A gap in grape supplies, a later start than last year and perhaps a small drop in production are all combining to give Coachella Valley grape grower-shippers a very optimistic view of their upcoming season.
With a mild winter and spring, the grapes are taking a bit longer to mature this year — more in line with historical averages — and it does not appear that there will be promotable volume for the red seedless varieties until after the middle of May with green seedless varieties beginning to hit their stride in late May.
Andreas Economou, chief operating officer at Tastyfrutti International Inc. in Philadelphia and a longtime player in the Chilean deal, told The Produce News on April 18 that Chilean shipments should be just about finished by early May. That would mean that California producers will enter the marketplace with less competition than is usually the case. There will, of course, be grapes from Mexico that will get started at about the same time as the Coachella Valley but there still could be a demand exceeds supply situation at the front end of the deal.
And George Tudor, vice president and owner of Tudor Ranch Inc. in Mecca, CA, said the California grapes will be the first U.S.-produced grapes on the market and the first domestic grapes available for several months. Economou said that does make a difference. He said the Coachella Valley deal has long marked the start of the California grape season and there are many buyers specifically looking for that domestic production.
In mid-April, Economou said green grapes from Chile were experiencing a “very good” market in the mid- to high $30s range. The red varieties were trading in the $20 to $26 ballpark. Economou thought it was likely that the Coachella Valley grape market would start out strong, but he wouldn’t put a dollar number on it that far in advance. Chance Kirk of Vincent B. Zaninovich & Sons in Delano, CA, was equally optimistic. He said early in the deal that a gap was possible as Chile winds down and Mexico and California ramp up. The first three weeks of May look especially promising marketwise.
In its heyday, Coachella Valley routinely produced well over 10 million cartons per season. Even a decade ago, production was in the 7 million to 9 million carton range for the season. Today, 4 million to 5 million cartons is more typical as acreage has declined over the years for a variety of socio-economic reasons. But that decline may have reached a plateau.
Some new varieties look promising so many growers are experimenting with them. Tudor is optimistic that the Coachella Valley grape deal will be viable in the long run, just as it was when his grandfather, Vladimir Tudor, began growing grapes in Coachella in the 1940s. “I hope so,” George Tudor said. “At the beginning of the season, people go to the market looking for California grapes and we are the only ones with them at this time of year.”
Economou, who has been selling grapes to retailers for more than 30 years, said Coachella Valley does have a strong following and he believes it will stay that way. He worries that the increase in the California minimum wage and other rising costs will adversely affect the industry, but in the same breath he said the growers are incredibly adaptable and will find a way to survive. “They’ve survived this long,” he said, noting that California has some inherent geographical advantages that work in its favor. “Water is the source of planting and growing, without that it doesn’t matter how much land you have.”
The Coachella Valley is in the middle of the desert and routinely sees summer temperatures that top 110 degrees and often 100-plus degree days are experienced in the spring months. But paradoxically it does not have a water problem. This year when the rest of the state received record levels, Coachella Valley received above normal precipitation but that was hardly noticed by the agricultural community. “We usually get three to four inches of rain — maybe we got six inches this year,” said Tudor. “That really didn’t make any difference.”
He explained that the valley gets its water from the Colorado River, which begins high in the mountains in Colorado. Even in extreme drought conditions, Coachella has ample water in which to grow its crops. Combine that with its California brand, and the locals are fairly certain the grape deal will survive for many more years.