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When the California Table Grape Commission released its preseason estimate on the 2011 fresh grape crop, there appeared to be a good possibility that the state could ship more than 100 million boxes of fresh grapes this year, for the first time ever.

The industry came close to that in 2010, with the final tally hitting 98.3 million boxes, or 97.7 million in 19-pound box equivalents. The 2011 estimate called for a record 99 million boxes, close enough to the 100 million-box threshold to be almost statistically insignificant. It could easily have happened.

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Autumn King grapes in a San Joaquin Valley vineyard. (Photo courtesy of Sundale Sales Inc.)

 

But most of the shippers The Produce News talked to in early and mid-July don't think it will happen this year. In fact, many of them expect total shipments for the year to be down a few percentage points from the 99 million-box estimate.

There are several factors contributing to that assessment.

First, the Coachella district in California's southern desert, the earliest grape growing district in the state, came up about 20 percent under estimate. But that difference constitutes only a little over one percent of the state's total production, so it is, by itself, only of minor significance in the big picture.

Another factor is a late start to the harvest in the San Joaquin Valley - around two weeks behind normal and quite similar to or even later than last year, according to most accounts. Also, there appears to be a lighter-than-normal set of Autumn Royals on the vines, and some shippers mentioned a few minor weather-related issues on some varieties in some areas. None of those factors appears to have much significance on its own, but collectively, they are causing some growers and marketers to project that the industry totals this year may come in two or three percentage points below the 99 million-box estimate.

Not everyone agrees however. Some shippers think it is still possible that the industry will ship over 100 million boxes this year.

"Our crop is not short," said Shaun Ricks, president of the Grape Guys in Cutler, CA. "I wouldn't say that it is a giant crop, but it is probably normal. I think that is reflected by the industry." Mr. Ricks is on the shippers advisory committee for the grape commission. "When we estimated the crop prior to the season, we estimated at 99 million, which would be a record if we pack that. I don't know that we will hit 99, but I fully expect to hit 95 plus or minus a couple, barring any extreme weather," and that would be considered a "full crop." There is still talk that the industry could "go over 100 million," he said, adding, "I would say there is a good chance of that."

Mr. Ricks said that he is "very comfortable" with that prospect, since the industry has had some good marketing years with volume in the 95 to 98 million box range.

What most shippers agree on is that the quality of the crop, generally, appears to be excellent (and that any grapes that are an exception to that won't be packed).

"Yes, there is a delay," said Jim Llano, sales manager at Castle Rock Vineyards in Richgrove, CA, July 11. "But the fruit that we see coming here next week and the week after is absolutely gorgeous." Size and color are good, and they eat well, he said. It is "very, very nice fruit."

In spite of the slow start, "once we get going, after a week or so, we will see normal volumes returning" for the industry, he said.

Because of a gap between the end of the Coachella deal and the start of the San Joaquin Valley harvest, "pricing has been quite high" reflecting a "very tight supply," he said. But he expected pricing return to "normal levels for the time of year" by the end of July.

The price for Flames "right now for loading tomorrow is somewhere between $26 and $28," said Atomic Torosian, a managing partner at Crown Jewels Produce Co. in Fresno, CA, July 12. "What a way to start out." The company had "just finished our Mexican grape deal yesterday" and "there is absolutely no overlap" with the start of the San Joaquin Valley deal, "which is different than we are used to." Instead, "there is a gap," he said, "and the retailers haven't had a lot of grapes to promote here the last two weeks."

Pricing "got much higher than normal with the lower supply," and the San Joaquin Valley is "behind easily two weeks" compared to "where it should be," said Cary Crum, vice president of Green Tree International Inc. in Visalia, CA, July 12. "So you've got this bare pipeline with high prices and this pent-up demand." His concern is that when volume increases, "there may not be enough retail promotions in place to support normal pricing."

"Other than [the start of the harvest] being late, it sounds like when we get going and get into the heart of the deal, there is going to be a good crop on all colors," said Clint Lucas, an inspector with RJO Produce Marketing in Fresno.

Quality looks "very nice" on the early fruit, said Jared Lane, vice president of sales and marketing at Stevco in Bakersfield, CA. "But it is not going to come off a quickly as it normally does." Some varieties will have to be picked three or four times, because of differences in maturity of the bunches

"The season looks good. Quality looks exceptionally good," said Louis Scattaglia, managing partner at SGS in Traver, CA, July 7. "We have a good solid crop," although the harvest looked to be running about 10 days later than last year.

"Arvin is just starting this week," said Jon Zaninovich, vice president of Jasmine vineyards in Delano, CA, July 11. "We've got a gap in the market on grapes, and it is high priced. Hopefully, we can ease the market down into a good price trading range and a good promotable range, but not a total collapse of the market."

The California Table Grape Commission "has done a good job of tying retailers to the radio tags with California grapes, and they have them on commitments to run these ads," he said. So far, the retailers have not been able to run their ads because of high prices. "The market has been strong, so there hasn't been a whole lot of ad activity." But when volume comes on and prices come down, he expects to see retailers come through with the promotions the industry will need to move the crop because they "are committed to carry these ads out if they are going to receive the promotional funds from the commission."

As to the size of the crop, "I think we are going to come close" to the 99 million-box estimate, Mr. Zaninovich said. "There is no shortage of grapes on the vines out here in the San Joaquin Valley."