FRESNO, Calif. — Raisin producers who were already expecting a smaller crop are assessing the damage from stray showers that spritzed grapes that were drying on the ground.
Thunderstorms that passed over the San Joaquin Valley on Sept. 4 dumped as much as a half-inch of rain in some vineyards, said Kalem Barserian, the Raisin Bargaining Association’s chief executive officer.
Rain can make raisins drying on paper trays dirty or moldy. It could take several weeks before growers know the extent to which their crop was damaged, industry officials said.
“The biggest thing when it rains is, ‘Can I get them dry?’ and the key to that is to get good weather immediately following,” said Rick Stark, grower relations manager for Sun-Maid Growers of California.
Temperatures in the valley reached triple-digits on Sept. 5 with a slight breeze, he said.
“You couldn’t ask for better than that,” Stark said. “We’ve gotten good weather since that. There’s actually people out boxing and there are still people picking. They’re doing the same thing they were doing before the rain. It just took a couple of days to get everything dried back out to where it was.”
The setback comes as farms faced insurance policy-imposed deadlines of Sept. 20 to finish hand-picking grapes for raisins and Sept. 25 to finish continuous-tray harvests by machine, Stark said. All the raisins have to be out of the field by Oct. 20, he said.
Growers are expected to produce a 1.45 million-ton raisin crop in 2017, down from 1.54 million fresh-weight tons last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But they could have difficulty even meeting NASS’ estimate.
Barserian said it’s the shortest crop he’s seen since 1998, another big rain year. That year, California only produced 248,000 dry tons of raisins while it averaged 336,000 dry tons. About 4 to 4.5 pounds of fresh grapes dry into a pound of raisins, according to the University of California-Davis.
“That year we had 20 inches of rain and this year we had 18 inches,” he said. “The vine takes a rest when there’s a lot of water. … Typically your bunch count is 39 bunches per vine. This year it’s 27.”
The shorter crop could help the industry rebound from a price slide. Last year, prices bottomed out at $1,100 per ton, down from $1,600 the previous year, and the cost of production is about $1,400 per ton for a standard vineyard, Barserian said.
While prices for this season have yet to be negotiated, some packers are already offering from $1,500 a ton to as much as $1,700 on a contract basis, he said.
Raisin grapes appear to be hit harder this year than either table or wine grapes. Table grape production is estimated at 1.15 million tons, down from 1.16 million in 2016, while this year’s anticipated 4 million-ton wine grape crop is only slightly smaller than last year’s, according to NASS.
But while there are some 80 varieties of wine grapes and 90 varieties of table grapes, only about four grape varieties are suitable for raisins, Barserian said.
“The Thompson seedless raisin grape just didn’t produce a crop,” he said.