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April 2013, Volume 19, Number 2

California: Safety, Raisins

Lodi-based Vino Farms, a vineyard management company, agreed in January 2013 to pay $200,000, including $100,000 to the victim's family, for removing kill switches on tractors that resulted in the death of a farm worker. Kill switches stop tractors from moving forward when the driver gets out of the seat. Vino removed them because, it said, they made the driver's seat too hot. Vino said that safety regulations do not require kill switches on tractors.

Robert Ramirez Lopez, whose arm was mangled after being caught in a machine in a watermelon packing shed in September 2009, was awarded almost $1 million in January 2013 from TMJMB Holdings (formerly Timco Worldwide), which made and maintained the machine, FLC VMJ Professional Services, and organic grower Double D Farms; TMJMB paid 90 percent of the settlement.

The Sacramento Bee on March 10, 2013 reported that many of California's farm workers are aging. Some of the workers at the 480-acre Chandler Farms are over 60, including some who were legalized in 1987-88. Fears of labor shortages prompted Chandler to replace 40 acres of peaches and plums with almonds.

Raisins. Raisin farmers had a very good year in 2012, receiving $1,900 a ton for all of their raisins (some raisins can be withheld from the market and sold at low prices in order to keep retail prices high). Raisin prices have rebounded from prices of less than $900 a ton in 2000 and $1,125 a ton in 2009.

Harvesting raisins has traditionally been the most labor-intensive activity in North America, involving 50,000 workers during the six-week harvest to cut bunches of green grapes and lay them on paper trays to dry into raisins in the vineyard. Over the past two decades, many raisin growers have replanted with varieties that ripen earlier, so that the canes holding bunches of green grapes can be cut and the grapes allowed to be dried into raisins while on the vine, the so-called Dried on the Vine (DOV) method of production.

Wine-grape harvesters can harvest raisins mechanically, eliminating most seasonal harvest labor.

About 50 percent of the 2012 raisin crop was harvested mechanically, and most predictions are that almost all California raisins will be DOV and machine-picked by 2025. Raisin growers must invest up to $3,000 an acre to retrofit vineyards that have been hand harvested for DOV, using stronger posts and modifying pruning practices. DOV vineyards can produce up to four tons of raisins an acre, double the usual two tons an acre yield.

The US Supreme Court heard a challenge to USDA's raisin marketing order in March 2013. After being approved by a majority of growers, the industry-run Raisin Administrative Committee required handlers or processors to "set aside" a certain percentage of their crop to help stabilize prices, 47 percent in 2002-03 and 30 percent in 2003-04 (set-aside raisins are typically sold later at low prices). Several raisin growers challenged the set-aside and failed to pay required frees to the RAC, resulting in fines that prompted the Supreme Court case.