Things are looking up for Kern County's top crop.

After a difficult two years for California table grape growers, conditions seem to be aligning nicely just in time for the start of the Central Valley harvest.

People in the business say prices and quality are looking strong and the crop is ripening in an orderly fashion. Plus, there's no sign of an oversupply.

What's more, the industry is about to launch a marketing campaign it hopes will persuade shoppers to take special note of where their grapes are grown, the idea being that there's a local economic benefit to buying products produced in California.

"I think we have, you know, some good prospects for this year,” said Jon P. Zaninovich, president of Delano-based Jasmine Vineyards.

A NEW LEAF

If the 2020 season pans out well, it'll come as a relief for growers of a crop that in 2018 produced farmer revenues of more than $1.5 billion in Kern, more than any other agricultural commodity in the county that year.

Two years ago there was a glut that kept prices low — good for consumers, bad for farmers. California turned out above-average volume of about 116 million 19-pound boxes of table grapes.

Last year there were fewer grapes, about 106 million boxes, but something else happened that spoiled what might have been a decent year. On top of international tariffs that have depressed prices, a quirk in crop maturity patterns put a lot of grapes on the market at roughly the same time, which had the effect of lowering prices.

FRESH OPTIMISM

That doesn't seem to be the case this year, said Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission.

First of all, the size of California's crop this year looks to be about the same as last year, she said, while grapes from Mexico are in shorter supply than years past. That's good for domestic farmers.

Another positive sign for Central Valley table grape growers, Nave said, is grapes aren't ripening all at the same time. Instead, the crop is maturing in the traditional pattern, gradually from south to north, which gives growers in different regions equal opportunity to market their fruit.

The upshot is that prices paid to farmers are relatively strong. Nave said that, as of last week, farmers in California's Coachella Valley were getting 18 percent more money per pound than they got at the same time last year.

Zaninovich pointed to another positive sign: "Quality of the crop looks excellent," he said.

NEW MARKETING

Forethought is also working in the industry's favor.

An advertising campaign about to hit television channels asks consumers to be more conscious of where their grapes come from, and even ask their grocers where the fruit is grown.

It's an approach unlike any the industry has taken before, Nave said, and it's come at a time when traditional promotions such as free samples are no longer viable because of the pandemic.

She said part of the idea was to emphasize to shoppers that, at a time when the economy has slowed, buying California products helps support local workers and generates sales taxes that help pay the salaries of teachers and other public servants.

The campaign is being carried out in cooperation with California Grown, an organization funded by a number of different commodity groups.

The organization's executive director, Chris Zanobini, made the point that California also has the nation's toughest production regulations and its highest-paid farmworkers. He said information like that will cause people to think more responsibly about their purchasing decisions.

"I think people, particularly in the current environment, are looking for ways to feel better about what they’re doing and what’s going on around them,” he said.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf

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