California table grapes come in red, green and black and come in shapes ranging from big and round to elongated and skinny.
“Over 100,000 acres in California are planted to 80 varieties of table grapes,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission. “The bulk of the volume comes from the Coachella Valley and the rest from San Joaquin Valley, Tehachapi area, Kern and Madera counties — right up the heart of the state.”
The number of acres has increased considerably in the past five years, and, most importantly, the volume per acre has gone up. This is due to new growing practices and varieties. A couple of varieties are skinny and elongated, but as a rule, Nave said grapes still look like grapes.
“The industry had the largest crop in history last year — 117 million 22-pound boxes — that eclipsed the 2012 crop of 101 million boxes.” she said. “The highest volume of table grapes grown is the Crimson Seedless, followed by Scarlet Royal, Red Globe seedless, a big Autumn King seedless and Thompson seedless.”
The demographic make-up of California table grape growers has remained unchanged throughout the years: They are owned and operated by multi-generation families who have always been in the business. There are about 500 table grape farming operations in the state.
“Table grapes are hard to grow,” Nave said. “It is a delicate fruit and growing it involves intense hand labor, battling pests in the vineyards, trimming the vines and a lot of art. It’s a high investment commodity that takes three to four years for full production.”
The bulk of California table grapes is sold in retail and big box stores. Canada is the largest export market followed by China and Mexico. California exported 42 percent of its table grape volume in 2012. The table grape industry recorded record high box price of $17 last year.
“Grapes are good for you,” she said. “They contain vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and nutrients. Grape consumption has shown promise in preventing diseases, lowering blood pressure and inflammation, promoting eye heath, cognition and other diseases associated with aging. I tell everyone to eat two servings of table grapes daily.”
The biggest challenge facing growers continues to be the availability and the cost of water and labor and handling federal and state regulations.
“I think the biggest misconception among consumers is that table grapes are a summer fruit,” she said. “But, it is actually a summer, fall and winter fruit. Growers begin picking in May, into June, through harvest in December to shipping in February. We wage small wars with Mexican imports in May and June and with Chile in December. But studies have shown most consumers prefer table grapes from California.
“California table grape growers are funding a big marketing program to American consumers and countries around the world. It’s pretty clear their undertaking is economically viable.”