The first price salvo for the 2012 California grape crop crush has been fired before bud break by the leader of the Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA).

Caruthers, Calif., Thompson seedless grower Monte Schutz, president of the Fresno, Calif.-based RBA, told members of the association at its annual gathering that demand for juice concentrate continues strong with reports that this could send 2012 Thompson green prices up to $300 per ton.

Whether the world’s largest winery, Gallo, and other California wineries will pay that remains to be seen. However, a price like that being floated this early in the season is indicative of how tight available supplies are in the Thompson market for 2012.

$300 compares to a record $265 average per ton paid for last year’s raisin-type grapes. This green ton price netted another record, $1,700 per ton for raisins. A $300 green price equates to $1,800 to $2,000 per ton for what likely will be 100 percent free tonnage raisins.

This stratospheric price is bolstered by continued strong raisin sales to consumers, up 3 percent so far over last year. “This past year’s crop looks like it will come in at 315,000 to 320,000 tons of raisins, which is near what we sold last year at 325,000 tons,” Schutz told RBA members.

“We expect prices to be substantially higher this year compared to last year,” Schutz says.

Last year was unprecedented. Before harvest, Thompson green prices were quoted at $250 per ton, and the RBA was in the second year of a $1,500 per ton two-year raisin contract with its signatory packers.

Wineries raised the ante to $265 or even higher in some cases with early reports of a short crop, trying to convince growers to sell green rather than dry Thompsons into raisins.

The raisin industry fought back with a first-ever reopening of negotiations between packers and growers to raise an already established $1,500 per ton contract price to $1,700 per ton.

These extraordinary prices are the fallout from removal of as many as 100,000 acres of raisin-type grapes in the central San Joaquin Valley over the past decade and gradually increasing raisins sales.

Prices like growers saw last year and likely will see this season would suggest the pullouts have stopped.

That’s not the case as growers continue to destroy Thompson vineyards at the rate of 3 percent to 5 percent of the acreage annually. This winter, the RBA estimates another 5,000 acres were dozed out.

This could drive raisin-type vineyard acreage to below 200,000 acres for harvest this season. In 1993 the state acreage reporting service estimated the acreage at more than 281,000 acres.