Labor shortages are plaguing California raisin growers as they scramble to get grapes off the vines and onto trays in time to meet crop insurance deadlines.
Normally, they have about 4.5 weeks to get canes cut for mechanical harvesting or grapes hand-picked and laid on trays to dry. But, this year’s cool weather has slowed grape ripening, compressing the harvest period to as few as two weeks for some growers. And sugar levels are slow to increase, resulting in reduced tonnage. Cloudy weather and rain showers over the weekend of Sept. 10-11 didn’t help matters.
“There’s a lot of apprehension out there,” says Steve Spate, grower representative for the Fresno-based Raisin Bargaining Association.
Typically, early vineyards are ready for harvest Aug. 17-20, but this season, harvesting didn’t really begin until about 10 days later. He expects to see some spot shortages of labor during this condensed picking season.
“Some growers who started picking a few days before Labor Day with an expected crew size of 40 workers had only 20 to 30 workers in their fields following the holiday. You could definitely tell there won’t be enough labor for everyone to be picking at the same time. The shortage isn’t severe now, but by mid-September, some growers who are ready to start picking will be forced to wait due to lack of labor.”
Sugar levels of grapes continue to rise slowly. Ideally, growers like a harvest time 21Brix reading.
“This year, the Brix is all over the place,” Spate says. “By the first of September, I had found some grapes at 16 degrees to 17 degrees and others at 22 degrees.”
At some point, a grower may decide the risk of inclement weather isn’t worth waiting any longer and will pick the grapes before they reach the desired 21 degrees Brix, he notes. As a result, the percentage of substandard raisins could increase this year.
“Last year, we faced a similarly short time frame for picking, but we were very fortunate,” he says. “Industry-wide we ended up with a fairly good quality crop. We won’t know the quality of this year’s raisins until they have been delivered and inspected.”