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A Raisin on the Run

December 12, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

What animated figures singing Motown couldn't do, Mother Nature could. The surplus of raisins, a fact of life in Central California since the mid 1980s, may well vanish by the time the 1997 harvest starts.

It wasn't the Singing Raisins that turned the trick, tuneful though they were. Instead, it was good old-fashioned bad weather. The raisin harvest in 1995 was 325,000 tons, down from the five-year average of 355,000. And this year's picking was even slimmer, a mere 270,000 tons.

As a result, the glut of raisins, which has been as high as 150,000 tons, will be sold by August, when the 1997 harvest begins.

"It wasn't anything catastrophic, just a little bit too much heat at the wrong time," says Barry Kriebel, president of Sun-Maid Growers of California, a raisin cooperative that accounts for roughly a quarter of the sun-dried raisins sold in the world, more than all of the non-U.S. raisin-producing countries combined. About 80% of the sun-dried raisins grown worldwide are from California--specifically from within 30 miles of Fresno.

"In terms of getting supply in line with demand, Mother Nature does a much better job than any artificial means."

The current surge in wine prices has also affected the raisin harvest. Although you won't see Thompson Seedless on the label of any fancy bottles, it is commonly used as a blending grape in inexpensive wines. Since it is also the dominant raisin grape (about 95% of all raisins are Thompson Seedless), with prices for wine grapes surging, raisin producers had to compete.

So far, raisin prices haven't risen substantially. In fact, price hikes scheduled to begin after the first of the year are the first in the last decade to exceed the rate of inflation. The wholesale price of a 4-pound bag of raisins will go from roughly $1.10 a pound to between $1.15 and $1.20.

You get the feeling they're almost happy just to be rid of them.

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