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The benefits of mechanized raisin production comes at a cost

Frustrated by the hassles and uncertainties of lining up a crew of 50 workers to hand-pick his 160 acres of Thompson seedless grapes every season, Fresno County raisin producer Craig Roque switched to mechanical harvesting.

That was in 2006, when construction activity was booming and he could find only 12 workers per day to harvest his crop. “It took forever to pick the grapes,” he says.

So, he traded labor for capital, spending $250,000 to purchase a harvester, tray layer, and pickup machine.

Now, Roque can bring in his raisin crop the first of September with a core group of about a dozen harvest-long workers. Ten to 14 days before the grapes are scheduled to be picked, 8 to 10 workers cut canes, starting the drying process on the vine. Then, four workers spend eight days laying grapes on trays. After 10 to 12 days of drying, it takes eight days for three worker to pick up the raisins.

Has the switch to a mechanized harvest operation been worth it?

“That’s a good question,” he says. “I have a lot less labor to worry about, but hand-picking still makes the best quality raisins.”

This is Roque’s 36th year of producing raisins near Caruthers, Calif. His grandfather planted the family’s first Thompson seedless vines in 1919. Many are still in production.

The smaller harvest crews mean much lower payroll and unemployment taxes, he notes. “Once it’s paid for, the harvest equipment will start making money for me,” says Roque, who also uses the harvester for custom work after picking his vineyards.”

It took two seasons before he became comfortable with the various aspects and nuances of mechanical harvesting. His self-propelled, over-the-row, horizontal rod-type harvester can pick his two types of trellising — single-wire and double-wire with 18-inch cross arms — but the numerous old, gnarly vines cause problems.

“The machine will take them out,” Roque says. “Straightening up the old vines and replacing the really crooked ones with new vines is an ongoing process.”

So is machine maintenance. Cleaning the buildup of juice, dirt, leaves and other plant parts from the harvester’s catch plates, picker heads and fans, and replacing any broken buckets or bow rods is a two-hour chore at the end of each day.

Once the harvest is finished, Roque spends about $5,000 to $6,000 on parts and service to get the machinery ready for the next season.

To reap the labor-saving benefits of mechanical harvesting, however, he sacrifices raisin quality. Unlike hand-picked grapes, which take on sugar until the day they’re harvested, he has to cut canes of mechanically-picked vines as much as 14 days before harvest.

“Last year, some of my raisins were 10 points lower in grade than had they been hand-picked,” he says. “They were worth $20 to $40 a ton less.”

With machine harvesting, the grapes are left open on continuous trays to dry until they are picked up, which leaves the crop vulnerable to yield and quality losses from rain.

This past season, rain fell on his vineyards while three-fourths of the grapes were still on open trays. With hand picking, he could have started harvest a week earlier, reducing the risk of September rains.

Such drawbacks, Roque figures, are part of the price of producing raisins these days. “The way the labor situation is going, I don’t feel I have a choice.”

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