Sixty-five-year-old farmer Nick Jerkovich has been producing raisins his entire life. His father, a Croatian immigrant, taught him how to meticulously care for the gnarled vines so that every year they yielded plump Thompson seedless grapes to be sun-dried into raisins.
This fall, Jerkovich produced his last crop. His 20-acre vineyard now lays overturned in a quiet field near Kerman. Some of the vines were nearly 100 years old and still had a few grapes clinging to the branches.
It took a Caterpillar tractor just a few hours to rip them out of the sandy soil.
“It hurts to see an established vineyard be ripped out like this,” Jerkovich says, glancing at the debris. “I put so much effort into these vines, to make sure they got enough water, sunlight, everything. To be honest, I cried.”
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It was an emotional decision for Jerkovich, but not one he is regretting or making alone.
For decades, the central San Joaquin Valley has been the center of the nation’s raisin industry, churning out thousands of tons of the sweet treat annually for snacking, baking products and cereals.
And while no other region produces more raisins, the industry is shrinking as frustrated growers turn to higher-value crops. That, in turn, is raising concern among industry leaders about the viability of the raisin business.
Jerkovich says he’s grown tired of haggling over prices, struggling to find labor or fretting over late-summer rains. He and others have turned to crops that make more money, require less labor and whose season won’t be ruined by a few fat rain drops.
“Raisins is what I have done my whole life, but I’m done,” he said.
Eight years ago, Jerkovich began his transition by pulling out 20 acres of grapes and replacing the vineyard with almonds. The young trees produced well as consumer demand swelled. The United States, lead by California, rapidly become the world’s largest grower of almonds. This year, the crop is estimated at 2.1 billion pounds.
Statewide, California’s almond production has ballooned over the last 30 years from 381,000 to 860,000 acres while raisin acreage has dropped to about 190,000 acres, the lowest level since 1922. How many more acres will be pulled out this year is anybody’s guess. Some estimate it could be 5,000 to 10,000.
Industry officials acknowledge the shift in declining acreage is concerning, but they also believe it can bounce back with a better system for selling raisins. Under an arcane set of federal rules, a portion of the crop can be held in reserve, if the industry deems it necessary.
Barry Kriebel, president of Sun-Maid Growers, advocates for doing away with the reserve pool of raisins and selling 100% of the raisins harvested. That’s been the case for last five years and growers have had the highest revenue in history, says Kriebel, head of the iconic raisin company, based in Kingsburg.
Allowing growers and packers to sell everything they produce can also help settle the nerves of farmers who are being lured away by the prospect of a more stable income with other crops.
“It is very difficult for a grower to do a 10-to-15-year projection revenue when you have the mathematical uncertainty of what the free tonnage will be,” Kriebel said. “We have to take that variable out and really do the math, then you can compare apples-to-apples. If we do that then the raisin industry has a viable future.”
Higher prices needed
Glen Goto, head of the raisin farmer’s industry group, the Raisin Bargaining Association, acknowledges that farmers are leaving the business in search of higher-value crops. He sees ripped up vineyards throughout Fresno County and estimates the industry has experienced an annual decline in acreage of 3% to 5% over the last several years.
But Goto says there is little he can do to stop the exodus, except try to get growers more money for their crop.
Growers and packers are negotiating the 2014-15 crop. The industry has proposed a sliding scale that would pay growers more money based on the size of the crop. The smaller the crop, the higher the price.
“We have to get raisins to a level that gives farmers an incentive to invest back into it; that is what almonds has done and it has become a hot commodity,” Goto said. “Everything goes through cycles and if raisins are to cycle back, that means returns will have to get better and we will have to get the price adjusted back in the right direction.”
More vines removed
Not far from where Jerkovich pulled out his vineyard, another longtime grower, Kuldip Kaleka, is shedding some of his grape and peach acres to make way for almonds. Kaleka removed 60 acres of peaches last year and will take out 60 acres of grapes as soon as the almond trees he plans to replace them with arrive. That could take about 2 years.
“If I had the trees today, I would do it now,” said Kaleka, a raisin farmer for nearly 40 years. “It isn’t easy to get out of the raisin business, but for me, it just makes sense economically because the almond market continues to grow and we are the biggest producer in the world.”
Raisin grower Ed Fanucchi has 52 acres of raisin grapes at Hayes and Dakota avenues that he plans to use to grow almonds, citrus and cherries. Fanucchi suspects that as more small farmers get out of raisins, the remaining acres will be farmed mechanically using new trellising systems that can produce higher yields.
“There are advances that are happening in the industry but farmers these days have other options of what to grow,” Fanucchi said. “And they are taking those options.”
Walking through his vineyard recently, Jerkovich made sure that all of the wood stakes and wires have been removed from the vines. It will be several weeks before he burns the remains and disposes of the stakes. He’d like to plant his new trees by March or April.
He will install drip irrigation to maximize his water supply, but he is still concerned about the drought and the potential for the water table to drop in his area.
“I think about water every day,” he said. “But you also have to do everything you can to maximize the water you have. You always have to think about the future and right now, raisins is my past.”