From a farmer's perspective, Kern County's top-grossing crop is performing better this year than it did last year. But that's the end of the good news as far as local table grape growers are concerned.
Prices for California table grapes remain significantly below their average from the last several years, people in the business say. Meanwhile, labor costs remain relatively high and international tariffs continue to weigh on the industry's competitiveness overseas, making 2019 only a little less painful so far than 2018.
"It's another lousy year," Kern table grape grower Mark Hall said. "Not as bad as last year. I'll lose less money."
Oversupply doesn't appear to be the problem. According to the California Table Grape Commission, 2019 is on track to yield 109 million 19-pound boxes of table grapes statewide, which is almost 6 percent fewer than last year, when the state produced its second-largest crop on record.
Growers say one factor that has made conditions challenging this year, like last year, has been the timing of harvest. Some varieties have ripened slower than normal and others have ripened faster, creating what Hall called a "bunching up in the middle."
UC Davis agricultural economist Dan Sumner has noticed this, too.
"This has been a weird year in terms of when crops get harvested," Sumner said. He said the pattern of some grapes coming in earlier and some later can create unhelpful bottlenecks that, if magnified later on, could throw supply and demand out of balance, especially if growers aren't able to find enough cold storage to keep their grapes in.
Grape commission President Kathleen Nave expressed a positive outlook on market conditions this year, noting that although prices have kept below their normal range, there has recently been an uptick.
"Prices have been strengthening, I think, in the last three weeks, and the expectation is that they'll continue to strengthen," she said.
Kern Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser said trouble in table grapes has the potential to reshuffle the county's ranking of top crops, though that seems to him unlikely.
For the last several years, table grapes have retained their title as Kern's top-grossing crop, outselling No. 2 almonds and No. 3 pistachios. At $1.5 billion, grapes brought in more than $200 million more in 2018 than almonds, whose sales came in at more than $1.2 billion.
Fankhauser said he thinks Kern's strength in grapes will likely cushion the county from year-to-year fluctuations. But there's a chance it won't, he said.
"Grapes are such a high-value crop and we've got so much of it, it's possible that it's insulated to some extent," he said. "But just like anything else in agriculture, it's cyclical and related to the bumper crop."
Jared Lane, vice president of sales at Kern's Grapeman Farms, said he's seeing table grape prices that are 10 percent to 15 percent below their normal.
He said one possible response by growers might be to remove their existing acreage and replant with new varieties; another option for some might be to start over and invest in nuts instead.
Hall said some vineyard removals are already happening as table grape growers give their crop a "dose of iron," meaning use a tractor to remove their vineyards. He said he's even considering doing some of that himself.
Is there a positive aspect of all the pessimism? Yes, he said.
"It's good for the consumer," he said.