The jury is in: California's fertile valleys and climate are the perfect place to grow and harvest table grapes. After another outstanding crop last year, those within the industry are excited about this year's prospects. From dealing with the ongoing drought through sustainable measures to developing new cultivars to extend the growing season, take a stroll through the trellises to learn what's new and trending-and what still needs improvement-in the California table grape industry.
Although table grapes represent only a fraction of California's total grape acreage, growers continue to enjoy rather spectacular returns. Last season brought in just shy of 110 million 19·pound boxes, marking the third year in a row topping the 100·million box threshold.
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association in Fresno (formerly the California Grape and Tree Fruit League}, praises the many vertically· integrated, multigenerational growers with decades of knowledge in the field. "When we're able to get water, we're able to produce the finest and best tasting table grapes in the world," he enthuses.
And while much of this success comes courtesy of Mother Nature, she can't take all the credit. "We have a robust and active research system working in conjunction with growers to bring consumers a better experience," Bedwell notes.
Varieties bred for better taste and longer shelf life have helped propel both domestic and international sales, as Flame Seedless, Crimson Seedless, and Red Globe were the most planted, followed by Sugraone, Scarlett Royal, and Autumn Royal.
"It speaks volumes that the last few years [the industry has] shipped over 110 million boxes. It speaks for the quality of the fruit, confirms Jeff Olsen, president of the Chuck Olsen Company in Visalia, which sells domestically and exports to Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan.
Clint Lucas, an account manager at RJO Produce Marketing, Inc. in Fresno, agrees. "California is the agriculture heart of the world," he states. "Consumers go through the seasons and are so excited to get back to California. It's the quality, the soil, and hands-down, California grapes bring you the best."
California's season runs from May to January, and the availability of a great product for most of the year is what Lucas believes makes the state unique. Up and coming cultivars are now extending the season, increasing yields, and broadening the flavor horizon. "There are so many new varieties, which ties in with the future of the growing region in general,” he says. "Everyone is trying to find the next new good green and red grape."
There is also continued interest and a push "to develop varietals like the Pink Muscat and Cotton Candy," says Chris Ford, vice president for San Diego-based Sutherland Produce Sales, Inc. Although the ultra-sweet varieties were considered 'specialty' items with limited plantings and supply, their popularity has galvanized growers to plant more acreage and kick up the available volume.
Other unique types of grapes popular with consumers include Champagne or Corinth grapes (the smallest of the seed less varieties about the size of a pea) and Witch Finger grapes, which are slender and elongated with a tip (similar to the shape of a chili pepper), and get a boost in sales near Halloween.
Louie Galvan, director at Fruit Royale, Inc. in Delano, applauds the notion. He believes "new and proprietary varieties are an exciting addition to the landscape and will continue to increase exponentially at a feverish pace."
Ford highlights the change over the past five years with Thompsons, typically the primary later season green grape, being replaced with newer varieties that hold up longer, offer better yields, and are easier to grow. However, he sees this as two-sided: while pulling out Thompsons is beneficial to growers, he believes not all of the newer grapes live up to the flavor.
It's an interesting and complicated tug of war between producing the best flavors, while extending the season and increasing yields. Lucas explains that with the removal of some Thompson and Princess vines, growers have made room for Thomchords, a hybrid of the Thompson; Magentas, a red seedless; and the Sheegene 21, an exciting new green seedless variety that hasn't been given an official name yet.
"It’s a much more dynamic industry," comments Bedwell. "'Previously, growers may have planted a vine and lived with it for 30 or 40 years, but the expectation now is for changes to occur in shorter periods, to react to markets and what's happening in the world. Everyone is more aware of the dynamic nature of varietal development."
Technology continues to impact the industry from trellis systems and canopy management to cross-breeding for size and flavor.
A new technology for out in the field comes from Bird Control US, part of the Bird Control Group in Europe, which sells a device that lives up to its name. Developed in the Netherlands, laser equipment is placed in vineyards or orchards to scare away birds. The technology is customized for each customer, says Jamie Warwick, and creates what the birds consider an 'unsafe' zone, forcing them to change their habits and relocate. "This alleviates crop loss and avian influences," he contends.
The technology is also used in the oil and recreation industries, causes no harm to humans or birds, and has even been endorsed by the World Wildlife Federation. "It's a single laser."' Warwick explains, "an inch in diameter, which can travel up to 2,000 meters." Despite success in Europe, Americans are slower to adopt the new technology. "The biggest competitor is skepticism," he adds, due no doubt to past "failed solutions and wasted dollars."
Lacking Steady Labor
California's persisting dry weather and labor issues (both the dearth of workers and the laborious harvesting process) present hurdles for the table grape industry. "California has the optimal climate for table grapes," says Justin Bedwell, managing member of Bari Produce, LLC in Madera. "However, if the challenges don't get resolved, I would expect some growers to look at other crops to plant in place of table grapes."
According to the California Fresh Fruit Association, which advocates on behalf of fruit growers and shippers, labor costs continue to climb from “required rest and recovery periods, implementation of health care mandates, a tightening labor supply, and an increasing minimum wage, which rose to $10.00 per hour in January 2016."
"Labor is a very real issue," shares Jim Pando! president of Jim Pando! & Company, Inc., in Selma. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. "I've seen a lot of robotics used in vegetables such as picking bell peppers, and prototypes for strawberries.
"I’m expecting soon-meaning in the working on a prototype for mechanical harvesting and pruning of table grapes," Pandol predicts. Though the widespread use of such equipment may be years off, and cost could be a significant factor, it still gives growers something to look forward to.
California's ongoing drought has affected every facet of the industry. "For many years, the industry used flood irrigation and now it’s drip," comments Barry Bedwell. And even though drip irrigation uses far less water than flooding, the latter did have one positive attribute: 'recharging' the ground· water supply. Today, he notes, with everyone using drip irrigation and only insufficient rain, the much-needed recharging no longer occurs.
"It all ties into water conservation.'' Lucas observes. Even with some intense storms and downpours earlier in the year, including what many dubbed 'Miracle March,’ the crisis is far from over. "The rainfall we've gotten this year is a positive thing. but you can't be fooled into thinking we're fine," says Lucas. "The region will need more years like the past one to provide adequate runoff."
Galvan believes being environmentally responsible is "More than consumer driven, it's life driven. We must take care of our planet if we expect it to take care of us."
Ford looks at sustainability through the lens of organics; the transition to dealing exclusively in organics was "one of biggest things we've implemented as a company." He also cites the pertinence of traceability and transparency, and believes more consumers will demand to know where their food comes from-not just from a food safety standpoint, but fair working conditions as well. "Labor is the next big thing, with equity of wages and working conditions."
The biggest obstacle with organic grapes, however, is "developing a year round supply for North America." Currently, the organic table grape season is May through November, with little supply coming in from exporters.
Although Peru has some organic grape growers, acreage is sparse, so availability is a factor. Despite this, the organic table grape sector continues to expand with new plantings. "There is still room to grow in the organic sector," says Ford. "It's really gaining traction in the mainstream and had a lot of growth in the last couple years with more retailers and consumers demanding organic."
To stay ahead of the curve and keep thriving, those in the business have found that sustainable measures create efficiencies that go hand in hand with saving money and preserving both the environment and their industry. Research and technology are among the prime strengths of the industry-from developing better water conservation techniques to the thrilling development of specialty and proprietary varieties.
Effective marketing and product freshness also play a pivotal role. "We're doing a lot more now with pre-marketing and pre-selling," observes Pandol. Making sure harvested grapes spend little if any time in storage is key. And while berry size is important too, he thinks flavor is a bigger draw for American consumers. "Freshness and sweetness are more and more of a factor."
Lucas sums the industry up this way: "If Mother Nature allows, as long as we don't have big storms or freezes, we’ll continue to have the best and newest varieties, and the best production," he reflects. And so far, those in the table grape business are brimming with pride over good yields, record breaking sales, and exciting new flavors.