Fresh from the harvest, Kern County's two top-grossing agricultural commodities have already hit a rough patch.
Robust supplies of California table grapes and almonds are being met with sluggish prices that people in the industry say result at least partly from a trade war that has spawned steep tariffs — in China, 50 percent on the price of almonds, 53 percent on grapes — and opened opportunities for competitors in other countries.
Based on estimates by local growers, table grape prices have fallen as much as 40 percent from a year ago, while almond prices have slipped between 5 percent and 9 percent.
The situation is especially difficult for grape growers, who unlike almond producers have limited ability to store their product until market conditions improve. They are experiencing the lowest grape prices in years, as buyers appear to be delaying orders despite strong product quality.
"It seems like there's a good crop, so I don't know where the holdup is," Shafter-area table grape grower Jeff Rasmussen said. He suspects the problem boils down to supply outpacing demand.
Wheeler Ridge table grape grower Mark Hall laid part of the blame on tariffs China and other countries recently imposed in retaliation for U.S. duties on metal imports. Though it's still relatively early in the local grape harvest, which is expected to continue into late November, he said farmers are unloading product cheap to avoid getting "stung" with unsold grapes. (By contrast, California's almond harvest is basically complete.)
Hall said it hasn't helped that acreage devoted to table grapes has expanded locally, as investors seize on what had been strong prices for the crop. Reciting an old farmer joke, he expressed hope the price trend will turn around soon.
"We're always optimistic, farmers," he said. "If it wasn't for next year, I couldn't hardly afford to farm."
Kern almond producer Holly King, chairwoman of the Almond Board of California, said exports to China have been relatively robust despite that country's tariffs, but sales to the Middle East and Turkey have been hit hard. She worries about the money California almond growers have spent opening foreign markets.
"We've done a lot of work and we've invested a lot of money to increase demand in China," she said. "Australia's just going to walk in and get the nuts (market) because they don't have a 50 percent tariff" in China.
At $1.7 billion, grape sales led Kern County's ag industry in 2016, the most recent year for which local figures are available. Almonds followed with an estimated market value of $1.3 billion. Citrus was a distant third at $825 million.
That year, land dedicated to growing grapes in Kern totaled 111,000 acres, up 34 percent from five years before, county records show. During the same period, the county's almond acreage rose 48 percent to 224,760 acres.
Industry observers report that the tariffs have created an unhealthy level of uncertainty that may have persuaded international buyers to delay putting in orders until they have a better idea of whether the trade war will be resolved soon.
"Of course the big problem is this trade war," said Frederick Klose, executive director of the trade group California Agricultural Export Council.
He said California table grape sales will likely suffer more from international tariffs than almonds because the United States produces the most of the world's almonds, leaving buyers little choice but to buy American. But he also noted almonds are more dependent on exports: Roughly 80 percent of California's almonds are shipped overseas, as compared with about 40 percent of the state's grapes.
The good news is that demand for almonds and grapes continues to grow worldwide — just not enough to meet a recent surge in supply, said David Magaña, vice president and senior analyst for fruits, vegetables and peanuts at Rabobank.
A report Rabobank released earlier this month predicted downward pressure on U.S. fruit and tree nut prices, and that grape producers will be hurt more than almond growers as a result of Chinese tariffs on imports from the United States.
The report offered strategic advice for California growers impacted by tariffs: Strengthen relationships within the domestic market, diversify export partners, emphasize supply reliability and focus on the value of quality and innovation.
Delano table grape grower Jerry DiBuduo expressed hopes the market will improve before this season's harvest concludes. He said three-quarters of his grapes still hang from the vine.
"I think there can be (a price recovery), because we're still into and going into our good (product) movement weeks," he said. "So, everybody's waiting to see and hear and feel what (future prices) are going to look like."