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In a year of challenges, how will California’s table grape season finish?

Describing California’s table grape season this year sounds like a tale of biblical strife. Brutal forest fires, sweltering heat, scarce truck drivers, clogged ports and of course, the plague of Covid-19. There are varying reports and narratives that the season might end earlier than in past years, leading to a better than expected start for imported grapes. But with weeks to still transpire, much of the talk is still squarely set in the realm of speculation.

We spoke to a number of growers, importers and industry leaders to better understand how the transition to imported table grapes will look as California’s crop starts to wane in the coming weeks. 

STILL MEETING 2021 PROJECTIONS

According to John Pandol, director of special projects for California-based Pandol Brothers, the California table grape harvest has gone in line with initial projections. Even with the effects of climate and logistical issues, the harvest yield should be within 2% of initial projects.

According to estimates provided by Pandol to the Grape Reporter, as of week 43, of some 102.5 million boxes estimated for the season, between 70 to 75 million have already been shipped, 15 million are sitting in cold storage and another 15 to 18 million remain to be harvested. 

With no rains or freezes forecasted until week 48, that means another month to get the fruit off the vine and into processing. By Thanksgiving week (week 47), Pandol expects at least 20 million of those grapes to be sold, and week 50 and beyond could see anything between 3 to 7 million more being moved.

Pandol said that one of the things that have marked this season is custom packaging, and a trend towards packing the grapes closer to shipment. This could be motivated by a need to differentiate brands for online shopping, but it is still yet to be seen. For growers, it does add a level of complexity. 

He also highlighted that although exports of California grapes were lower this season due to port issues both in the US and abroad, shipments outside the United States did not halt by any means. He also downplayed talk that weather issues could cause fluctuations in the supply of grapes towards the end of the season.

“A weather event occurs and there are always folks who make it sound like we should be building an Ark and predict radical supply changes and scarcity, and they are always wrong. They create more damage than benefit to the market,” Pandol said.

SHIPPING UNTIL JANUARY

Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission also dismissed concerns to the Grape Reporter that California’s season could be ending earlier than usual. She also said that harvest figures are in line with the 102.5m box estimate the commission had for the season or that when tallied, this season would not go down as a bad one.

“Fundamentally, the season is what we expected,” Nave told The Grape Reporter. This means that California grapes will be promoted into the beginning of December and shipped into January. 

“People are saying that California is ending earlier, but that is wrong, we are shipping into January,” The commission does not have any preliminary destination data, but Nave said in general, shipments within the US were up, along with Canada, Mexico and Central America. But promotions continue to run in foreign destinations, such as New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. Even if export volumes will be lower than last year.

Nave clarified that as a whole California’s season is moving along as expected, although there could be specific growers or regions that expect a shorter season, or that fruit has come off the vine faster in some situations as well. Even if it doesn’t affect shipping.


California grapes


A STRONG FINISH 

For those growers that have seen an earlier end to the season, it has not necessarily affected volumes or the movement of their products. According to Marc Serpa, director of domestic grapes and sales manager for Oppy, their harvest is winding down in mid-November, and shipping will be complete by mid-December, although volumes in recent weeks have contributed to gains on volumes compared to the previous year.

“We’ve had a season of really good movement and excellent quality from California. Overall volume has been slightly down but in the last few weeks shipments have been increasing, surpassing last year by approximately 10%.” Serpa told The Grape Reporter.

In the case of Oppy, the executive said that the company has been able to keep its quality standards high and that it has run a variety of tests this season that aims to improve harvest efficiency with autonomous carts that will also cut labor costs. The company also has trials in AI-based deep learning technologies that help it to improve forecasts and harvest yields. 

Nevertheless, mid-season varieties saw a reduction due to heat levels, and Serpa said that there has definitely been more pressure on the domestic market this season to alleviate the risk of port delays. 

Looking forward, Oppy’s director of import grapes and stonefruit Bill Poulos anticipates that logistics will be the soft spot going into the start of the import season. The company expects Peru to post growth with a heavy focus on new varieties, and that Brazil and South Africa will also increase their presence in the North American market later in the season.

The company has also turned to well-known consumer brands to market grapes, specifically through an agreement with the Ocean Spray label for their Southern Hemisphere program and packaging.

THE TRANSITION TO IMPORTS 

Mark Greenberg, president of Canadian fruit marketer and importer Capesan said that there has been talk that the later part of California’s season could be impacted by weather conditions, fires and. These conditions could lead to a strong opening for the import season. 

However, Greenberg does not believe that this is necessarily the case and also depends on geography. One factor that could weigh in for the Eastern United States is trucking costs and complications. Due to the high cost and low availability of trucks to move the fruit, the Eastern United States could be more apt to switch to imported fruit rather than take the chance on late-season California grapes trucked across the country.

Regardless, Greenberg expects a strong start, led by Peru. He anticipates that the bulk of production from Peru will have to go to the east coast due to the port bottleneck in California. 

This perception that the east coast could see a weak supply, could also lead to a rush from import markets to fill that space, and in a sense flood the market instead. This could be damaging for growers, which are already experiencing a price squeeze due to higher production costs. 

“It will be a good opening, we have good programs that are priced well. Growers are facing higher costs. So we have to be conscious of ensuring that we are getting prices for our growers. On the other hand, retailers run competitive businesses” Greenberg said. 


Correction Nov. 11, 2021: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kathleen Nave said this season would go down as a bad one, rather that it would not go down as a bad one. It also stated that she said that grape promotions would begin in December, rather than they would go into December. These have now been corrected in the article.

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