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- California’s 3,000 raisin producers are undoubtedly the happiest of the lot of more than 8,000 grape growers statewide.
- Raisins, though, are coming off a near historic 2010 with equally promising 2011 and 2012 seasons ahead.
- “The raisin industry is subject to whatever other people decide not to do,” explains RBA Chief Executive Officer Glen Goto.
“In 2003 labor costs shot up because we had a labor shortage,” Goto said. “That is when Monte and other growers really started looking at machine harvest.” Today, Schutz and Goto estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the valley’s raisin crop is mechanically harvested.
“Frankly, I should have done it a year earlier,” he said.
It takes about 20 people to mechanically harvest 20 acres. That includes 15 to cut canes and four to mechanically harvest and mechanically pick up the dried raisins. Schutz says it takes 40 to 45 people to hand harvest the same acreage.
That alone saves at least $300 per acre.
Schutz machine-harvests about 75 percent of his acreage. The rest is still hand harvested and laid on individual paper trays to dry and later rolled and boxed by hand. Production in some blocks is not high enough to justify machine harvesting. Plus, Schutz’ does not want to put his entire crop in peril in case of mechanical failure.
The switch to machines has also lessened the labor need Valley-wide at harvest time. Goto said when the industry was 100 percent hand-harvested, it would take 40,000 to 50,000 laborers over a two month period to harvest, lay and gather up the valley’s dried raisins. That has been reduced to a stable 20,000 to 30,000 workforce at the height of the late summer and early fall harvest season.
Schutz’ vines are in 12-foot rows with 7 feet between vines. They’re trellised with 18-inch crossarms. He has been using drip irrigation since the 1980s.
Sun-drying raisins is all about watching the calendar. Schutz wants his field dried crop out of the weather by Sept. 22. Ideally, he wants to begin harvest at 19 Brix. However, “In reality, you look at when you want the raisins ready to pick up and back it up 30 days or so and start picking.”