The table grape harvest will start soon in Alicante, and it is doing so significantly early. This year's abundant rains and hail have not had an impact on the seedless varieties, but the more traditional varieties have suffered more. Climate change and labor shortages are increasingly important challenges, although this year, the greatest uncertainty lies in how the campaign will develop in the current health crisis.
"We will start harvesting and marketing the first seedless table grapes in early July. The first variety will be the red Candy Snaps, followed by the Sweet Celebration and the white seedless Timpson in mid-July," says Miriam Cutillas, of the commercial and marketing department at Uvasdoce. "Although the harvest won't start for a few days and the weather can always change, this year our campaign is kicking off about ten days early. In the case of the Candy Snaps variety, whose harvest usually starts in late July, we are starting up to almost three weeks early," she says.
In addition to completing its conversion to seedless grapes, Uvasdoce's production volume will grow by 10% this year, with an increase of about 700,000 kilos. "We have removed all varieties with seeds from our catalog, as well as the more obsolete seedless varieties, such as the Red Globe."
According to Miriam Cutillas, the lockdowns caused by COVID-19 have had an impact of the marketing approach. “This year it has taken us longer than usual to close the supply programs with our customers. Most large chains wanted to wait and see how the situation developed before signing, but fortunately, we have succeeded. Nevertheless, we expect to grow in terms of marketing by around 5%, compared to the 10% that we initially planned. "Our marketing policy is based on working with the same customers, remaining loyal to them and growing mainly with them, since only 5% of our production is intended for the open market."
"We also believe that this is not the right year to take risks, since we do not know what is going to happen in the coming weeks, considering that there continue to be small outbreaks of the virus in some countries and that there is talk of a possible outbreak between September and October, when we are in the middle of the table grape campaign. We have adopted many measures to protect our workers, but we must bear in mind that once they finish their day and leave our fields and packing center, it no longer depends on us,” she says. "The truth is that we cannot afford dealing with a virus outbreak in our plant or plantations, it would be disastrous."
“For the time being, we will maintain the limitations on the mobility of the workers, who will have to use more vehicles. In the field, the work has always been done in pairs, but this year, it will be done individually. We have made changes in our facilities, expanding the main packaging center, the common areas for workers, including larger changing rooms, reception rooms with the most advanced disinfection measures, etc.”
This year, Uvasdoce will make some small shipments to China and Vietnam, where export protocols for Spanish table grapes were approved last year. In fact, the company has invested in adapting cold rooms to meet the requirements of the protocols with these countries. Meanwhile, its exports will mainly go to the United Kingdom, South Africa (where they have their biggest client), Ireland, Scandinavian countries and, of course, Spain, where the consumption of seedless grapes continues to grow strongly.
Labor shortage and climate change, ever greater challenges
The Alicante-based company has also heavily invested in anti-hail protection covers in all its plantations. “Although there was some rainfall in April, the month of June has been especially rainy. We have invested in new covers to protect the crops from rains and hail, so we have not suffered any losses; however, the hail storms recorded two weeks ago have had a great impact on the plantations of traditional varieties with seeds from other producers in the area. Thanks to these covers, our productions are also arriving early. We are talking about plastic covers that can be used for up to five campaigns, instead of being replaced every year, and although they are more expensive than single-use ones, they require fewer workers,” says Miriam Cutillas.
The fact, according to Cutillas, is that labor is proving to be an increasingly greater problem with every campaign. “Fortunately, we have not been short of workers this year, given the circumstances, since after the state of alarm was declared, many were left without work in Spain and some turned to agriculture as an alternative. But when things go back to normal, the field is unlikely to remain their first choice. It is a real challenge to continue growing with the risk of not finding enough laborers. Last season, we broke our record with 420 employees. In the table grape sector, there are tasks that, for now, cannot be carried out by machines.”
Also, the variability of temperatures during spring is consolidating as a clear trend in recent years. “In the last three seasons, we have been experiencing periods of high temperatures in early spring and suddenly weeks of unusual cold. This results in uneven growth of the clusters and a greater need for labor, since we have to harvest more often and be more careful with the sorting," says Miriam Cutillas.