California's raisin industry could shrink by thousands of acres next year as falling prices, a tightening labor supply and the lure of higher value crops continue to chip away at one of the San Joaquin Valley's longtime crops.
Raisin and grape industry officials say farmers have already pulled out hundreds of acres this year and more are expected to be pulled.
"We are seeing it in Kerman, around Fresno and in Madera," said Glen Goto, president of the Fresno-based Raisin Bargaining Association. "They are getting yanked out."
Goto says farmers could bulldoze as many as 20,000 acres, or 10% of the state's total raisin grape acreage. This year, farmers are expected to farm 200,000 acres of raisin grapes, making it the lowest number in 20 years.
Goto believes that the drop could put additional pressure on the industry to sustain future markets. The U.S., led by the Valley, is one of the largest producers of raisins in the world.
Valley raisin packers and marketers acknowledge that some older Thompson seedless grape acres are being pulled, but they aren't worried about running out of raisins.
Barry Kriebel, president of Sun-Maid Growers, said some farmers are switching to higher-yielding varieties that can be mechanically harvested, reducing the demand for labor while also maintaining production. At least 50% of the raisin industry is using some form of mechanical harvesting.
"You hate to lose one customer, or one grower, but this is not total doom and gloom," Kriebel said. "There have been some very positive things in terms of revenue. Growers have enjoyed the three highest-revenue years that the industry has ever seen."
Growers agree that last year's record-setting price of $1,900 a ton was a boost for the industry, but farming costs, especially labor, have gone up, while the price for their crop will fall this year. Raisin growers have paid about 20% more for labor over the last two years.
And the prospect of another record price won't be happening as a big crop -- estimated at 25% larger than the previous year -- is pushing prices down. The Raisin Bargaining Association's latest offer to the packers stands at $1,800 a ton.
Falling by a much larger margin was the price offered by the region's wineries. Thompson seedless grapes can be dried into raisins or picked fresh and made into juice concentrate. This year, the winery price for raisin grapes tumbled from a high of $324 a ton last year to an average of $250.
"That was not expected and it slammed everyone in the face," said Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers. "No one was anticipating that big of a drop."
For some growers, the price decline has only accelerated the switch to higher-value crops, such as almonds that growers say return a higher profit and require far less labor. Not surprisingly, as raisin acreage shrinks, almond acreage is growing. Almond acreage nearly doubled in the last two decades to 810,000.
Raisin packer and grower Jerald Rebensdorf, president of Fresno Cooperative Raisin Growers, has bulldozed 30 of his 350 acres of raisins. He will plant almonds this spring.
"There is no question the industry is changing," Rebensdorf said. "But once we get more acreage out of the ground, I look for things to recover and making raisins should be profitable again."
Other growers remain on the fence about how much, if any, acreage they will convert to another crop.
"It really comes down to dollars and cents," said Tom Linscheid, a west Fresno County raisin grower. "And right now, almonds are a better deal than raisins, so guys are switching."
One of Linscheid's neighbors has pushed out 160 acres of raisin grape vineyards in an area of west Fresno County that has been dominated by vineyards. The neighbor will plant almonds.
Linscheid, whose two 20-acre vineyards were planted in 1919 and 1923, is contemplating making the switch.
"It is a tough decision," Linscheid said. "But I don't want to be the last one to have vines in the ground."
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