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Major California grape volume is still to come, but late season will be lighter than last year

by Rand Green | August 25, 2009
"The deal is going pretty well," Chuck Olsen, president of The Chuck Olsen Co. in Visalia, CA, said Aug. 18. Industry shipments to date for fresh grapes out of California's San Joaquin Valley were running around 2.6 million boxes ahead of last year, he noted.

"We have, overall, a much higher quality of grape this year -- not just us, but everybody does," he said. "Fruit is moving a little better, and prices are a little better."

The grapes have better size and color as well as better eating quality than last year, he said.

He expected a stable fall deal with good quality and promotable volume but not excessive volume.

"It seems like everything is moving along at a much earlier clip than past years," so it should be "a very interesting fall deal," said Keith Andrew, sales manager at Columbine Vineyards in Delano, CA. "It could be very different from what we have been used to in the past few years." Early industry estimates were for a crop similar to last year, "but we are seeing volume coming up a little bit short on each variety as we pick," he said Aug. 14. "Movement has been very good. Even in these slower days of August, movement has been a little bit above normal, so that is good."

For many California grape growers, the first of September is not even the midpoint of the season from a volume standpoint, and the bulk of the harvest still lies ahead. However, most growers anticipate a lighter total crop size this year than last, and accelerated early harvest and strong movement to date suggest that the amount of volume remaining to be shipped during the balance of the season will be less than during the same period last year.

That is good news for the California grape industry, since the late season last year was characterized by surplus inventories late in the season, accompanied by the inevitable low prices. Availability this year is expected to be much more in line with demand, and some in the industry think it could even come up short.

Opinions vary as to how much fruit remains to be harvested and packed and whether the total volume on the season will be just shy of last year or significantly lighter.

"As far as the harvest goes, we are ahead of last year and we are moving through the fruit very quickly," said Anthony Stetson, vice president of sales for Pandol Bros. Inc. in Delano. "Shipments have been extremely good as an industry -- I think above average and certainly above the last few years. Quality of the fruit is very good" with "excellent size, color and condition."

"I believe the crop will be off; I don't know by how much," said Jared Lane, sales manager at Stevco Inc. in Bakersfield, CA. "We were figuring it might be 5 to 8 million boxes short of last year, ... not a substantial amount."

Early in the season, the California Table Grape Commission projected a total 2009 volume for fresh California grapes of 98.25 million boxes (19-pound equivalent), down almost imperceptibly from last year's record volume of 98.5 million pounds. Since then, several varieties have come up short of estimates, with reductions attributed at least in part to the effects of early frost and in some cases to heat damage.

Shaun Ricks, president of The Grape Guys in Culter, CA, said Aug. 14, "What we are seeing is ... a crop that I would consider to be a medium to light crop as an industry." He expected the final number to be "closer to 80 to 82" million boxes.

But John Pandol of Pandol Bros. thinks the crop may be shorter than last year by more like 3-5 percent. "I don't think it is going to be sub-90," he said. "Yes, blocks are coming up short, but not that short."

(For more on California fall fruit and grapes, see the Aug. 31, 2009, issue of The Produce News.)