Although the Golden State still dominates table grape production, the acreage is down due to residential development and growers turning to higher-margin crops. For those who do grow grapes, Flame Seedless is still the leading variety with over 15,000 acres state-wide.
Newer varieties planted in modest yet rising acreage include Blanc Seedless, Candy Snaps, Cotton Candy, Jack’s Salute, Krissy, and Sheengene 21. Growers cite increased yields, lower production costs, and better flavor as the reason for changes.
John Rast, president of Visalia-based Rast Produce Company confirms the downward trend in total acreage: “Housing in urban areas has grown so tight, development is encroaching on agricultural land. If acreage hasn’t been pulled out for houses, it’s been replaced with nut orchards.”
Clint Lucas, account manager at RJO Produce Marketing in Fresno, agrees: “It wouldn’t surprise me if acreage is scaled back.” Regardless, though, he believes 2019 will be a pivotal year for California grape growers.
Water and labor challenges
Despite ideal conditions and a tradition of producing table grapes, there are factors leading many grape growers to rethink how to use their land. Water and labor are consistent challenges, and this being California, regulations.
“After a robust crop in 2018 caused soft prices, the next two years look to be very tough for growers. Increased labor, water, regulations, and ancillary costs will continue to drive the cost of goods upward,” said Jason Fuller, vice president sales at Sun World International, in Bakersfield, Califonia. “The market will need to react, but how it reacts is the question.”
Producebluebook.com reports that For many, the problem of securing skilled workers is a massive one. According to a National Public Radio piece last year, even with some workers getting paid over $20 per hour, it’s still not enough to keep them from seeking employment with better working conditions in retail, construction, or foodservice. Crackdowns on immigration and difficulties with the H-2A visa program also exacerbate the problem.