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Table Grape Growers Report Strong 2012 Crop

By Steve Adler

Kern County table grape grower Mark Hall says this year’s season features normal yields and quality. His harvest began around the Fourth of July and will extend into late fall.
Photo/Randall Barker

As California’s table grape harvest works its way northward from the Coachella Valley to the San Joaquin Valley, growers report very good quality with average crop size.

The one concern voiced universally by growers is a tight labor supply. There haven’t been any crop losses reported yet, but growers said they find themselves having to juggle their crews much more than in the past few years.

Observers attribute much of the labor shortage to increased enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, coupled with increased violence on the Mexican side of the border caused by drug cartels.

Karen Brux of the California Table Grape Commission said this year’s table grape crop is being projected at 100.8 million 19-pound boxes. California shipped about 97.4 million boxes of grapes during the 2011 season.

The California table grape sector continues to grow. Total volume has exceeded 90 million box units each of the past five seasons, coming close to breaking the 100 million mark. With just over 20 million boxes shipped in the early 1970s, volume has increased by almost five times during the past four decades.

In 2011, there were more than 90,000 bearing acres of California table grapes.

Sequential harvesting from south to north, combined with advanced storage techniques, allows California table grapes to remain available from May to January, the commission said. California produces 99 percent of the commercial fresh grapes grown in the United States, and there has been steady growth through the years.

“We are in the beginning stages of harvest and we are currently harvesting sugraone seedless grapes, a green seedless grape, as well as flame seedless grapes, which is a red seedless grape. We definitely have a very full crop this year and the quality is one of the best I have ever seen,” said Greg White, who markets grapes for a farming operation in Kern County.

“We will take our season until the end of the year. Weather is always a factor when it comes to growing, but overall this season, we have not been exposed to issues as we have been in the past. Heat is a big factor with table grapes and mildew is another issue and we haven’t seen those issues so far this year,” he said.

Another Kern County grower, Mark Hall, said he started harvesting flame seedless grapes around the Fourth of July and he will continue with a number of other varieties as they mature, wrapping up his harvest around Thanksgiving.

“The crop seems to be about normal in its development this year, but what is normal any more? Cluster counts and grape sizes seem to be normal,” he said. “Labor is always tough, but we pay a bit more for our workers so I have not personally had any problems.”

Grape grower Pat Pinkham of Exeter said growers in Tulare County definitely feel the effects of a tight labor supply.

“We also harvest plums and canning peaches, and the labor supply has been very tight. If you need that third crew, you quite often just don’t get it,” he said. “It hasn’t been so tight that crops have suffered so far; it is just taking a little longer to finish a variety than what you had anticipated.”

Pinkham said he works with more than one farm labor contractor “and it is a situation where we all need to watch out for each other somehow.”

The growers said that there have been very few problems with powdery mildew or other plant diseases this year. Water supplies have been adequate as well, they said.

The California Table Grape Commission markets grapes vigorously, both on domestic markets and worldwide. The commission’s trade and consumer marketing campaigns will run throughout the 2012 season, with a strong focus on the health attributes and versatility of usage of California grapes, said Kathleen Nave, commission president.

With 40 percent of the crop exported to more than 60 countries around the world, key export markets will be supported with retail promotions, merchandising, point-of-sale materials and consumer research, Nave said. In 2011, the top five export markets for California table grapes included Canada, Mexico, China, Indonesia and the Central America region.

“The good news is that nearly all U.S. consumers eat grapes and nearly all prefer grapes from California. The challenge is to get them to eat more, while continuing to open up new opportunities in global markets,” Nave said.

While winegrapes were first planted in California by Franciscan friars who established missions up and down the state, the first table grapes in California have been traced to Kentucky native William Wolfskill, who planted the first table grape vineyard near what is now Los Angeles. Fresh table grapes were first shipped to Eastern markets in 1869.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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