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As grape acreage expands, industry talks politics

Leaders urge lawmakers, regulators to keep grape farming a “viable option.”

The 2018 California Grape Acreage Report is a matter of record now, showing an improvement over 2017. Acreage expanded by 5 percent to 925,000 acres, 863,000 of which were bearing with an estimated 737,000 of those acres being wine-type grapes.  Table-type grape acreage increased by 9 percent to 132,000 acres with raisin-type grapes falling off 2.5 percent to 156,000 acres.

But those numbers, based on questionnaires to 8,300 grape growers, may not reflect a complete picture of the situation and here’s why.

“It’s not my intent to discredit the report, but while figures for the Pacific Region Grape crush report are mandatory by statute, the Acreage Report numbers are voluntary - so by definition we don’t have 100 percent participation,” according to Jeff Bitter of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno.

“We use that report data as a base, making adjustments for areas that underreport and cross referencing that with what we know is getting planted every year based on our own Nursery Survey.  Like in Kern County, District 14, where a lot of grapes get crushed but not all of it gets reported…you’ll find anomalies when you look at the report.  That said, we use the acreage data as a useful tool, but it’s not the end-all and be-all for California numbers.”

When GrapeLine contacted Bitter for comment on the report, he was in Sacramento meeting with California legislators.

According to Bitter, he was, “Trying to preserve growing winegrapes in California as a viable option,” he said.

“Actually, that statement could be broadened to say that any small business in California faces daily challenges of survival in an environment where the state is not business friendly,” he added.  “Politics are not business friendly.  There’s a lot of regulation.  And certain areas of taxation kill us, although certainly the regulations are more of a stifling factor.  Particularly in wine grapes where we have a dependence on labor. 

Overtime and minimum wage

“In the last few years, things like the agriculture overtime rule and minimum wage increases we’re facing over the next three years, are problematic.  Margins of the current-day wine grape grower in California are, to put it mildly, very squeezed.  Realistically, when you compare growing wine grapes to growing other crops in the areas where you have the ability to grow other crops (like the entire central valley), it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to be growing grapes.

“Unless we do something to ensure growing wine grapes is an economically viable option, we’re going to continue to see acreage removed in cases where there are other options to grow different crops, and a lot of that has to do with cost structure and ability to compete.  The margins we’re working off of now - they’re very thin.”

Bitter is already on record as advising his 500 grower members to proceed cautiously this year as 2019 might be a good time to concentrate on removing non-productive vines.  He has predicted a growth rate in the vicinity of 6 percent for Coastal Valley vines, he’s also opined that Northern Valley vineyards might see a modest 2 percent growth rate and Central Valley growers could experience a dip of close to 6 percent.

“I take responsibility for saying that, that growers should concentrate on pulling up old stock. This would be a prime time to make needed acreage adjustments and lop off the bottom five percent or so to improve overall averages. You can’t be offering a mediocre product in the current marketplace, especially in a time of oversupply. Nobody wins when that happens.”

As to the current surplus supply - “I’m hoping there are some buyers willing to take a chance, because it’s likely they’ll get some good deals.”

And although it’s early in the 2019 season, Bitter says, “What we’re seeing so far, with early activity in the south and the north being delayed to the point where we’re ranging everywhere from shoot growth of a foot to 18 inches all the way to some areas not even at bud break, I’m not seeing a small crop.  We have decent bunch counts on the stuff we’re now counting and with last year’s perfect growing season, the vines are prepared to do well this year.”

For more news on pests, disease management and other issues affecting vineyards, subscribe to the bi-monthly newsletter The Grape Line.

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