Smoky skies delay drying of raisin crop

Wildfire smoke has blocked out the sun for weeks causing delay in process of drying grapes into raisins

CALIFORNIA – Wildfire smoke drifting into the San Joaquin Valley has blocked the sun, causing significant delays in the drying process for converting grapes into raisins.

Raisin drying has been delayed by two weeks due to the smoke cover, according to Fresno County farmer Randy Rocca of Rocca Ranches, which also runs a custom farming business.

“We are losing direct sunlight and solar radiation because of the smoke,” he said, describing the San Joaquin Valley as a unique place for growing raisin grapes due to its typically sunny days.

“If it is 95 degrees outside, it is 140 degrees at the dirt,” said Rocca, who grows raisins for Sun-Maid Growers of California.

But he said the smoky air acts as the equivalent of a shade cloth over the crop.

“If you put a shade cloth up, you feel warm, but we don’t get the solar radiation,” he said. “I had continuous-tray (raisins) out on the ground for 16 days before it was ready to pick up. I should have had these done in half that time.”

As he mechanically harvested Fiesta-variety grapes near Kerman, Rocca said many growers started laying down continuous trays in mid-September but hadn’t picked up many raisins because the fruit had not dried completely.

Another issue is insect intrusion happening underneath some of the grape bunches that are drying on the trays, he said.

“It’s been very challenging this year,” Rocca said.

Raisin grower Dwayne Cardoza of Easton said some fruit had been sitting in the field almost 30 days due to the smoke-filled skies. The raisin crop was already short, he said, but “it’s getting shorter every day with this smoke.”

“We’re waiting for the crop to dry. We’re keeping our fingers crossed, but with this new fire from up north near Napa, that smoke is affecting the raisin crop,” said Cardoza, who serves on the board of directors of the Raisin Bargaining Association. “The fruit is breaking down and if it starts to rot on the tray, that will decrease the size of the crop.”

Kalem Barserian, RBA chief executive officer and general manager, said farmers can speed the process by drying raisins at a dehydrator, but said that increases production costs, so many may wait it out.

Unlike winegrape growers, who face concerns about smoke causing off-flavors in their crops (see story), Barserian said the flavor of raisins would not be affected by the smoke because they undergo a vigorous washing process before being packaged and shipped.

In some growing areas, Rocca said he expects the raisin crop could be off by 15% to 30%, but he added, “We have good quality this year because with the lighter crop, the vines were able to sugar up much earlier.”

Barserian said he expects the 2020 raisin crop to total about 215,000 tons, which would be significantly less than 2019 production of 260,000 tons—and could even be less with the smoke and related impacts. In addition, 137,000 tons of inventory has been carried over from the 2019 crop.

“Our biggest challenge is keeping our price competitive on the world market,” Rocca said. “If we can keep our carry-in tonnage down with the lighter crop, hopefully that is going to stabilize and set a better price from the packers this year.”

California raisin acreage has dropped from 280,000 in 2000 to 125,000 this year, as farmers replaced raisin grapes with other options, such as nut crops.

Barserian cited “a whole host of reasons” for the acreage decrease, mainly competition with raisins grown in developing nations.

“What’s happening is the growers can’t make a living,” he said. “Even when we had the benchmark price, it was like a seesaw. It’s still unknown where the price is going to eventually end up.”

Barserian said the RBA plans to leave the market-based or consignment system for crop pricing and return to its roots as a supply-based cooperative to negotiate prices for its members.

“The raisins were being sold on a consignment basis and the grower got whatever the packer decided they wanted to pay,” Cardoza said. “When the RBA was established, it was to get all the growers together cooperatively and negotiate for a higher price for all raisin growers. We decided to go back to a supply-based cooperative.”

In late July, the RBA made a price offer to packers of $1,500-$1,900 per ton, depending on total crop size, which packers rejected. In August, the association voted to hold grower-members’ raisins in “memorandum storage” and notified packers.

Even with the smaller crop plus the existing inventory, Cardoza said, “We have plenty of California raisins to take care of all of our customers here in the United States and overseas.”

About 65% of the California raisin crop is sold domestically, with the rest exported. Worldwide production totals 1.4 million metric tons, of which California supplies about 18%.

People in the raisin business noted that domestic retail sales increased during the pandemic, as shoppers looked for healthy snack options while working or attending school at home.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has purchased about 26,000 tons of raisins in the past 18 months for schools and food banks nationwide.

-Christine Souza is an editor of Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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