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.

100 percent free tonnage

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.”