What is in this article?:
- Kenneson Farms continues 100-year vineyard tradition
- Replacing labor with capital
- Soil-building practices
- Availability of water isn’t the only doubtful factor in Steve Dee’s plans this year. He’ll also need to find 100 or so workers to pick, dry and box grapes during the month-long harvest.
Steve Dee in one of his Thompson Seedless raisin vineyards west of Kerman, Calif.
Replacing labor with capital
Dee represents the fourth generation of his family to work this farm, since his great-grandfather arrived from Maine and started the operation in 1916.
Today, Kenneson Farms includes 1,000 acres of Thompson Seedless grapes and 240 acres of almonds – Nonpareil, Carmel, Nonpareil-Monterey and Butte-Padre. Ninety percent of the ground is flood-irrigated. The rest is watered with a drip system. A well provides water for about 180 acres, that aren’t served by FID.
Availability of water isn’t the only doubtful factor in Dee’s plans for this year. As has been the case the past several years, the ability to find the 100 or so workers he’ll need to pick, dry and box the grapes during the month-long harvest is another unknown. It’s a concern shared by growers throughout California’s raisin industry. Also, he says, it helps explains why many continue ripping up their vineyards to plant almond orchards in big numbers.
“The demand for almonds continues strong,” Dee says. “And, almonds are similar profitability per acre to raisins but without all the labor requirements.”
Rather than replacing his vines with almond trees, though, Dee plans to replace the scores of workers he needs to bring in his crop with two harvesting machines, maybe in time for this year’s harvest.
Because two machines won’t be able to handle the job in a timely manner, he’ll continue hiring a custom operator to pick about 200 acres mechanically. Dee figures the money he saves by harvesting the remaining acres himself will pay for each of the quarter-million-dollar harvesters in several seasons.
Dealing with disease threats
As do most raisin grape growers, Dee likes the sugar levels of his Thompson seedless to register 18 Brix before he starts harvesting them. Last year, his earliest maturing grapes reached that point by Aug. 25. That’s when crews started hand-picking and placing the bunches on paper trays to dry.
This was a little earlier than usual. However, the crop was heavier than normal and those extra few days allowed workers to get all on the grapes on trays by Sept. 21. Timing is critical. To qualify for rain insurance, raisin grapes must be on trays by Sept. 20.
In the case of the machine-harvested grapes, crews cut the canes on those vines on Aug. 20. The grape bunches were left on the vines for about 15 days, allowing the cap stems of the bunches to dry before the harvesting machine came in to remove them and place the bunches on continuous paper trays to dry.
In the absence of rain, raisin grapes usually finish drying in about 20 or more days, depending on the temperature. The raisins are then picked up by machine and boxed for processing. Last year, with no wet weather to slow drying, Dee finished boxing his grapes on October 25.
Yields averaged about 2.5 tons per acre, 25 percent higher than usual, he reports. Typically, with a larger crop quality of the grapes suffers. Not last year. Quality was very good, with 70 percent of raisins graded B or better.
Meanwhile, production in his almond orchards last year was on the high side as prices for the nuts remains strong.