Schulz said the raisin industry is entering the season with a low inventory. He said the “industry mood is pointing toward” 100 percent free tonnage, meaning no set asides for a reserve for the 2011 crop. He said health benefits of “the natural food product” have boosted sales.

Schulz said challenges this year have included powdery mildew spawned by a cool, wet spring.

Russ Wilson, who has a dried-on-the vine vineyard in Fowler, said there’s no doubt that the pullout of so many vines has had its effect on supply and demand. And he adds that a positive sign is that packers are increasingly aggressive, particularly at selling in foreign markets.

“If we don’t sell to foreign markets,” he said, “the bottom drops out.”

Wilson is hoping that his machine-harvested fruit will have enough of a jump on tray-dried grapes to give him an edge on labor demands.

Participants in the training, more than 175 growers and workers, took part in breakout sessions presented by Cal/OSHA consultants, State Compensation Fund, American Grape Harvesters in Fresno, PG&E and the California Highway Patrol. The sessions were conducted in both English and Spanish.

At a training session on electric power wires, Jeff Rubbo, electric crew foreman for the Auberry Service Center with PG&E, warned that electricity is something “you can’t see, you can’t smell.”

But it can be deadly, he said, illustrating that point by passing around rocks that had been turned to glass by a surge of electricity.

Most presenters emphasized turning harvesting equipment off and making sure of the whereabouts of other crew members before doing certain procedures. Their advice was akin to the idea of pulling the electrical plug on a grinder or drill before taking it apart.

Among the advice from Joe Zavala, an assistant loss control manager with State Compensation Insurance Fund: To avoid entanglement while cleaning equipment, use handle extensions.

“It’s better to lose a $10 piece of equipment, a grabber, than to lose my fingers, my hands or my life,” Zavala said.

The free training was sponsored by Allied Grape Growers, Fresno County Farm Bureau, Nisei Farmers League, the Raisin Bargaining Association, State Fund and Sun-Maid. 

Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, said most San Joaquin Valley wine grapes are under contract at this point, and wineries are offering some planting contracts to growers. He said demand for Thompson seedless grapes from wineries is high this year, at about 450,000 to 500,000 tons, up from 273,000 in 2010.

Because Thompson is a raisin mainstay, that increased interest from wineries also augers well for the dried grape industries. Wineries use the fresh green grape to make juice concentrate, brandy and wine.

DiBuduo said some grapes are being sold green at $225 per ton for dehydration into golden or water dipped raisins. Last year’s price was $185 per ton.

And prices for varietal wine grapes are up about 10 to 15 percent in the Central Valley.

The one bit of bad news, DiBuduo said, “The cost of farming has gone up.”