At mid-August Castle Rock Vineyards cold storage facility in Delano, Calif., would normally be humming with activity, with workers filling as many as 25,000 to 30,000 boxes with fresh table grapes.
This year, though, production is running at only about half that level, as harvesting and packing crews wait for the rest of the grapes to finish ripening.
“It’s a situation many of us haven’t seen before,” says Jim Llano, sales manager for the grower shipper with vineyards in Coachella, Arvin, Bakersfield, Delano, Ducor, Lindsay, and Reedley, Calif.
“It’s been a very unusual year in terms of production and varieties coming off in their normal time periods,” he says. “So, we’re seeing some gaps.”
Llano expects that gap to close later in the season.
Meanwhile, crews continue picking early-season varieties. After finishing the Sugarones, they’re on track to complete Flame Seedless fields by third week of August and Summer Royals by month’s end.
Llano expects production to begin picking up in September as varieties like Thompson seedless, Scarlet Royal and Crimson Seedless reach maturity.
“I’m looking forward to early September, when we’ll be packing multiple varieties and volume within in the industry will finally start to pick up,” he says. “As more fruit becomes available in September and October, exports will also increase.”
This year’s table grape crop is also likely to be light on tonnage, Llano notes. Among the Castle Rock Vineyards varieties he expects to be down in production this year are Flame Seedless, Autumn Royal, Thompson seedless and, possibly, other green varieties.
Based on a survey the last week of July and the first week of August, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service expects a 1 percent smaller crop than last year. Its August forecast calls for the 2011 California table grape crop to total 100 million tons.
“Many of us in the industry don’t think it will be that big,” Llano says. “Overall, we’re seeing much lighter production than normal this year.”
As the normal supply of summer table grapes has fallen this year, prices have risen. Currently, FOB prices are up by 20 percent or more, he notes. However, he expects that to change as shipments begin to increase.
Usually, prices peak as production comes on in early Juneand dip in August as volume increases, Llano says. Then, as inventories start to wind down, prices start rising again as demand picks up for the Thanksgiving holidays.
“We’re hoping for a dry fall to allow us to continue harvesting through Thanksgiving,” he says.