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Coachella Valley grapes two weeks early

A warm winter followed by a warm spring has crops in the Coachella Valley of California coming off sooner this year, including a two week earlier start to the grape deal.

The Coachella Valley deal, which kicks off the California grape season each year, saw its first grapes picked around April 24. Many grower-packers were expected to get into the swing of things during the week of April 28, and the rest following suit the following week. By May 12, growers and shippers were predicting that volume would be heavy and typical of end of May shipments in a normal year.

Rob Spinelli, a salesman for Anthony Vineyards, which is headquartered in Bakersfield, CA, said the early start is very significant because it will allow California growers to take part in the normally heavy demand period leading up to the Memorial Day weekend. That weekend marks the beginning of summer for people all over the country and they often celebrate with picnics including grapes. If Coachella didn’t start shipping until May 15, it wouldn’t get into heavy volume until about two weeks later, which would make it miss the holiday pull. This year, Memorial Day falls on May 26 so the heavier demand will start around May 16.

Perlettes, an old-time green grape variety which has given way to many newer varieties over the years, is still typically the first grape harvested. Grower-shippers wanting to be early still hold on to their Perlette acreage to capitalize on the early market.

Steve Root of East West Unlimited in Coachella is one of those that still handles the Perlette. He always wants to be the first shipper with grapes from Coachella and attempts to accomplish that with the early maturing varieties as well as a favorable micro-climate where his vineyards are located. “I want to be in and out of the deal within five weeks,” he said.

This year that means a marketing window of about April 24 to the end of May.

Most of the shippers predicted that the Coachella Valley crop will come in somewhere around the six million carton mark, which is fairly typical.

David Clyde, president of Stevco, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, said it appears that there will be very little if any overlap with the Chilean fruit. Stevco’s California grape crop should begin to be harvested the week of May 5 and he said Chile will be out of the deal by then. Stevco said Mexico will have begun shipping by then as it’s production typically mirrors that in Coachella in terms of timing.

Because of the early start, Clyde said it is quite possible that the deal will end a bit early. He is anticipating an early July finish compared to a middle of July end to the Coachella Valley season last year.

Nick Bozick, president of Richard Bagdasarian Inc., Mecca, CA, said the ideal growing conditions have also produced a very high-quality piece of fruit this year. “The grapes look very, very good,” he said in mid-April, commenting on grapes that were about two weeks from harvest.

The Flame Seedless are the largest producer in the valley followed by Sugraone, which is a green variety that replaced the Perlettes and the Thompson Seedless in the desert. No other variety comes close to those two in volume, but Coachella has many other varieties that grower-shippers offer including Summer Royals, Scarlett Royals, Sweet Scarlets, Magenta, and the aforementioned Perlettes, although production of that once-dominant variety is down to about 20,000 to 30,000 boxes.

Mike Aiton, marketing manager for Coachella, CA-based Prime Time International, a shipper of peppers and other vegetables, said just like the grapes, the vegetables are also early this year and for the same reason. The pepper crop, he said was about one week early. The same was true with sweet corn and watermelon. Aiton cautioned buyers to pay close attention to the watermelon and sweet corn supplies as May moves forward. Both of those items see demand spikes as Memorial Day approaches. Aiton said because of the earlier-than-usual start, supplies of those items toward the end of May might be less plentiful then in the past. Buyers may need to look elsewhere to augment orders.

One interesting note about this desert district is that it does not have any water problems this year. Though California is in the midst of a drought, which will see hundreds of thousands of acres followed this summer, virtually none of Coachella Valley’s spring crops are affected.

“It is ironic,” said Bozick of Bagdasarian, noting that this desert agricultural region has plenty of water for everyone to plant and produce their normal production. “I credit our water district,” he said. “They are very aggressive. They recharge our ground water whenever they can and they have worked out an agreement with the government to take care of our long term needs.”

The local irrigation district did sign an agreement with federal and state agencies several years ago guaranteeing a specific water delivery amount each year from the Colorado River. That basically allows all growers to plant their crops without fear of running out of water… no matter how hot it gets.

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