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IN SEASON : Grapes of Mirth

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Walking the streets of Bakersfield these days, you can spot the grape growers right off. They’re the ones who are smiling.

While 1995 has been nothing short of disastrous for most fruit growers, the table grape harvest is up almost 10% over last year. “The only thing I can say is we must go to the right church and sit in the right pew,” says Bruce Obbink, president of the California Table Grape Commission.

“It’s an unfortunate fact of life that in the fruit and vegetable world, you have to live off of the bones of others. If everything produces at maximum, there may be cheap prices for consumers, but it’s an absolute disaster for farmers.

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“A farmer’s best situation is when everything is balanced, but only God can do that. As a result, this year table grapes are filling a lot of gaps in supermarkets because retailers need something to sell. That means there will probably be attractive prices all summer.”

While there was some damage to San Joaquin Valley grapevines from the spring rains and hailstorms, that was more than made up for by increased plantings. And though the weather has been cloudy all spring, Obbink says that just means bigger grapes. “The unseasonably cool weather has been pretty good for these grapes; it’s allowed them to size up properly.

“The negative is that the harvest has been delayed because the sugar hasn’t come up as fast,” Obbink says. “We’re just now beginning to pick some Perlettes and some Flame Seedless in the San Joaquin Valley. In the past, that has started as early as June 29. We’re a good week to a week and a half late.”

After the early varieties, the harvest will move on to Thompson Seedless and then, by next week should include just about all 71 of the seedless summer grape varieties that are now in production. While 75% of the grapes sold in 1975 were seeded, the reverse is true today.

“That shows you what snacking will do,” says Obbink, who points out that American per-capita grape consumption has increased from 1 1/2 pounds to eight pounds per person over roughly the same span.

While the harvest is just beginning in the San Joaquin, it’s just winding up in the Coachella Valley, which finished picking early last week. “We’re done,” said someone answering the phone at the Sun World packing shed. “It was short and it was sweet.”

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