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Grape crop lookin' good

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Arvin grape vineyards are dotted with brightly colored beach umbrellas this week, but nobody is lolling in the shade.

Under the canopies, both cloth and vine, the work is fast but deliberate as pickers and packers harvest Kern's top crop.

Arvin's table grapes are usually the first grapes picked in Kern County, where grapes overall are a $414.5 million industry. Kern's table grape crop was valued at $316.7 million last year year and may be even better this year, some growers say.

John Kovacevich, of John J. Kovacevich and Sons, was in his vineyards early Monday morning, overseeing workers as they picked ripe pearlette grapes. The workers moved quickly up the rows, but handled the grapes with care, expertly snipping away bruised or too-small fruit before placing the bunches in plastic bins for packing.

Kovacevich said he is cautiously optimistic about this year's grape harvest.

"We're already doing $2 a box better than we were at this time last year," Kovacevich said. "We hope it stays that way."

Table grapes are going for about $14.85 per 19-pound box, but growers expect that price to drop as the harvest continues. Kovacevich, whose family has produced grapes and stone fruit in Kern County for nearly 70 years, earns more for his grapes by custom packaging the fruit to meet client needs.

The table grape harvest has moved steadily north since May, when the California harvest began in the Coachella Valley. Spring storms pushed all California harvests back about a week, but all is well as long as districts don't overlap, Kovacevich said.

"Normally Fresno is about seven days behind us on the harvest and it still is," he said. "When the harvests overlap it's not good for anybody because there's too many grapes and the market gets depressed."

In addition to the pearlettes, a round and tangy green seedless grape, Kovacevich is harvesting flame seedless, but only where the fruit's purple-red color is fully developed. Kovacevich grows early varieties on 150 of his 500 acres of table grapes.

About 60 percent of the table grapes produced in the state come from Kern County, as does the bulk of grape exports, according to the California Table Grape Commission. Table grapes, or fresh grapes, are faring far better than their cousins, raisins and wine grapes. Raisin prices fell so low last year that many farmers could not cover the cost of the harvest. There was such a glut of wine grapes that the state's fastest-growing vintage sold for $1.99 a bottle.

Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, said consumers' general perception of grapes is that fresh, juice, raisin and wine are all one industry. But the state's fresh grape industry, Nave said, is thriving.

"We're marketing to more countries than ever, from 26 to 40 countries over last year," Nave said. "We've had good demand and good pricing so far this year, so we're hoping that will continue."

It's the same magical combination growers are always hoping for, Kovacevich said.

"Right now we're looking good because we've got lots of product," he said. "Last year at this time I couldn't say that."

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