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California growers expect large crop of quality grapes, despite challenges

It is not easy being a farmer anywhere, and it has certainly not been easy in recent years to be a grape grower in California in the face of a plethora of challenges, ranging from drought exacerbated by government-imposed limitations on agricultural water use to rising labor costs and a maze of ever-intensifying regulatory pressures.

Yet thus far, California grape growers have been able to meet the challenges and turn out ever-increasing volumes of high-quality grapes in an expanding array of varieties.

22-CalGrapes-Crop--ScarletRPlantings of Scarlet Royal red seedless grapes, a relatively new variety, have increased significantly in California's San Joaquin Valley in recent years for the mid- to late season. (Photo courtesy of Sundale Sales)Last year was a record year for California grape shipments, with a record 116.2 million boxes of grapes (19-pound equivalent) going to market. For 2014, the crop was officially estimated at just over that — 116.5 million boxes — at the season’s start. The California Table Grape Commission revisited the estimate at its meeting on July 17 and reaffirmed that number, notwithstanding some early vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley picking out a little lighter than growers had anticipated, attesting their confidence that if all went as expected, strong volumes would be realized throughout the balance of the season.

In the San Joaquin Valley, California’s largest grape growing region, the 2014 harvest started earlier than usual — earlier than ever for some growers — with varieties coming off from one week to as much as two weeks earlier than average.

However, many growers quickly discovered that for a variety of reasons the volume was not there in the early vineyards that they had anticipated. Some growers had smaller bunches than they expected, and many found the berries were not sizing as well as the year prior. However, the quality of the harvested fruit, they say, has been excellent.

Even so, as of the week ending July 4, shipments were well ahead of the prior year. “Because it is an early season,  our volume is significantly ahead of last year,” Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, said July 11. As of that date in 2013, “we had shipped a total of 6 million boxes out of the Coachella Valley and out of the San Joaquin Valley. This year, we have shipped 9.2 [million boxes].“

How the trend would play out over the course of the season remained to be seen, as the preponderance of the volume was still ahead.

California’s fresh grape volume is increasingly skewed to the latter part of the season. Most new varieties being introduced are mid- to late season varieties, and most new plantings have been for the latter part, rather than the earlier part, of the season.

On average, the industry ships around 60 percent of its volume after Sep. 1, but Nave expected that number to be higher this year in spite of the early start, and shipments to date being “significantly ahead of where we are this year.”

On July 18, following the commission’s reaffirmation of the 116.5-box estimate, Nave said, “All expectations are that we are going to have a good quality crop, and there is a lot of fruit. The vast majority of it comes off after Sept. 1. I expect we will have 65 or 70 percent of it coming off in the fall, into the winter.”

“It is going to be another big crop,” said John Zaninovich, president of Vincent B. Zaninovich & Sons in Richgrove, CA, July 9. “I don’t know if it will be a record or not, but it is definitely a very big crop” and appears to be a good quality crop. “I am expecting good demand, because all the growers are growing varieties that eat well now and look good, so the retailers and consumers should be happy.”

Growers attributed the lighter-than-anticipated production on some early vineyards to various factors, including a mild winter and some intense summer heat.

“Overall, the crop looks good. Size is good” and the color is good, said Anthony Stetson,  sales manager at Columbine Vineyards in Delano, CA, July 2. “I’d say the heat we are having this week has slowed everything down considerably,” largely because harvest crews were only able to work half a day in the heat, he said. “Demand has stayed pretty good” right through the Fourth of July pull, he added.

“The quality is outstanding this year, and it has been a seamless transition out of Mexico to the Central California deal on red grapes,” said Atomic Torosian, a partner in Crown Jewels Produce LLC in Fresno, CA. “Up here in the Central Valley,” he said, he has seen “good berry size and nice firm grapes. So far … it has been a real good deal.” He expected markets to remain active at least through the month of July on all colors of grapes.

The crop is neither light nor heavy but “a good solid crop of grapes this year,” according to Scott Boyajian, director of sales for Sunview Marketing International in Delano, CA, July 3. He expected the total California crop to come in “somewhere between 117 and 120 [million boxes],” which is a bit over the official estimate.

Timing, for Sunview, was running about a week early, “which is good,” he said. “An extra week will help us move the crop through the system.”

“The market has been very strong,” said Jared Lane, vice president of sales and marketing for Stevco Inc, July 10. That is partly due to the fact that “we haven’t been able to pick as heavy as an industry” as expected. The transition from the spring grape deals out of Mexico and Coachella, CA, to the San Joaquin Valley “was very, very smooth,” he added. “There was not a lot of overlap. The San Joaquin Valley started almost directly as Mexico and Coachella were winding down … so the market has stayed very healthy. I expect it to stay healthy for at least the month of July.”

The main challenges facing the industry this year are water and labor, and specifically “quality of labor and quality of water,” Lane said. “We think we have enough water” to finish the remainder of the crop, “but we are not sure … so we are monitoring that weekly.”

“Water has been a big issue in the valley,” said Brian Crettol, a salesman at Jasmine Vineyards Inc. in Delano, CA, July 9.

“We are basically getting zero allocations” for surface water this year, “so it is all well water.” Seeing that coming, the company put in new wells and retrofitted old wells “to make sure we have a steady water supply.” However, continued drought conditions could be problematic, as water tables have been dropping. Rainfall is needed to recharge the aquifers, he said.

Some of the early fruit did not size as well as expected, and some ranginess in size was also seen early on, but “what we are seeing now, as the later districts are starting to come off this week and next week, is that berry size seems to havae evened out. I think we’ve got more consistency” in Flames, Sugraones, Princess and Summer Royals, said Shaun Ricks, vice president of Eye Grape Guys LLC in Visalia, CA, July 8. “Quality and consistency has also improved.”

Earliness has advantages, but “I’ll take quality and consistency over that just about any day,” he said.