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Low prices, regulations threaten raisin grower’s survival

Mitch Sangha
<p><strong>Third-generation California grower Mitch Sangha once grew only raisins on his Ag Telesis farm in Fresno County. Due to declining consumer demand for the dried fruit and lower grower prices, he&rsquo;s reduced his raisin acreage by about two thirds and planted almonds, cherries, and olives to boost revenues.</strong></p>
On this early October morning, third generation California raisin grower Mitch Sangha meandered through a 100-year old Thompson seedless vineyard on his family’s Ag Telesis farm at Caruthers in Fresno County.

On this early October morning, third generation California raisin grower Mitch Sangha meandered through a 100-year old Thompson seedless vineyard on his family’s Ag Telesis farm at Caruthers in Fresno County.

He reminisced about learning the essentials about vineyard management as a young man from his father Kishan and grandfather Santa, both now deceased, tools to produce the highest quality raisins possible.

Today, Mitch, 57, applies those past lessons to today’s farming challenges on his family’s 700 acres of farm ground in Caruthers and Del Rey – located 21 miles apart.

Cropping includes 250 acres of Thompsons for raisins (most at the Del Rey site), 300 acres of almonds (220 acres bearing), 40 acres of non-bearing pistachios, and 50 acres each of olives and cherries.

Sangha’s raisins are sent to Sun Valley Raisins Company at Caruthers, almonds to Del Rio Nut Company in Livingston, cherries to several Reedley-area packinghouses, and olives to the Corto Olive Company in Lodi.

Mitch and his wife Sherrie have two sons – Mitch Junior and Sean.

Raisin farm squeeze

Like more and more raisin operations, the Sangha family farm is caught in the crosshairs of several major issues which threaten the farm’s future and its legacy. Challenges include an oversupply of dried fruit tied to declining raisin consumption, and related lower grower fruit prices which threaten the family’s economic survival.

Not that many years ago Sangha was bullish on raisins. His operation once grew 100 percent raisins. Yet the issues shared above and others have realistically changed his raisin outlook to bearish.

As the result of falling consumption and prices, Sangha has removed about one third of his raisin acreage, and added tree nuts and fruit to generate more income. He’s making more money per acre from almonds than raisins. In addition, he’s shifted the vineyard harvest more towards mechanization and less handpicked fruit.

Today, 200 of his 250 acres of grapes are machine harvested.

“Mechanical harvest has really saved me a lot of money,” Sangha says.

He pegs mechanized harvest costs at about $600 per acre, compared to about $1,000 per acre for handpicked fruit – or about a 40 percent savings by machine. He says post-harvest fruit quality is better when picked by machine than by hand.

The remaining 50 acres must be handpicked due to vineyard design (trellis systems and avenue width).

Raisin yields across the farm typically average 2 to 2.5 tons per acre. Three-ton yields have occurred in their best production years.

As with many other raisin growers, the Sangha family is steeped in the raisin tradition.   

“Raisins are in my blood. I grew up doing it and it just comes natural,” he says.

“I enjoy growing grapes but with crop competition our prices have gone down the last several years. It’s not as fun when you’re not making a profit.”

Over the last three years, Sangha has pulled 120 acres of vineyards.

Regulations hit farm hard

Another issue weighing heavily on Sangha’s shoulders and his bottom line is the impact of government regulations on his operation.

“It’s a big issue,” Sangha says. “I spend a lot of time filling out forms for different agencies. You have county pest reporting, the water issue, nitrates, and soon will have to report our nitrogen applications.”

The combination of these and other regulations are pushing Sangha to the edge.

“I think we are headed to government telling us how much fertilizer I can apply. I think they’ll dictate from Sacramento what I can do rather than my PCA or my CCA.”

The bottom line - regulations threaten the economic viability of his farm.

“I don’t know how much longer we can farm,” Sangha says. “How long will the people in Sacramento allow us to farm here? It seems to me they don’t want any more farming here.”

He added, “Every time they vote on something (regulation) it cost me money. No one has ever come from Sacramento to talk with me about how this (proposal) would affect me. It seems like they just don’t care.”

Sangha pointed to California’s new $15 per hour minimum wage law to be phased in over the next several years which will cost him more in labor costs. Another concern is California’s new overtime law which caps farm work at 40 hours per week.

These two new laws, Sangha says, put a question mark on his future labor availability and affordability. The higher minimum wage rate, the grower notes, will make it harder for him to compete with lower wage rates currently paid in other raisin-growing countries.

When asked about his No. 1 challenge for his operation, he answered “not having enough available labor.”

With more and more regulations on the books, Sangha admits that moving his farm to another state to grow other crops is an option on the table, possibly to Arizona, but he’d prefer to stay in California.

“This state is my life - it’s hard to just pick up and move.”

For now, he’s considering pulling out more vines and planting more nuts which are less labor-intensive crops.

Sangha explains, “I’m just trying to survive. Survival makes you innovative.”

Tree nut shift

Sangha’s acreage switch to tree nuts began about a decade ago. Almond plantings include Nonpareil, Butte-Padre, and Aldrich varieties, plus the self-pollinating Shasta variety planted this spring.

Monterey produces the highest yields for Sangha, averaging about 3,000 pounds per acre.

“It is a bigger nut which equates to more pounds.”

His second best almond yielder is Butte-Padre which he calls a “consistent variety” which requires a single tree shake at harvest. Ranch wide, the almond trees, all on Nemaguard rootstock, averaged about 2,500 pounds for all varieties.

Sangha is active off the farm in the raisin industry, serving as a board member for the Raisin Bargaining Association and the Raisin Administrative Committee.

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