Arcadio Castro is one of those success stories in an industry – raisin grape production -- that has seen its share of pain and progress and is now poised to take a deep breath and bask in what could be one of its best years in a decade.

Castro’s first foray into the vineyards of California’s Central Valley was as a farmworker using a sharp knife to cut grape bunches into a pan and then dump them into a gondola or onto wooden and later paper trays for sun drying.

That was 40 years ago. Castro has changed with the decades just as the raisin and wine grape industry has. Now he drives a harvester for dried-on-the-vine raisins as foreman for Chandler Farms in Fresno County, where he has worked for more than 35 years. He has learned English and is a U.S. citizen, husband and father of three children who all have earned college degrees.

A man who cherishes his family as Castro does is not about to take life lightly. It’s one reason he and his boss, Bill Chandler, attended a recent program of a pre-harvest safety training on the use of tractors and harvesting equipment for raisin and wine grapes.

As in many vineyards in the Valley, there are utility poles with power lines in the Selma vineyard where Castro drives the harvester. So, he paid special attention to a presentation by representatives of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. on hazards those lines can pose.

Those hazards – and hazards inherent to operation of any heavy machinery – have taken on an increased importance as mechanization increased, most notably in recent years in the raisin industry, which has been plagued by periodic labor shortages that combined with a raisin glut to bring crippling effects a few years ago. Today, most wine grapes are harvested mechanically in the valley. Mechanical harvesting of raisin grapes is edging toward 50 percent of the California crop.

Despite consensus that things are looking better for raisin growers this year, concerns about labor lurked as a backdrop for the safety training.

“We’re turning the corner,” said Steve Spate, grower representative for the Fresno-based Raisin Bargaining Association. He was referring to optimism spawned by increased demand for raisins at a time when acreage has declined dramatically, an assured price of at least a near-record $1,500 a ton this year and more interest in green raisin variety grapes – notably the Thompson seedless -- from wineries this year who are paying a record price of $250 a ton.

It’s expected that this year’s raisin crop could parallel last year’s at about two weeks late, and Spate said there was high labor demand as the Sept. 20 insurance deadline neared. “There was a big push and some didn’t get picked,” he said. “Labor is on everybody’s mind.”

Glen Goto, CEO of the Raisin Bargaining Association, said raisin grape acreage has dropped from nearly 300,000 acres 10 years ago to “barely over 200,000 today.” Still, he worries about what the labor needs could be with another late crop. And the later the harvest, the greater are the chances of rain damage.

Gary Schulz, president and general manager of the Raisin Administrative Committee in Fresno, said it’s too soon to estimate the size of the crop for this year. But he said that last year’s crop was close to 380,000 tons and this year’s crop could exceed that. “It’s a good crop, a big crop,” he said.