Agriculture

New raisin grape holds promise for central San Joaquin Valley growers

Naturally dried bunches of raisins hang on a vine at the USDA Agriculture Research Service center in Parlier. The new raisin grape variety, known as Sunpreme, does not require cane-cutting or drying on paper trays on the ground.
Naturally dried bunches of raisins hang on a vine at the USDA Agriculture Research Service center in Parlier. The new raisin grape variety, known as Sunpreme, does not require cane-cutting or drying on paper trays on the ground. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

A new raisin grape variety that has taken more than a decade to develop has the potential to change the industry in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Created by David Ramming, a famed U.S. Department of Agriculture plant breeder, the Sunpreme is like no other raisin grape available.

Ramming, who has since retired, bred the grape to naturally dry on the vine. No canes need to be cut, and paper trays are not needed to dry the grapes in the sun.

This could be a real game changer for the raisin industry.

Dustin Hooper, director of sales for Vintage Nurseries in Wasco

As one of the most labor-intensive crops grown in Fresno County, raisins require thousands of workers to complete the harvest. And over the years, the labor pool has begun to shrink, causing growers to either pull out their vines or switch to harvesting methods that require less labor.

To growers, Sunpreme represents the potential for a huge savings in labor and money. Without a need to cut canes, or clip bunches, the work of three or four people could replace that of dozens. It also holds the promise of helping to stabilize the exodus of growers pushing their raisin grapes out in favor of higher-value crops, like almonds, pistachios and citrus.

California’s raisin acreage has been declining steadily over the last decade, reaching a low of 185,000 acres this year, with a majority of that in Fresno County, according to the USDA.

“This could be a real game changer for the raisin industry,” said Dustin Hooper, director of sales for Vintage Nurseries in Wasco, one of five California nurseries that will sell the new variety. “Once people started hearing about it, they started asking us for it.”

Michael Kazarian, a Fowler area grower, is among the farmers who have been tracking the grape’s development.

“So many people are looking for alternatives in farming and this could be one of them,” Kazarian said. “Already, there are lots of guys who want to put in test plots to see how it does with existing trellising systems.”

California, led by Fresno County, is the leading supplier of raisins in the nation.

Although farmers and nurseries have been anticipating the release of the grape for several years, it may be at least one more year before it becomes available.

Tia Russell, horticulturist for Duarte Nursery in Hughson, said clippings of the vine have been provided to the University of California, where they are checked for viruses and propagated for distribution to nurseries, who pay a licensing fee.

The process can be time consuming and frustrating for nurseries anxious to get their hands on a potentially hot seller.

“This could be something that really takes off, and that’s why some nurseries are in a rush to get their hands on it,” Russell said.

But Russell said investing in a new variety also has risks. A nursery could spend thousands of dollars on licensing fees for several years and the product may not deliver as promised.

“As a business, when a customer asks for it, you want to be able to say ‘Yes, you have it,’ ” Russell said. “But it can be a gamble.”

For decades, the Thompson seedless grape has been the preferred grape for making raisins.

Craig Ledbetter, a geneticist with the USDA’s San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier, is shepherding the release of Sunpreme. He acknowledges there are kinks to work out, including how to harvest.

On the USDA’s experimental farm in Parlier, the Sunpreme test plot has raisins dangling from all sides of the vine. The fruit falls easily off the vine, a concern of growers who worry about losing too much during harvest.

Also an issue is the taste. The fruit has a slightly different flavor than a regular Thompson seedless raisin. It tends to not be as sweet and have a hint of muscat flavor. That could be appealing to some consumers, but not to others, Ledbetter said.

Steve Spate, a raisin grower near Selma, said harvesting is something growers can figure out. And the taste difference has resulted in mixed opinions. Some prefer the traditional Thompson seedless while others like the fruitier-tasting Sunpreme.

“We may be able to sell it as another natural seedless raisin,” Spate said. “It is very promising.”

Spate, who is also a grower representative for the Fresno-based Raisin Bargaining Association, said that while it remains to be seen if Sunpreme can make the industry more profitable, one thing is certain: The trend toward mechanization continues.

“As labor becomes more of an issue, there is no question that mechanization will be the future of this industry,” Spate said. “Without the labor to do these jobs, there aren’t a lot of options.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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