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Glut of Grapes Threatens to Dry Up Raisin Business

Agriculture: San Joaquin Valley farmers are forced to plow under their vineyards.

September 05, 2002|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FOWLER, Calif. — Each late summer day, Paul Khasigian puts on his farmer's boots and heads down the crooked rows of his family's 100-year-old vineyard. Sinking in the powdery soil, he pops a Thompson seedless grape into his mouth and lets his tongue tell him if it's time to make raisins.

But this season of harvest has left another footprint in the grape fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Tractors are leveling vineyards in the prime of their production; entire fields 30 and 40 years old are wiped clean in a single day.

This town and so many like it along a 75-mile stretch of California 99, the nation's raisin capital, are choking on surplus Thompson grapes.

Vineyards have been given over to weeds and bugs because the cost of farming is more than the price of raisins. Packinghouses have been mothballed, and the local raisin association, hoping to correct the glut, is paying growers to prune off the canes that make fruit.

Banks that have propped up the $400-million-a-year industry now sit coiled to lower the boom on overdue notes.

Nothing, though, hits the 42-year-old Khasigian harder than the roar of the giant tractors swallowing vineyards with their grapes still hanging in fat bunches, full of the sugar that makes these raisins the world's best.

When the day is done, the tractors stack roots, trellis wires, stakes and abandoned fruit in huge piles, ready to burn.

No one knows how many acres of Thompsons, the king grape of this flat valley, have been plowed under since the raisin went bust two seasons ago. But it isn't hard to find entire sections of old grape land now sitting vacant, concrete irrigation valves marking each vanished row like gravestones.

"I know we farmers are always whining, and people in the city don't know when to believe us. But believe this: We're dying," said Khasigian, who is farming the same land his father and grandfather farmed.

"The talk here isn't how much money we can make, but how little money we can lose. No one knows where we're going."

Too many raisins made and not enough raisins eaten--it's a story as old as the first musings of author William Saroyan, the Fresno native who once answered the farmer's lament with a simple equation: If only every mother in China placed one raisin in her pot of rice, he calculated, the glut would forever be gone.

The raisin marketers, it seems, have tried everything short of that to sell the world on the virtues of the sunbaked Thompson. From the Sun-Maid girl in her bonnet to the dancing clay figures of TV's California Raisins to the marketing of raisin butter, the push for new converts has never ceased.

"How do we get America to eat more raisins?" asked Eddie Nikssarian, half smiling. The third-generation raisin farmer has torn out his 20 acres of Thompsons because he would lose less money making payments on fallow land. He supports his family by selling the very grape plants that have gotten the farmers into this mess. "There's only so many raisins that can go into Raisin Bran," he says.

For Armenian American families like the Khasigians and the Nikssarians who built the raisin industry here, the Thompson grape had been a wonder. It gave them three options at harvest: size up the berries and sell them as table grapes; yank off the bunches and haul them to the winery; or lay the bunches on trays and let them cook in the sun. (It takes only three weeks of San Joaquin Valley sun to bake a grape into a raisin.)

For the better part of a century, it was the raisin that gave the grape grower the steadiest payday.

Harry Rustigian, who still farms the land his father first worked in 1913, raised three children and built a nice brick house by turning grapes into raisins. In the good years--and there were plenty of them--he put away $30,000 at each harvest's end.

Then two years ago, after the price of raisins dropped from $1,425 a ton to $878, he had to dip into his savings to pay his pickers and pesticide man. Last year, after he received only $554 a ton--$250 below the break-even point--Rustigian had to do the unthinkable: He laid off his oldest son, Dennis, the only one who had followed him into farming.

Now Rustigian, pushing 81, is driving his tractor by himself and watching over the irrigation system. "This is as bad as the Depression time," he said. "There's no promise here."

He blames imported raisins from Turkey, the land his father fled more than 85 years ago at the outbreak of the Armenian genocide, for creating the oversupply.

"My family left the old country to escape the Turks," he said. "We Armenians came to America and built this raisin industry from scratch. Now I'm an old man, and the raisin from Turkey is chasing me out. It's crazy."

The Turkish raisin, which now accounts for 25% of the world's supply, has surely made matters worse. But packers and other farmers say the seeds of this recent glut were actually sown five and 10 years ago--right here in California.

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