Valley Voices

In California’s great valley, we feed the world as the world feeds us

Martin Villa sends raisins on their way for processing at Del Rey Packing Co. in September.
Martin Villa sends raisins on their way for processing at Del Rey Packing Co. in September. Fresno Bee file

The worry has been floating for a while. “How much financial risk can I carry this time around?” Farmers clump in local fields and coffee shops to ponder the question as they weigh hope against last year’s numbers.

In the San Joaquin Valley, a new growing season has arrived.

Over the last six months, I have taken to shopping at one of the big-box grocery stores in town. Owned by a well-known supermarket company based in Modesto, the store stocks many of the same products as my neighborhood grocery. I’ve observed one difference: the produce sold there appears a notch lower on the visual quality scale – not a big deal for a farm girl who understands that fruits and vegetables don’t have to look perfect to taste perfect. The expectation of unblemished produce is a factor that drives up food costs.

I like playing a little grocery store game, especially if I am traveling: I read produce shipping labels to see if the transported fruit or vegetable was grown in our valley.

A few weeks ago, I needed a green bell pepper for some spaghetti sauce I was planning. In the big-box store, I chose a pepper so grand it could have been mistaken for a leprechaun’s hat. I grabbed it from a box marked “Producto de Mexico.”

As I continued reading the shipping label, the irony hit. The store’s peppers may have been grown and packed in Mexico, but they were distributed by Baloian Farms in Fresno.

I hesitated only a beat. I had removed the spent bell pepper plants from my garden three months prior. I needed a pepper now. So I bought it.

The points of origination in our food supply chain are becoming less of a mystery. Compliance with federal food labeling regulations provides protection. Still, some information remains guarded.

According to a recent import summary, over 3,000 metric tons of raisins landed in the United States from Chile in 2016. During the same period, over 1,000 metric tons arrived from South Africa. How are those raisins being used?

Raisins produced on family farms and processed by the Sun-Maid cooperative dominate our domestic market. Independent raisin packers also use local crops. Why do we need foreign products penetrating our supply stream if we live in the raisin capital of the world?

Forty years ago, my father didn’t make raisins from our vineyard. Instead, workers would fill huge gondola trailers with fresh grapes that were later trucked to a winery to be blended with other varieties. I can’t remember the last time I saw a tanker truck hauling Thompson seedless grapes to a crush facility. Other types of grapes must be filling the gap.

Talk on the street suggests that E&J. Gallo Winery pulls some grape juice concentrate from South America. Do we care? Discretion in the wine making business seems commonplace. Even Gallo’s huge plant on Olive Avenue in Fresno is absent identifying signage from the road.

The American consumer wants to eat and drink the best products from the best places until their pocketbook is affected. There is a reason I need only a small shopping basket when I make purchases from Whole Foods.

Commodities move across borders and oceans in all directions. Many Valley raisins are sold to countries in the Pacific Rim and Scandinavia. The recent withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement by President Donald Trump could dampen this export market.

For raisin growers who haven’t transformed their fields into almond orchards or citrus groves, the tug of war with the independent packers who buy and sell their product has become intense. According to one farmer I spoke to recently, raisin packers are worried they will become financially compromised with a high-priced inventory in a weak raisin market. Raisin farmers tend to think their product is worth more than the market demands.

Growers and packers have become adversaries who are betting on which side has deeper pockets – while consumers decide whether they prefer dried grapes or dried cranberries in their salads and trail mix.

“What will happen if farm profits don’t outweigh production costs?” Farmers worry, even as the fruit trees bloom lovely and the vineyard buds break.

When was the last time you ate a raisin? An almond? A Cutie, Halo or Dimple mandarin?

In my kitchen, the banana waiting for tomorrow’s breakfast was grown in Guatemala.

We feed the world as the world feeds us.

Danielle R. Shapazian is a nurse and writer who lives in Fresno. She can be reached at Danielle.Shapazian@sbcglobal.net.

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