California’s raisin growers started laying their 2012 grapes for drying into raisins almost two weeks earlier than last year.
“We’re back to a more normal time for the start of harvest,” says Steve Spate, grower representative for the Raisin Bargaining Association. “Some growers started picking the earlier grapes around the Aug. 17. A good portion of the crop started going down between the 20th and 26th. The fruit was ready and growers were wanting to pick.”
However, some had to wait. “They can’t get enough people to do the work,” he says. “Labor continues to be one of, if not the biggest, concerns among growers this season.”
Fortunately, Spate adds, the early start of harvest spreads the limited workforce over a longer time frame to get this year’s crop off the vines and onto trays before the insurance deadline. To qualify for crop insurance, grapes harvested by hand from east-west rows must be laid on trays by Sept. 20. For mechanically-harvested vineyards with east-west rows the final lay-down date is Sept. 25.
Workers are finding fewer grapes to pick than last year. The USDA’s 2012 California Raisin Grape Objective Measurement Reportprojects the crop to be the smallest since 2006. Based on its July survey, NASS forecasts the state’s production of raisin-type variety grape this season at 1.9 million tons, down 13.4 percent from the 2011 final production.
However, Spate notes, reports of tonnage of green grapes being crushed for juice and raisin tray in the field, indicate yields of natural raisin varieties this year are down as least 20 percent to 25 percent overall, and in some cases, as much as 40 percent from 2011.
The decline wasn’t unexpected. Lower bunch counts earlier in the season signaled the likelihood of a smaller crop. However, some growers suspect that frost damage, undetected at the time, also contributed to the decline, Spate notes.
Still, the lighter crop offers an upside for growers. It’s helped the Raisin Bargaining Association justify offering packers a price of $1,900 per ton for this year’s raisin crop. That’s 12 percent higher than the 2011 price and is a competitive price compared to the record $325 green price offered by wineries.
With fewer bunches to sustain and ideal weather during most of the growing season, the vines produced more sugar. Achieving the desired 21 brix for raisin grapes hasn’t been an issue this year, he reports. “Raisin quality this year will be exceptional due to the higher sugar content,” Spate says. “We don’t anticipate many substandard grapes.”
Most growers weren’t bothered too much by insect pests this season, either. Timely insecticide treatments helped minimize some early and midseason leafhopper threats. Mites weren’t much of an issue, either. “We had some spots where mites showed up with the hot temperatures earlier in August,” Spate says. “Growers who didn’t spray for them may have had some problems. But, some growers got by with no treatments.”