California raisin growers are arming themselves for what they see is an attempt by the maker of Craisins, Ocean Spray Cranberries, to take away a chunk of their market share through a “Craisins-Raisins Challenge.”

“We have to blunt Craisins’ attempt to grab market share by increasing doubts about Craisins,” said Dan Barber, general manager of the Sacramento office of Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm.

Barber was among speakers for a San Joaquin Valley Grape Symposium in Easton that also included a look at the need to remain on guard against Pierce’s Disease and the glassy-winged sharpshooter, talk of agricultural theft, a presentation on pruning and fruitfulness of dried-on-the vine raisin cultivars, a talk on using potassium sprays to advance maturity in raisin grapes and discussion of health and nutrition research on raisins.

Growers of raisin grapes will pay an additional $5 per ton in the coming year to finance a response to the Ocean Spray effort and to tout the healthfulness and all-natural characteristics of California sun-dried raisins, said Larry Blagg, senior vice president for marketing with the Fresno-based California Raisin Marketing Board.

The board hopes to raise about $1.5 million for its anti-Craisins war chest.

About mid-February, the board plans to launch a website that will highlight differences between the two consumer snacks, Blagg said.

Barber said the website will point out that Craisins are highly-processed cranberries to which sugar – as much as 40 percent of the final product – is added.

He said it’s also expected that a video of a “moms” focus group will be used. A portion of that video, shown at the Easton meeting, indicated the moms were at first enamored of the Craisins, and then became concerned when they learned of the added sweetening.

“It looks like they’re healthy,” Blagg said. “That’s a myth we have to debunk.” Blagg said, for example, that antioxidant values, a key to raisin nutrition, are lost as cranberries are processed into Craisins.

It’s not the first time raisin growers have locked horns with Ocean Spray. In June 1989 the Associated Press wrote of the launch of Craisins and protests from the California Raisin Advisory Board at that time. Members of the board complained the Craisins promotion was capitalizing on millions spent to build the raisin image as a healthy dried fruit.

Moms and dieticians

Barber said the marketing board has targeted registered dieticians and moms (“the gatekeeper of the pantry”) with messages on the “natural” development of raisins. An example: One advertisement says: “Kids and raisins are both packed with natural energy.”

He said that social media is playing an increasing role in getting that message out and that his agency has placed a special emphasis on connecting with bloggers and use of Twitter and Facebook.

About 300 attended the Easton presentation, which also included these observations:

• Growers need to keep their guard up against Pierce’s disease and an insect — the glassy-winged sharpshooter — that can spread the bacteria that causes it, said Stephen Vasquez, University of California viticulture farm adviser for Fresno County.

Finds of the insect continue in Fresno County near the San Joaquin River, and county agricultural officials continue treating residential sites for the pest, but it’s up to growers to treat commercial properties, Vasquez said.

He said the growers should be aware of disease symptoms that can include non-uniform bud break, distortion of basal leaves, small and irregular canopies, scalded leaves, irregular wood maturity and shriveling of fruit prematurely.

• Growers also need to guard against theft of their equipment, chemicals, commodities and copper wire, said Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Kandarian, who heads the county’s agricultural theft unit.

“You deal with the glassy-winged sharpshooters, we deal with cranksters,” Kandarian said. “They go out like locusts every night and steal $40 worth of wire and do hundreds of dollars in vandalism.”

Kandarian urged growers to display their property’s address prominently so that deputies can respond quickly to reports. He advised messages to agcrimes@fresnosheriff.org as well as calling a dispatcher for quicker alerts to crimes in progress.

• The approach to pruning dried-on-the-vine grapes varies by variety, and letting canes grow too long can be a problem, said Matthew Fidelibus, viticulture specialist with UC Davis at the UC Kearney Agricultural Center.

Fidelibus said letting canes grow to have as many as 45 nodes can mean over-cropping, shorter shoots, overly dense canopies and difficulty in drying.

He said shoot emergence for the first five to 10 basal nodes was relatively low for all varieties and the middle of the canes was “quite fruitful”. Heavier clusters at the end often meant less sugar per berry.

• Foliar potassium applied during fruit ripening can advance maturity of raisin grapes and boost brix levels, said Bill Peacock, former UC viticulture farm advisor in Tulare County.

Peacock said the sprays should be applied at 1 to 1.5 pounds per acre when fruit reaches a brix level of 14 to 18.  “Sprays applied earlier than this were not effective,” he said.

He said there was no difference between results using four potassium materials: metalosate, sorbate, phosphate and phosphite.

Addition of the materials to leaves and clusters also increased levels of potassium, nitrogen and boron in the fruit.

• In the coming year, the raisin industry hopes to trot out some peer-reviewed findings on the nutritional benefits of raisins, said Jim Painter, director of nutrition research for the California Raisin Marketing Board.

Painter cited a University of Toronto study that showed pre-meal raisin snacking “increased satiety” and lowered cumulative food intake.  After consuming the snack, children consumed fewer calories from pizza.

He also cited studies on lowering cardiovascular risk factors and reduction in the formation of plaque “biofilm” on teeth. Another study indicated raisins compared favorably with “gel blocks” consumed by marathon runners.

Painter pointed out that dried fruit is “counted the same” as fresh fruit in the new federal “MyPlate” icon and that the icon recommends Americans have plates with 50 percent fruits and vegetables.