Raisin grower Steven Spate shared a broad smile this summer as he gazed over his 220-acre raisin vineyard located in the Raisin Capital of the World near Selma, Calif.
While he saw slightly smaller grape clusters, the vineyards at Spate Farms were healthy with fast-growing fruit on the mix of mostly Thompson Seedless variety grapes plus newly-planted Selma Pete vines – all conventionally grown.
At press time during harvest, Spate reported Thompson tray counts (yield) were down about 15 percent. Some growers in the area had Thompson yield reductions up to 50 percent yield reduction, due largely to the dry California winter last year. Spate’s young Selma Pete vines yielded about three tons per acre.
Raisin grape harvest in the central San Joaquin Valley is a two-month-long process for growers, generally from Aug. 20 - Oct. 20, depending on crop maturity.
Steve and wife Tracy’s farm is located in the community of Monmouth, located between Selma and Caruthers. They farm six different sites with the help of their son Matthew; all are within four miles of the home farm.
As with other growers, the Spate’s have embraced change to economically survive in the raisin business. Their 220-acre farm is smaller than many operations in the Raisin Belt which means reduced income. Rising input costs have led to changes to help make ends meet.
A major change in 2007 included Steve seeking off-farm employment to generate more revenue. He landed the full-time position grower representative position with the Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA).
The association negotiates grower raisin prices with signatory packers, and works on other issues which impact growers.
It was a good fit for all.
$2,000/ton grower price?
Spate said, “Growers need the input costs back and a good stable profit to remain in business. In my opinion, growers should receive about $2,000 per ton for their crop which is $1 per pound.”
Last years’ RBA established raisin price was $1,650 per ton. Growers actually received less than this amount based on moisture and quality after inspection. Yield is an important component of pricing along with increases in crop input costs. This is why Spate thinks grower-price input is needed.
Spate served as a RBA board member prior to accepting the RBA staff position to support the association’s 1,000 grower members. About one-third of the state’s raisin producers are RBA members.
Spate is the current chairman of the California Raisin Marketing Board and serves on the Raisin Administrative Committee.
Spate Farms is a fourth-generation operation with son Matthew as the likely fifth. The family has German roots, emigrating from Russia to California in the early 1900’s. Steve Spate began the operation of the family farm at age 24 when his father Henry passed away at age 54.
Since the elder’s death, Spate has increased farm acreage from 120 acres to 220 acres today. To keep his farm competitive, he is planting improved varieties and using his PCA background to provide early preventative pest and disease control to reduce crop loss and maintain income.
About 200 acres of Spate Farms is planted in Thompson Seedless with the traditional single-wire trellis system. Spate is transitioning to a two-wire trellis system, and has 20 acres of Selma Pete on the open gable trellis system.
“It’s quite costly to plant a vineyard with an open gable system yet higher production levels will likely follow,” Spate said.
Selma Pete planting
Over the last three years, Spate removed 20 acres of the oldest Thompson Seedless vines and planted back to the Selma Pete variety on the ‘vigorous-growing’ Freedom rootstock.
The old Thompson vines yielded about 1.25 raisin tons per acre when removed. Average Thompson tonnage in the area is 2.0-2.5 tons per acre.
“It was an old vineyard in sandy soil. It was an economic decision to remove the Thompson Seedless and plant the Selma Pete vines,” the raisin grower said.
The Selma Pete’s are grown with open gable trellises which make mechanically grape harvest a viable option versus traditional picking by hand. Speaking of which, Spate says water and labor respectively and the shortages of both are his top-two concerns. Reliable labor crews that do not show up on time are a growing problem for area growers.
For Spate, irrigation water, all groundwater, is delivered by furrow and drip irrigation – about a 50-50 split.
Once the Selma Pete vines mature, the grapes will dry on the vine (DOV in industry speak) for the mechanical harvest. This year, the young vines were handpicked.
“We invested in Selma Pete on a small scale to determine if this should be where we move in the future. It is costly but a long-term investment,” Spate said.
The Selma Pete vines, open gable trellis, drip irrigation, and reaching commercial production will cost Spate about $7,500 per acre.
“I hope to recoup this over the life of the vineyard based on anticipated production.”
300-percent yield increase
He hopes to reach full production – up to four tons per acre – 3-4 years after planting. This would be a 300 percent increase in yields compared to the older Thompson vines.
“The Selma Pete planting should pencil out,” Spate said.
Over his three decades in the grape business, Spate has grown most grapes for raisins yet occasionally sold the crop for juice concentrate for blended wine.
Another way that Spate helps control input costs and increase yields is by putting his pest control adviser background to work.
“My goal is disease and pest control in a preventative manner before the disease or pest has affected the vineyard and reduced income potential,” he said.
Year after year, the top disease threat is the fungus powdery mildew which attacks the leaves and berries.
“Once powdery mildew is found, it is nearly impossible to rid a vineyard of the problem,” he said. “By that time, you’ve lost production from berry cracking and reduced grape development for the coming year.”
Spate mostly applies liquid and dusting sulfurs to prevent mildew development.
On the pest side, the omnivorous leafroller pest and Pacific spider mite create the greatest concern. Spate uses various insecticide and miticide sprays to combat them. He also keeps an eye open for future outbreaks of the grapevine mealybug.
Almonds over grapes?
In closing, Spate said he and other raisin growers face the growing issue of crop competition. An almond orchard is located one-half mile away from the Spate homestead.
About 10 years ago, almond plantings began in the greater raisin-growing area and accelerated about six years ago.
“The raisin industry has lost about 100,000 acres of grapes in a 70-mile radius from Madera to the north down to Kern County to the south due to crop competition,” Spate said.
Decisions to produce a non-raisin crop are basically a financial and labor-based decision. Besides almonds and other nut crops, citrus production is also gaining a foothold in traditional raisin areas.