Kerman, Calif. raisin grower Steve Dee likes the way his 2011 crop is coming along.
“Everything is looking really good,” he says. “The vines haven’t been suppressed by any diseases.”
A third-generation raisin producer, Kenneson makes raisins from 1,300 acres of flood-irrigated Thompson seedless grapes. Ninety percent of the grapes are picked by hand and dried on single trays. The rest are machine-harvested about 15 days after the canes are cut, and dried on continuous trays, which are then picked up mechanically.
Dee is especially pleased with the low threat of powdery mildew this year.
“Right now, the outlook is very positive that we won’t have to fight the disease hard like we did last year. That was very frustrating. We have a pretty intense program for controlling mildew, But last year’s weather was perfect for mildew growth and everything we did wasn’t very effective.”
He begins his mildew control program when new shoots are out about 4 to 6 inches, treating them liquid copper and oil. Once temperatures climb into the 80s, he starts dusting vines with sulfur, and continues those treatments until the grapes start taking on sugar, usually by early July.
In the past, Dee has waited to apply fungicides until late June or early July. This year, for the first time, he’ll try to get the jump on any mildew by spraying fungicides right after bloom.
“We want to come in early and do a preventive spray to keep mildew from getting started and limit our fungicide costs. Once mildew gets into your vineyard, it’s extremely hard to control.”
To help keep his soils healthy by adding humus, he grows a cover crop of vetch, barley, wheat or oats in every other vine row. Each year, the rows change between a cover crop and a brush row. “That way we work the brush into the soil one year and the cover crop the next,” Dee says. “We hold off seeding the cover crop until December so we can carry it into the next season to harbor beneficial insects, like ladybugs and lacewings.”
Over the past 10 years, Dee has reduced his work force as a way to counter low raisin prices. Despite the recent upswing in raisin prices, he’s still doing all he can to keep labor costs down.
“We’ve tightened our belts and learned to work more efficiently,” he says. “Compared to 10 years ago, we have fewer employees and they’re doing more multi-tasking. We have to get the work done with the employees we now have.”