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IN SEASON

Raisins in the Shade

September 30, 1998|RUSS PARSONS

If you're in Fresno and notice people looking at the sky every few seconds, it's safe to assume they're raisin growers. In what is merely the latest of a whole string of El Nino-related crop mishaps, the 1998 raisin harvest has been pushed hard up against the beginning of the Central Valley's rainy season.

Since almost 90% of California's raisins are still dried the old-fashioned way, in the sun, that can be big trouble. Most raisin grapes are grown on vines that are arranged on an east-west orientation with a slight north-south slope for maximum solar exposure. When the grapes are harvested, they are arranged on trays placed between the rows of vines. Sunshine does the rest.

That's the theory, anyway. Then along comes a year like this one. To begin with, the crop is much smaller than normal. If everything goes just right, there'll be a total raisin harvest of about 275,000 tons. That compares to 350,000 tons in a normal year.

And whether things will go just right or not is an open question.

"We've got about half of the crop safely stored, but the other half is hard to predict," says Hans Koop, manager of grower relations for Sun-Maid Growers of California, a cooperative that grows about a quarter of the sun-dried raisins sold in the world. (California accounts for about 80% of the world's sun-dried raisins, most of them coming from within 30 miles of Fresno.)

"The weather is not being very cooperative," Koop adds. "Temperatures have only been in the low 70s, and we had spotty rain this weekend. The weather doesn't look very good for this week either."

That's the kind of year it's been. Ask Koop why the crop is so small, and it takes him a minute to answer. He can't decide where to begin.

"It's been a disaster from day one for every commodity, and we're no different," he says. "The weather has not been as hot. We've had unseasonable rain. Put that all together and it makes it very hard to get a crop.

"And then once the crop is ready, you have to find people to pick it. This year we've been really short of labor. Tree fruit, table grapes, wine grapes and raisin grapes all came ready for harvest at one time. That makes it hard for everything to get picked. On top of that, Washington had a bumper crop of apples, and that's where our pickers go after here. Since they were on time, everything is all bunched up."

Farmers' Market Report

Most of the people who sell at Southern California markets are small farmers, but few are as small as the Yasuda family. At the Thursday market on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, they sell herbs like mugwort, epazote, lemon verbena, Greek oregano, sorrel and savory and green Kadota and Brown Turkey figs, all from their backyard in nearby Glassell Park.

Among other farmers at the market, Underwood Ranch from Tierra Rejada has French breakfast and long white radishes; white, red, purple, golden, chocolate and plain old green bell peppers; and four heirloom tomatoes--familiar Cherokee and Brandywine as well as something they call "Pineapple Pie" and a yellow they call Oxheart. Charles Xing from Merced has a variety of Southeast Asian vegetables including long beans, bitter melon, winter melon, loofah gourd and various shoots. And the Weisers from the Lucerne Valley have great melons: cantaloupes, "honey-lou" (a honeydew-cantaloupe cross), Ogen, Sharlyn, Sugar Queen and Galia.

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