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September 2004, Volume 10, Number 4

California, Raisins, Olives

Raisins. Harvesting the grapes from 125,000 to 150,000 acres in the Fresno area that are turned into raisins has traditionally been the most labor-intensive activity in North America- some 50,000 workers were involved in cutting bunches of grapes and laying about 25 pounds on a paper tray to dry in the sun. Most workers can harvest 300 to 400 trays of green grapes in a nine-hour day, for daily earnings of $60 or $80 per day at the 2004 piece rate of about $0.20 a tray.

California produced a record 400,000 tons of raisins in 2000, a third of the world's supply, and prices to growers dropped sharply. Between 2000 and 2003, decreasing raisin prices and reduced free tonnage (the quantity of raisins for which growers receive immediate payment) resulted in very low financial returns to growers, for example, in 2002 grower prices fell to $400 a ton, well below the average $600 a ton cost of production. The cost of harvesting raisins by hand-picking grapes and laying them onto trays is about 40 percent of total production costs, and imported raisins from Turkey as well as a wine glut reduced grower prices. However, the raisin harvest is down in 2004 to 200,000 tons, and prices are up; the Raisin Bargaining Association said its growers will get $1,110 a ton, at least $300 more than in 2003.

Most raisin growers are in their late 60s and have smallish 40-acre vineyards, but new plantings of raisins that are to be harvested mechanically, as well as retrofitting existing vineyards for mechanical harvesting, is expected to result in a third of the raisin grapes in 2004 being picked with some form of machine. The key to mechanization are grape varieties that ripen earlier in August. The canes with 10 to 15 bunches of green grapes are cut so that the grapes begin to dry while still on the vine, giving rise to the Dried on the Vine-DOV label attached to mechanical harvesting. Most DOV harvesting methods involve cutting canes by hand, but one, the south-side system developed by Sun Maid, trains canes to grow on a wire about 18 inches from the main trellis, so that the canes can be cut by machine. DOV is more effective on new early-ripening varieties such as Selma Pete, which reaches the expected 20-24 percent level of sugar earlier in August.

Raisins may be harvested mechanically and laid on trays to dry, a process known as continuous tray harvesting. Canes are severed to stimulate fruit abscission and, once the grapes are partially dried, a wine grape harvester with rotating fingers brushes the raisins from the vine, they fall to a conveyer belt that transports them to the next row, and then they are laid on a continuous paper tray as individual berries. Cutting the canes produces partially dried grapes that come off the canes more easily and generally retain their cap stems, reducing juice leakage that leads to stickiness.

Continuous tray reduces harvesting costs in traditional vineyards, but does not raise yields. In a full DOV-mechanized system, canes with bunches of grapes are trained to grow on trellises that bridge rows, maximizing the area in which leaves can be exposed to the sun because space does not have to be saved between the rows for drying grapes. The number of vines per acre is typically the same, about 550, but yields can be five or six tons an acre rather than two because the larger trellises increase the vine's fruiting capacity. With world raisin prices of $500 to $600 a ton, full DOV may be the only system viable in the long-run; at five tons of raisins per acre, the costs of production in a full DOV system can be as low as $200 a ton. Modern DOV systems reduce the demand for labor somewhat-30 compared to 40 hours an acre-but their most important impact is to smooth out the demand for labor. Instead of a seasonal harvest labor peak, a smaller crew is employed year-round to maintain the vineyard.

Olives. Harvesting olives has been another labor-intensive task involving workers climbing trees. However, Spain developed a high-density plantings of 675 trees an acre, and grown on a trellis system that facilitates mechanical harvesting. A machine passes through the grove, shakes the olives off trees, catches them, and then passes them into a trailer that takes them to a pressing station-a machine can harvest an acre in under an hour, saving 90 percent on labor costs.

California produced 400,000 gallons of olive oil in 2004, a sharp jump from a decade ago but still a tiny fraction of the 60 million gallons a year consumed in the US. There are plans to develop high-density orchards on relatively flat land and use mechanical harvesters, as with the 500-acre California Olive Ranch orchard and mill near Oroville. However, there are under 40,000 acres of olive-bearing groves in California, compared with six million in Spain and four million in Italy.

Other crops. California avocado growers oppose USDA plans to allow Mexican avocados to be imported to all 50 states, which would likely increase Mexican exports, reduce US production and reduce US prices.

Processing tomatoes can be harvested by custom harvesters for $10.50 a ton; fresh tomatoes that are picked green and then ripened with gas are harvested for $62 a ton.

Ventura County had farm sales of $1.1 billion in 2003, led by strawberries worth $301 million and nursery stock worth $173 million. The traditional leading crop, lemons, were worth $149 million; followed by celery, $113 million; and avocados, $101 million.

Dairies have moved from the Los Angeles area to the San Joaquin Valley, and are now seeking cheaper land and fewer urban neighbors in the Sacramento Valley. Environmental lawyers are suing to stop them, calling mega-dairies with more than 3,000 cows animal factories that can pollute water ways when there are spills.

Since 1988, California's timber harvest has fallen by two-thirds, from about 4.7 million board feet to 1.7 million board feet in 2003. The value of the timber fell far less, from $680 million to $450 million, as prices rose, but only 35 sawmills remain. About a third of California's 100 million acres are forested, but regulations restrict logging on federal and state lands. California's Sierra Pacific, owner of 1.7 million acres and logger on many public lands, is considered the largest private landowner in the US.

Water. A 16-year-old lawsuit that aims to restore the San Joaquin River resulted in a ruling in August 2004 ordering the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built Friant Dam and created Millerton Lake, to restore salmon runs on the 350-mile river. The river has run dry most years in two places since the dam was built in the 1940s and the last salmon run was in 1950.

Shasta Dam, built in 1945 by the US Bureau of Reclamation, is California's largest reservoir, providing water for farmers via the Central Valley Project. There are plans to raise the dam by up to 200 feet, and thus store more water for downstream users.

Biotech. Farm groups such as the California Cattlemen's Association and the Farm Bureau are joining forces to fight county bans on biotech crops that are expected to spread throughout California. Several counties, Humboldt, Marin, San Luis Obispo and Butte, have November ballot measures regarding biotech crops. Mendocino and Trinity counties have already outlawed such crops.

Farmers do not want counties to regulate what they grow and would like to keep the possibility of genetically engineered crops in the future. The key battleground is Butte county, a rice powerhouse. Ag leaders worry that a victory there would send an anti-technology message and companies would not want to develop biotech varieties in California. Herbicide-tolerant rice, which allows farmers to chemically kill weeds without harming crops, is expected to be one of the next major biotech crops. California has about 600,000 acres of biotech crops, split between corn and cotton.

Organic Produce. Prices for organic produce are holding steady for about half of organic farmers; about a quarter said prices are rising slowly. Another quarter said prices are falling. The survey was taken by the Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Many of the organic farmers surveyed said that they rely on a direct connection with consumers to stay in business. Nearly 80 percent sell product within 100 miles of their farms, and most use word of mouth as their main marketing tool. Many of the organic farmers grow specialty crops, such as personal-size cauliflower because they can not compete with large farmers. Organic farmers say their most difficult competition comes from large farmers who devote a small plot to organic produce because they can sell at a lower price.

US Agriculture. The Los Angeles Times reported that agroterrorism, the use of microbes and poisons to shake confidence in the U.S. food supply and devastate the $201-billion farm economy, prompted USDA to propose spending $381 million on biodefense in 2005. During war games in summer 2002, simulated foot-and-mouth disease attacks "killed" millions of animals and led consumers to panic.

The usual response to animal diseases is to kill animals that may have come in contact with infected animals. For example, after British cattle were diagnosed with foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, some four million cows and sheep were destroyed at an ultimate cost of $15 billion in disposal, compensation, lost trade and tourism. It is likely that agroterrorism fears will slow the growth of agritourism.

The US is on track for record harvests of basic crops in 2004: almost 11 million bushels of corn, 2.9 million bushels of soybeans, and 20 million 480-pound bales of cotton; world cotton production is expected to be 107 million bales.

Grazing. Most of the land in the western states is owned by the federal government, which has allowed ranchers to graze cattle and sheep on public lands for small fees, for instance, $1.50 a month for each animal month unit, or the rangeland needed to support one cow and calf for one month. The National Public Lands Grazing Campaign and other environmental groups seek to end grazing on public lands by encouraging the federal government to "buy out" the grazing rights of farmers.

The federal government loses money on grazing: in 2003, the Bureau of Land Management got $12 million from ranchers, but spent $50 million on the grazing program, and critics say the true costs are higher. A bill pending in Congress would provide up to $100 million to buy out the grazing rights of farmers, offering them, for instance, $150 to $200 for each animal month unit.

A report sent to Congress in August 2004 concludes that accumulating emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases pose newly identified risks to farmers, such as the growth of invasive weeds far more than it stimulates crops and that it reduces the nutritional value of some rangeland grasses.

Juliet Eilperin, "In Grazing Debate, Some Ranchers Are Switching Sides," Washington Post, September 13, 2004. Charles Piller, "Farmlands Seen as Fertile for Terrorism," Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2004.

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