From a farmer's perspective, Kern County's top-grossing crop is performing better this year than it did last year. But that's the end of the good news as far as local table grape growers are concerned.
Prices for California table grapes remain significantly below their average from the last several years, people in the business say. Meanwhile, labor costs remain relatively high and international tariffs continue to weigh on the industry's competitiveness overseas, making 2019 only a little less painful so far than 2018.
"It's another lousy year," Kern table grape grower Mark Hall said. "Not as bad as last year. I'll lose less money."
Oversupply doesn't appear to be the problem. According to the California Table Grape Commission, 2019 is on track to yield 109 million 19-pound boxes of table grapes statewide, which is almost 6 percent fewer than last year, when the state produced its second-largest crop on record. Growers say one factor that has made conditions challenging this year, like last year, has been the timing of harvest. Some varieties have ripened slower than normal and others have ripened faster, creating what Hall called a "bunching up in the middle."
UC Davis agricultural economist Dan Sumner noticed this as well: "This has been a weird year in terms of when crops get harvested.” He said the pattern of some grapes coming in earlier and some later can create unhelpful bottlenecks that, if magnified later on, could throw supply and demand out of balance, especially if growers aren't able to find enough cold storage to keep their grapes in.
Grape commission President Kathleen Nave expressed a positive outlook on market conditions this year, noting that although prices have kept below their normal range, there has recently been an uptick. "Prices have been strengthening, I think, in the last three weeks, and the expectation is that they'll continue to strengthen.”
Kern Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser said trouble in table grapes has the potential to reshuffle the county's ranking of top crops, though that seems to him unlikely.