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Changes in California grape acreage

Although the Golden State still dominates table grape production, acreage is down due to residential development and growers turning to higher-margin crops. For those who do grow grapes, Flame Seedless is still the leading variety with over 15,000 acres statewide.

Newer varieties planted in modest yet rising acreage include Blanc Seedless, Candy Snaps, Cotton Candy, Jack’s Salute, Krissy, and Sheengene 21. Growers cite increased yields, lower production costs, and better flavor as the reason for changes.

John Rast, president of Visalia, CA-based Rast Produce Company, Inc., BB #:156829 confirms the downward trend in total acreage.

“Housing in urban areas has grown so tight, development is encroaching on agricultural land. If acreage hasn’t been pulled out for houses, it’s been replaced with nut orchards.”

Clint Lucas, account manager at RJO Produce Marketing, Inc. BB #:150105 in Fresno, CA, is of the same mind. “It wouldn’t surprise me if acreage is scaled back,” he said.

Regardless, though, he believes 2019 will be a pivotal year for California grape growers.

What could possibly go wrong?
Despite ideal conditions and a tradition of producing table grapes, there are factors leading many grape growers to rethink how to use their land. Water and labor are consistent challenges, and this being California, regulations.

“After a robust crop in 2018 caused soft prices, the next two years look to be very tough for growers. Increased labor, water, regulations, and ancillary costs will continue to drive the cost of goods upward,” said Jason Fuller, vice president sales at Sun World International, LLC BB #:172413 in Bakersfield, CA. “The market will need to react, but how it reacts is the question.”

“We need to capture water in wet years instead of letting it run out into the ocean,” said Jeff Olsen, president of the Chuck Olsen Company, Inc. BB #:151376 in Visalia, CA. “Environmentalists push back against building dams, citing the protection of fish that aren’t even native.”

Further, he notes, state officials are talking about restricting growers to one acre-foot of water and putting monitors on wells, even those on private property.

Worse yet, for many, is securing skilled workers—one of reasons for the urgency of developing less labor-intensive grape varieties. According to a National Public Radio piece last year, even with some workers getting paid over $20 per hour, it’s still not enough to keep them from seeking employment with better working conditions in retail, construction, or foodservice. Crackdowns on immigration and difficulties with the H-2A visa program also exacerbate the problem.

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full version.