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Great Grapes

Complexities, consolidation, and what else is new in California
MS_Grape Guy

Early in the season the Coachella Valley’s main competitor is Mexico, but from July through December, the Central Valley has no competition. “Chile only interferes in the first part of May when its season is ending and in late November/early December as it is beginning,” explains Jeff Olsen, president of Chuck Olsen Company, Inc. in Visalia. “At the end of the Chilean season in May, our fruit has the advantage because theirs has been in transit at least three weeks. On the other end in December, the first Chilean Flames are small and don’t have a lot of sugar.”

Steve Monroe, vice president at Monroe & Sons Produce Distributors in Bakersfield, has his own spin: “It’s a matter of marketing windows; we get going at the end of June and Mexican product is early—over 20 million packages in May and June. Our season starts in Nogales around May 10 with Mexican product. By the end of the California season, our imports are from Chile. Brazil also comes in at the end of season, as early as Thanksgiving. As far as export competition, South America is not a factor in Asia. At the end of July, we start exporting to Asia through our associations with other export companies.”

Winds (and Rains) of Change
California’s industry has been in flux the last few years. Growers are moving forward with new varieties that offer better flavor and yield, though the transition takes a few years before new vines start producing. As multigenerational farms struggle with California’s labor shortage, water restrictions, increasing minimum wage, and new overtime rules, a wave of consolidation is taking hold.

“Some growers are developing their land, while others are selling vineyards to investors in commodities such as almonds,” comments Zaninovich. “Then there are farmers who themselves are expanding into new commodities like tree nuts and citrus, which aren’t as labor intensive as grapes. Looking ahead five to seven years,” he adds, “I suspect families will stay in the table grape business longer than investment groups.”

Lane concurs, observing, “Some growers are switching to nuts, as they’re a third of the cost per acre to grow and harvest. You need an army of people to harvest grapes.”

Smaller, family-owned farms are also being bought out by large, investment-oriented firms. “In the past 20 years,” Monroe notes, “the consolidation you saw in retail is now happening on the supply end. These changes are coming about because it’s harder to turn a profit. Farms are growing more tonnage per acre as cheaply as possible, yet they need to make expensive investments like having to replant to keep up with new varieties.”