Drought not damaging CA grape quality

For fresh produce marketing in Australia and New Zealand
Jeff Long

BY JEFF LONG

Drought not damaging CA grape quality

Tight water supplies haven’t dampened a high-quality California table grape season

Drought not damaging CA grape quality

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With much of California’s fruit seasons running early in 2015, the San Joaquin Valley grape season is no different, with some growers kicking off shipments as early as 18 June. 

“The Coachella deal was all but finished by the last week of June [and was] one of the earliest ends to a season that I can remember. And Mexico is finishing early as well. It’s just another wacky year,” said John Harley of Anthony Vineyards.

All of this is thought to be a direct consequence of drought, which has had California in its grip for more than four years.  The dry conditions have caused state and federal water providers to all but eliminate allocations again this year, which has forced growers in some instances to drill wells to more than 2,000ft (609.6m) deep in search of irrigation supplies, which soon turn dry. Despite this, expectations are that the San Joaquin table grape industry will still have enough water to bring in the 2015 harvest.

“It’s serious,” admitted Harley, referring to the dwindling availability of irrigation water particularly in the southern end of the valley. “But it appears that the industry will at least make it through this current season.”

“We’ll be alright [for water supplies] this year,” agreed Michael Little of Vincent B. Zaninovich & Sons. “But we can’t keep tapping aquifers indefinitely. If California has another dry winter with no snow in the mountains, things will become critical – not just for table grapes but all California agriculture.”

The California Table Grape Commission’s (CTGC) pre-season estimate was for shipments of 113.3m cartons (8.62 kg) during the 2015 season. If accurate, that would comfortably exceed the 110.9m cartons shipped last season but will still be less than the record 116.3m cartons of 2013. Industry opinions are mixed on just how much fruit will come out of San Joaquin’s vineyards this year.

“I’m thinking the packout will be down this year because there have been a lot of vineyards taken out in the last few seasons,” Brian Crettol of Jasmine Vineyards told Fruitnet. “They’ve been replaced with plantings to new varieties but much of that acreage is still young and not really bearing yet.”

Although there was still some fruit being shipped from the Coachella Valley as of mid-July, the crop was trending about 1m cartons lower in shipments compared to the 2014 season (4.7m vs. 5.7m cartons). Whatever the final industry volume turns out to be, the opinion of most industry experts is that the quality of the 2015 crop is outstanding.

“Green grapes are looking spectacular so far, [while] the mid- and late-season varieties are all looking strong,” noted Nick Dulcich of Sunlight International Sales. “There has been berry splitting in some of the early Flame Seedless from a freak rain that hit just before the deal got underway in mid-June. But it’s a sporadic thing.”

“The quality of the Sugraone’s has been just ‘killer’ so far,” said Todd Bassett, who inspects table grapes for both domestic and international clients. “You’ve got both domestic and export markets competing for the same fruit and that has kept Fob prices strong. The sugar levels in general have been really high for all varieties to start the deal this season. Actually, the drought may be helping overall fruit quality as the vines are no doubt stressed and could be concentrating the sugars. Whatever the case, the fruit seems to be thriving on less water.”

If there is a defining trend to the California table grape industry these days, it’s the removal of mature vineyards and replanting with new, high-yielding varieties that have been released commercially in recent years. Increasing costs of production is, evidently, the impetus.

“It’s all about yields to the grower now,” said Crettol. “[The price of] water, labour and energy are all increasing and impacting the bottom line. You can’t be profitable with yields of 1,000 cartons to the acre any longer. These new varieties are getting well over 2,000 cartons to the acre and in some cases, over 3,000 cartons.

The full preview of the California table grape season will be published in Asiafruit July/August

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