The State of Western Table Grapes: United States and Mexico season forecast
The Americas are a global powerhouse for table grape export. Every year, from California’s San Joaquin Valley to the Valparaiso region of Chile, more than 1.3 million tons of grapes are grown, packaged, and shipped to customers around the world.
However, over the past few seasons, Western table grape producers experienced turbulent industry conditions marked by COVID logistics hangovers, climate events, labor constraints, continued shifts in consumer preferences, and intensifying intercontinental competition. Despite these challenges, experts are optimistic about the industry's prospects for 2023, viewing it as a year of strategic course correction.
In this two-article series, the Hazel team provides atop-line analysis of four key table grape industry leaders across the Americas-- Chile and Peru in South America, and the United States and Mexico in North America. The articles will highlight each country's performance in the previous year, as well as provide a review or forecast for the 2023 season.
Part 2: North America
2021/22 was a tumultuous year for California table grapes, where a rolling battery of early frost, scorching, 110° F mid-season temperatures, and disease-spawning, late season rains tested the fruit from every angle.1 These factors ultimately resulted in California’s lowest production numbers since 2010 (a decrease of 45,000 tons or 5% compared to 2020/21).
With production down, exports followed for a third consecutive year, decreasing by 40,000 tons or 13%.2
While production lagged, U.S. table grape growers were able to navigate the brutal consequences of historic inflation. They overcame surges in input costs, the strongest US dollar seen in two-decades3, and stagnation in both retail prices and domestic demand.4
Expectations for 2022-2023
Early in the season, several significant variables remain in-play, but as of December, the USDA’s 2022 Fresh Apples, Grapes, and Pears: World Markets and Trade report indicated a positive outlook for the 2023 season, forecasting a 3% increase of 24,000 tons, with production reaching a total of 850,000 in the 2022/23 season.5 While it is not a significant jump in quantity, growers are optimistic about quality, based on new variety options of more distinctly flavored grapes that are gaining fast popularity among consumers.6
With production stronger and demand consistent, domestic consumption (consisting of ~80% of total production)7 will be the most likely path to market for most growers, as exports are expected to remain approximately the same at 255,000 tons (a decrease of 5,000 tons or 2%). But some California exporters, like Hazel partner Nick Dulcich, believe that 2023 may bring new opportunity to capitalize on pent-up demand in a COVID restriction-free Asian market – contingent on quality and a not so extreme USD.8
To learn more about grower perspectives as we approach the beginning of California’s 2023 season, we sat down with Hazel’s Director of Sales Strategy, Mike Rubidoux, and Nico Tomicic, Hazel’s Business Development Manager – Ag Tech, to talk through key factors facing producers this year.
Here are the takeaways from that discussion:
Excitement Around New Varietals
Growers are excited by the prospect of new, proprietary varietals in 2023 that promise to bring higher yields and fruit with a more popular taste.
In line with the global trend, 2022 seemed to be a year of varietal renewal in California. Many vineyards uprooted under-performing, mostly black grape varieties, due to decreased yield and poor market demand. Special-flavor red and green varietals continue to thrive across the industry, with Autumn King, Scarlet Royal, and Allison® performing best in 2022. The varieties that currently have California growers buzzing, according to Rubidoux and Tomicic, include red varietal Sugrafiftythree and green varietals, Sugrafiftyfour and Sugrafiftysix.
Yet as common as varietal change has been, Rubidoux notes it can still be an investment and time gamble, given that each table grape variety performs differently -- not only from country-to-country, but throughout the regions of the Central Valley. When selecting new varieties, vineyards must trial the cultivar to confirm whether it will flourish within their niche environment. According to Rubidoux, it costs approximately $35K per acre to change-out and take care of newly planted vines. Then, only after three years of maturation time, can growers be certain that a selected variety will be optimally profitable.
Cautious Optimism around the Current Climate
Over the last decade9, drought conditions in California have been dire, requiring growers across theCentral Valley to lean heavily on the region’s precious ground water supply. With high utilization of aquifers, salt levels rose as the watershed dropped, consequently impairing the grapes’ ability to absorb nutrients from the soil, and resulting in less resilient, poorer quality fruit.
But in the first quarter of 2023, “Atmospheric Rivers” dumped more precipitation on California and its Central Valley than it’s seen in years. According to the California Department of Water Resources, Phillips Station in Sacramento reported 126.5 inches of snow depth -- a snow water equivalent of 54 inches, which is 221% of the April 3rd average for this location.10
“Many growers see the unprecedented levels of precipitation as a double-edged sword,” said Rubidoux. “With this being the most rain the Central Valley has gotten for quite some time, there’s a level of uncertainty around how the grape vines will respond to so much water after experiencing such a severe draught over the last three years. Then, there are worries about flooding from snow melt.”
However, many growers are cautiously optimistic about what this level of rainfall and snowpack may mean for their future. There is a big hope that the precipitation could help to replenish the strained aquifers and push salt levels down, giving the table grape vines a better chance for proper nutrition, resilience, high-yield, and overall quality for the next several years.
New hope for the future of labor
California’s new wage requirement of a $15.50 minimum per hour wage (with any work over 40 hours a week requiring overtime pay)11 continue to take a toll on grower profitability.
Table grape harvesting is highly technical and labor intensive, so farmers have begun turning to tech to find ways to improve productivity -- in any way possible. New advancements and AI still require a lot of refinement, but autonomous grape carts already have proven their worth.12 More sophisticated robotic harvesters, which can prune and pack with sensor-directed articulating arms, are still in development, but are receiving staggering amounts of research funding, some of which may come from the upcoming Farm Bill.13
Every 5 years, the U.S. Congress reviews the Farm Bill -- a half-trillion-dollar piece of legislation that supports investment into U.S. food stability and agriculture.14 This year, the California Fresh Fruit Association, in addition to the Special Crop Farm Bill Alliance, are pushing forward a proposal that incentivizes companies to adopt new ag technologies through a cost-share program that would ease the demands of labor throughout the industry.15
2023 will be a season of discovery for the U.S. table grape market. Exploration into new varietals could lead to higher volumes for growers across the region, as well as more flavorful fruit. While historic precipitation levels continue in the state, growers will need to account for potential flooding and will only know the true impact of record rainfall and snowpack on their vineyards in the upcoming summer months. Working alongside policy makers to create more financial support for labor expenses could be the true key to the grape-growing success of California in the coming years.
Adoption of agricultural technologies, like Hazel 100™, can also benefit the resilience of table grapes this year. Newer varieties have shown promising results when trialed with Hazel 100™, keeping the stems greener for longer. Retaining the color within the stems helps maintain the quality of the fruit in long-term storage, extensive transit times, and at retail. It is an easy-to-use, complimentary solution that can benefit both domestic and global demand for California table grapes.
The Mexican table grape industry is unique. It depends on a single eight-week growing window, wedged between the end of Chile and Peru’s season and the beginning of the United States’. A lot has to go right in order to maximize profits during this period of competition-free exports.
Unfortunately, logistical challenges during the 2021-22 season, driven by shipping delays and inflated diesel prices, drastically disrupted table grape trade and resulted in one of Mexico’s most difficult crop years to-date. While the Local Agricultural Association of Table Grape Producers of Mexico (AALPUM) reported that the country hit a production volume similar to 2021 (22 million boxes),16 a drop in quality upon arrival decreased prices by as much as 30%. About 198,000 tons of the produced table grapes (an increase of 15,000 tons or 8% from 2021) were exported to the United States.17
During Mexico’s Sonora AALPUM annual summit in March, the country projected an estimated 1.3% increase to 21.7 million cartons of grapes for the 2023 season versus 21.4 million in 2022.18 Mexico’s season is currently underway and to capitalize on their niche season, they must efficiently negotiate demand and climate challenges, while moving fruit out of the country -- fast.
A struggle to adopt new varietals
The world-wide call for new table grape varieties (and the casting out of old ones) has also required Mexico to respond. Yet, aside from dominant regional growers who work closely with leading breeders, Mexico’s fragmented industry is having a hard time keeping up with the exorbitant costs required to update varieties and stay competitive which, in some cases, can cost upwards of $13M USD a year in royalties for a cultivar. Many growers are unable to financially justify the adoption of new varieties and are instead turning to more profitable produce like tomatoes, peppers, squash, asparagus, and watermelon.19
For those committed to growing grapes, the region will produce a combination of new and old varietals, like Sugraone, Flame, Perlette, Red Globe, Cotton Candy, Autumn Globe, and Autumncrisp®.
Continued Climate Issues
Sonora is Mexico’s largest region for table grape production, accounting for 90% of production in Mexico in 2021-22. Situated in the Northeastern part of the country (sharing a boarder with the U.S. state of Arizona), Sonora has also been experiencing historically low levels of rainfall over the last two years, which is detrimental for a region that is already naturally arid. The lack of water has paused expansion for grape growers, as Mexico’s president pushes for corporations – including farmers – to distribute the country’s precious water supply more equally with the public.20 Given that table grapes require some of the highest water consumption in the produce world, the country’s current drought is showing signs of wear on recent crops.
Many of the early varieties currently planted in Mexico, like Flame, produced smaller berries than expected in 2022, a trait that is often associated with insufficient watering. The smaller size means more grapes were needed to fill the standard 18 lbs. box, which resulted in fewer boxes getting distributed both domestically and internationally. In 2023, some growers in the southern states of Mexico have already begun harvesting and have found that the number of bunches are currently low, but the berries are high in quality and brix levels.21
Transit Relief on the Horizon
With the cost of diesel stabilizing22 and the state of shipping seeing a clear drop in costs compared to 202223, the Mexican table grape industry may see the light at the end of a long of delays and logistic costs.
2023 will be a telling year for Mexico’s ability to keep up with production and innovation demands in the table grape industry. While some farmers feel like 2022 was an unexpectedly bad year24, the climate challenges occurring within Sonora could test Mexico’s ability to remain the key to the United States’ continuous grape supply. With transit costs stabilizing for the first time since COVID, the year may prove to be more profitable than 2022.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our 2-part analysis of the 2022-2023 table grape seasons in the Western Hemisphere. Keep an eye out for future installments of our Fresh Fruit Trends series.
1 “'Wild ride’ for California grape growers in 2022.” FreshPlaza. 9 Nov. 2022. Link.
2 “Fresh Apples, Grapes, and Pears: World Markets and Trade.” United States Department of Agriculture, Jun. 2022, Link.
3 “Currency Volatility: Will a Strong US Dollar Return?” J.P. Morgan, 3 Feb. 2023, Link.
4 Diep, Lilian. "California Table Grape Commission Reveals Insights on Consumption." AndNowUKnow, 2 Nov. 2022, Link.
5 "Fresh Apples, Grapes, and Pears: World Markets and Trade.” United States Department of Agriculture, Dec. 2022, Link.
6 “Table Grape and Cherry Breeder Shares Predictions for 2023.” FreshPlaza, 13 Dec. 2022, Link.
7 Loria, Keith. "California Table Grape Commission working to foster strong grape program.” The Produce News, 15 Aug. 2022. Link.
8 "Will California be able to re-start grape exports to Asia?” FreshPlaza, 22 Mar. 2023. Link.
9 Dewan, Pandora. ”When Did the California Drought Start?” Newsweek, 24 Jan. 2023. Link.
10 Ince, Jason. “California’s Snowpack is Now One of the Largest Ever, Bringing Brought Relief, Flooding Concerns.” California Department of Water Resources, 3 Apr. 2023, Link.
11 “California Minimum Wage for 2022, 2023.” Minimum-Wage.org, 11 Apr. 2023, Link.
12 “Grape Harvesting is Ripe for Improvement.” Power & Motion, 4 Jan. 2022. Link.
13 "Collaborative robots to harvest table grape developed.” Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, 20 Oct. 2022. Link.
14 Bustillo, Ximena. “Congress Gears Up for Another Farm Bill. Here’s What’s on the Menu.” NPR, 2 Feb. 2023, Link.
15 “New Farm Bill May Incentivize On-Farm Ag Tech Innovations.” California Fresh Fruit, 27 Mar. 2023, Link.
16 “Logistics crisis causes table grape season to be one of the most difficult for Mexican industry.” FreshFruitPortal.com, 27 Sept. 2022, Link.
17 Karst, Tom. “Mexican grape output may dip in 2023, USDA report says.” The Packer, 28 Nov. 2022, Link.
18 “Agronometrics in Charts: Mexican grape exports to the U.S. projected to increase.” Agronometrics, 25 Apr. 2023. Link.
19 Lozano, Eduardo. "Mexico: Fresh Deciduous Fruit Annual.” United States Department of Agriculture, 17 Nov. 2022, Link.
20 Patel, Kasha and Lauren Tierney. “Northern Mexico has a historic water shortage. These maps explain why.” The Washington Post, 9 Aug. 2022. Link.
21 “Jalisco grape production is underway.” FreshFruitPortal.com, 31 Mar. 2023. Link.
22 Fletcher, Lauren.” Diesel Prices Stay Stable Starting February 2023.” Work Truck, 7 Feb. 2023. Link.
23 "Shipping & Freight Cost Increases, Current Shipping Issues, and Shipping Container Shortage ." Freightos, 13 Apr. 2023. Link.
24 “Mexico’s table grape body perplexed by first downward crop revision in 20 years.” FreshFruitPortal.com, 29 Jun. 2022. Link.