Ag at Large: Table grape production sets record in 2012
Several California crops and commodities are celebrating last year's performances, but none more than the raisin, wine and table grape industries.
We heard from the raisin and wine grape sectors earlier, and now we learn that table grape growers reached a remarkable level by shipping 100 million 19-pound boxes or the equivalent. That includes seedless, seeded, red, black, green and every other type of grape intended to be consumed in its fresh state.
To gain the full picture, it is good to realize that besides shipping that quantity of tender, sweet grapes, growers also pruned, pampered, irrigated, protected from disease and pests and cultivated the vines that produced that enormous crop and then picked and packed the grapes before shipping them to market.
For table grape growers, other members of the industry and observers, the production breakthrough was not so much a surprise as a milestone they have been looking forward to for years. Production has increased steadily for 40 years or more, but the sheer volume of shipments in 2012 is astounding.
That volume brought returns to the California economy of $1.7 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 2011. The total crop value of table grapes produced in California has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2004.
A major element of the record-breaking volume is the extended season. In 2012, the first shipments were recorded May 4 and concluded Jan. 18. That leaves just three short months in which grapes were not shipped to market. The earliest grapes were harvested and sent from the Coachella Valley, and the final shipment was sent from the San Joaquin Valley.
Behind that extraordinary extended season are the amazing results of breeding work, notably by the US Department of Agriculture at its facility near Parlier in Fresno County. For years, grape-breeder David Ramming developed one variety after another that met the rigid standards of consumers. Most were seedless grapes in a variety of colors that ripenied sequentially, helping to extend summer buying habits into January.
Another extremely important element in support of the accomplishment was the promotional work performed through the California Table Grape Commission, located in Fresno. Supported by the contributions of table grape growers themselves, it conducts a worldwide marketing campaign each year. For the 2012 season, it amounted to $12 million.
Founded in 1967, the commission has established itself as a true leader among the organizations that promote and market California's agricultural crops. Its total budget for 2012 was $17 million.
Statistics and reports maintained by the commission confirm the expected: The big majority — 59 million boxes — of the 100 million box volume was consumed in the United States. Canada was second, purchasing 11 million boxes, and the China region, including Hong Kong, bought 4.8 million boxes. Mexico was a close fourth with 4.6 million boxes.
Growing grapes for fresh consumption is a specialized occupation. Climate is a primary ingredient, the reason the warm Coachella Valley initiates the season. The lion's share of the volume is produced in Kern and Tulare counties, with Fresno and Madera counties rounding out the Central San Joaquin Valley production.
It will not be surprising if the record is broken again soon. Several established growers, inspired by the grape-breeding work of Ramming and the USDA, have established their own laboratories and research facilities. When they develop a variety accepted by the market, it demands a premium — plus they can make it available for planting by other shippers for a fee.
California's table grape industry has done a lot of things the right way, acknowledged by the market's acceptance. If growers and plant-breeders can find a way to produce the crop in February, March and April, it will be a year round, profit-making, healthy food-producing effort.