. With the ground saturated with water down to about 24 inches, it took 12 days for the top 1/4-inch of soil to dry. By then the raisins were beginning to break down inside the rolls.
“The raisins were sticking to the paper, mildew was forming and there were signs of pest activity,” Duley says. “Steam was building up inside the rolls, creating a perfect environment for microorganisms to grow. With every worker we could get, we went into emergency mode — we unrolled the trays, spread out the raisins and then slipped the trays off the wet areas and onto dry ground for the raisins to finish drying. The raisins were out of the vineyard by the middle of October.
Even though there was no price incentive to help offset the cost of shaking the raisins, Duley ran them all through his shaker, but at an extremely slow speed. It took him and his crews, including extra hired hands, three times as long as usual to manually clean the raisins.
But, he says, it was the right decision. “I knew as soon as the grade came back from the packer — the raisins were perfect, with a high quality sugar assessment. They didn’t require any reconditioning. Even though I had insured the crop with a full reconditioning policy and one for additional expenses, my losses would have been higher without the shaking.”
A firm believer in raisin insurance, he keeps track of policy changes from year to year and likes to have his insurance in place no later than 60 days in advance of the Sept. 20 deadline for hand-harvested grapes to be down on trays.
For his 2011 harvest, every extra dollar Duley spent paid him $10 to offset the cost of additional labor he had to hire.
“Covering all those expenses on my own would have been a small catastrophe in itself,” he says. “With raisin insurance I sleep a little better at night.”
Duley is serving his second year as a director of the Raisin Bargaining Association. “We’re actively looking for new raisin growers to join so we can continue maintaining the recent high prices for our crop,” he says. “That can only be done by growers sticking together. There’s no cost to join or to be a member, and members enjoy many benefits.”
Even though prices growers received last year were the highest ever, costs were also the highest,” he says. “Bargaining for higher prices continues to be necessary for us to keep up with rising costs.”