Grapes, including raisins, are the third largest crop in California grossing almost $6 billion in 2014. To harvest the labor intensive crop it takes thousands of workers. But as Ezra David Romero reports a new raisin grape variety bred in Central California could severely decrease that need for workers.
It takes a lot of hand labor to harvest raisins, three or more rounds of pruning, quality control and picking. And to pay those workers costs a lot of money. That’s why the raisin industry is desperately searching for a way to spend less on labor creating a larger profit margin.
Retired USDA Plant Breeder David Ramming says he thinks he found the answer in a testing field of crossbred raisin grapes near Parlier.
“I happened to notice two plants that the fruit was completely dry and the raisins were approximately the size that we wanted and we said wow, Eureka!" Ramming says. "One of those has turned out to be Sunpreme.”
Ramming discovered Sunpreme after crossbreeding raisin varieties that dry on the vine. For the past 15 years he has developed the raisin grape. The variety eliminates the need for workers to cut and hang grapes and the need for paper trays for sun-drying. Ramming says this could be an answer to labor issues farmers face as the number of workers has decreased.
“It has the potential to make a big impact on the industry," Ramming says. "Because its ability to naturally dry on the vine without cutting the canes. What that allows is not needing the pruners.”
Ramming says Sunpreme could reduce the need for labor so much that a vineyard that usually takes hundreds of workers could be maintained by just a few people. If the raisin proves cost effective it could prevent the steady loss of raisin acreage to more profitable crops like almonds or pistachios. Craig Ledbetter is the USDA geneticist that’s continuing Ramming’s research and release of Sunpreme to growers.
“Basically the raisin industry desires to be more like the almond industry being completely mechanized," Ledbetter says. "Using Sunpreme it is one step closer.”
He showed me some of these dry on the vine raisins at the USDA’s Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier where Sunpreme was born.
“You can see that it’s firmly attached to the vine, you can see that it’s fully dry at this point in time," says Ledbetter. "The raisins are dirty from being in the field.”
But with any new product there are concerns. Issues like flavor and color. The Sunpreme raisin is a little lighter in pigment and doesn’t have as strong a flavor as the traditional raisin. “It’s a meaty grape with a good skin on it," Ledbetter says. "It has a little bit of fruity flavor, it’s not a muscat type raisin, but it has a very pleasant floral type flavor.”
Fowler Farmer Ron Kazarian says he likes the taste and is excited about the release, but is afraid the raisins will fall off the vine too early.
“This variety is falling down on the ground before the machine even gets in the row," adds Kazarain. "What do you think is gonna happen when the vine begins to shake? We would be concerned that all the fruit would be on the ground.”
He plans to solve that problem by creating a mechanical harvester that picks the crop by shaking the vine and vacuuming raisins off the ground.
Lupe Sandoval is with the California Farm Labor Contractor Association. He says the move to mechanization won’t be a huge loss to farm laborers.
“With the labor shortage this will just require some kind of adjustment," Sandoval explains. "There are going to be some workers that will find I’m not going to be a raisin grape worker. I’m gonna be a citrus worker.”
Kazarian, the grower from Fowler, thinks turning to mechanization to harvest his crops increases the probability his farm will be able turn a profit in the future.
“The minimum wage is going up and it’s getting harder and harder every year to deal with the cost of hand harvesting," Kazarian says before returning to harvest his crop.
He diversified this year by planting almonds to decrease his reliance on labor. He hopes to plant Sunpreme in 2017 when nurseries are expected to release cuttings of the plant.