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Early San Joaquin harvest starts late, but good crop expected

by Rand Green | June 17, 2011

The start of the fresh grape harvest in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which usually starts during the latter part of June, will be late again this year — for the second year in a row — as so many other fruit and vegetable crops in California have been, because of unusually cool spring weather.

As one grower quipped when asked about the early San Joaquin Valley grape deal, “There aren’t any early grapes in the San Joaquin Valley this year. They’re all late.”

Estimated start dates range from a week later than normal to more than two weeks later than normal, with the earliest start dates in the earliest districts expected to be around July 4. One exception is an early block of Flames from Crown Jewels Produce Co. in the Three Rocks area on the west side of the valley, which were projected to start June 28. Some growers who are not among the earliest but who, nevertheless, are usually going strong by mid-July, don’t expect to have any grapes this year until late July.

That said, there seems to be a consensus that barring any unforeseen weather problems, once the harvest does get underway, there should be good crops of most varieties, with good quality.

The conspicuous exception is a late-season black seedless variety, Autumn Royal, which several growers say appears to be light.

Flame seedless, Sugraone green seedless and Summer Royal black seedless varieties were the most frequently mentioned varieties that will start the San Joaquin Valley grape season, and all are expected to have good crops.

Overall, the season is shaping up much like last year, according to Keith Andrew, who is on sales at Columbine Vineyards in Delano, CA. “The only thing I can see that is different from last year, and I am hearing it from a lot of my buddies up and down the valley, too, is the Autumn Royal is coming up very short.”

Louie Galvan, a partner in Fruit Royale in Delano, CA, said that the company’s vineyards were running 10 days to two weeks behind, and he did not expect the first grapes until about July 14. But once things get started, he expected to be “in fine shape.”

Meanwhile, the Mexican grape crop was picking out light, and the desert grape crop in California’s Coachella Valley also appeared to be a little on the light side. As a consequence, many expect a gap or at least a dip in supplies, rather than the usual overlap, in the transition from those areas to the San Joaquin Valley.

Marketers of California grapes were generally optimistic of starting their San Joaquin deals on good markets.

There certainly will be “plenty of fruit” in the market once the harvest gets underway, said Shaun Ricks, president of The Grape Guys in Cutler, CA.

Noting that the California Table Grape Commission had estimated a 99-million-box crop (for the entire state, including Coachella, for the entire season), “while I don’t know that we will hit 99 [million] or go over 100 [million] for the first time,” he said, “I think we will have a full crop” in the San Joaquin Valley, “and I am optimistic that we can get a good quality crop off.” He expects total volume to be “well into the 90s.”

The lateness of the San Joaquin Valley deal has a bright side, according to Rick Paul, category manager at Sun World international LLC in Bakersfield, CA. “That gives Coachella and Mexico additional time to move their crops, which were also a little bit late” and which have not been coming off as rapidly as might be expected, he said.

In the San Joaquin Valley, “the crop looks very good” other than being behind schedule, Mr. Paul added.

Anthony Vineyards in Bakersfield, CA, which typically has some of the earlier grapes in the valley, expected to start Flames sometime after July 4 and Sugraones around July 11-14, according to John Harley, vice president of sales and marketing.

He expected a “relatively smooth” transition “from Coachella to that district.”

Sundale Sales Inc. in Tulare, CA, has started as early as July 4 in prior seasons but does not expect to start Flames until around July 21 this year, which is “every bit” as late as last year, according to company President Sean Stockton. However, “if we are lucky” and the weather warms sufficiently, they could start earlier.

“The crop looks good overall, other than Autumn Royal,” said George Bravante, managing partner in Bravante Produce in Reedley, CA. But the start has been “pushed back” by cool weather.

The unusually cool and wet spring was punctuated by heavy rains and high temperatures well below seasonal norms the first weekend in June, but the weather over the next several days was warm and dry, and the long-range forecast as of June 11 looked promising.

AccuWeather’s 15-day forecast called for sunny days with daily highs from the mid-80s to low 90s, which are near the seasonal norm.