Once Madera County grower Phil Hagopian has all the raisins from his 2013 crop in the bin, he expects yields from his 210 acres of Thompson seedless vineyards to exceed last year’s tonnage by about 15 percent. That would be less than the USDA’s Objective Measurement Report in August, which forecast a 25.5 increase in California’s raisin-type grape production this year compared to 2012.
This same survey also found a record high number of 47.7 bunches per vine – 18.6 more than last year. Those figures point to the possibility of the state’s largest raisin-type grape crop since 2008.
Hagopian’s above-average bunch count this year was higher than last year, too. Despite a larger crop, which tends to produce smaller berries, berry size this year in Hagopian’s clusters were about average, he notes.
“Although we haven’t delivered enough raisins to get an objective assessment, I think the quality will be pretty good,” Hagopian says.
By pumping from his wells until May 1 and then relying on ditch water until harvest, he was able to keep his vines irrigated adequately this season. The dry weather plus his normal spray program prevented any problems with diseases in his crop. Controlling the mites which typically show up in several of his fields, with his usual insecticide treatment wasn’t a problem either, he adds.
Hagopian began hand picking his grapes on August 30. That’s about the same time he started last year. By Sept. 17, all the grapes had been laid on trays to dry. Three days later crews began picking up the first of his new-crop raisins. A week into October, nearly two-thirds of the trays had been picked up. He expected to have all the raisins off the ground and into bins no later than Oct. 18.
Excellent drying weather prevailed throughout his harvest, except for a little rain that fell one day in the last half of September. It was followed by drying winds, minimizing any damage to the raisins.
At one time, Hagopian harvested a portion of his Thompson Seedless mechanically. However, after four years of that he stopped the practice when yields began to decline.
“Cutting the vines at the end of August to prepare them for machine harvesting seems to limit the root flush and fruit bud formation that otherwise occur in the three months or so before dormancy,” he says. “I think this pruning reduced grape production the following year by as much as 20 percent. That’s equivalent to losing an entire crop every five years.”
Hagopian has been hand picking all of his Thompson Seedless for the past seven years. Still, getting the labor he needs do that, particularly in the first two weeks of September, continues to be a struggle.
This year he solved that problem by paying 30 cents a tray to have the grapes harvested and picked up by hand. That doesn‘t include the labor contractor’s commission.
“If I had paid 28 cents a tray, I wouldn’t have had the labor,” Hagopian says. “And, because of this year’s large crop, I had a lot of trays. It makes you think about either mechanizing the raisin harvest, to one degree or another, or switching to another crop that can be harvested mechanically."