Raisin growers find their place in the sun
Jan./Feb. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by the California Raisin Marketing Board
Turning grapes into raisins is a sweet feat for California farmers.
Considering the widespread use and popularity of raisins, it is hard to imagine the classic breakfast cereal, Raisin Bran, without the little fruit that has, over the years, infiltrated lunch boxes, trail mixes, oatmeal cookies and a whole host of sweet and savory treats.
Mitch Sangha, who farms in Del Rey, has been growing grapes and using the same method of drying them that’s been passed down for generations. Most California raisins are made from Thompson seedless grapes.
Raisins have been around for centuries. First mentioned in writings dating as far back as 1490 B.C., they were thought to have been discovered by accident as grapes drying on the vine.
“They are one of the most ancient foods,” said Bernadine Ferguson, a Fresno-based food and culinary consultant who has worked with the California Raisin Marketing Board for more than 30 years.
Indigenous to the Middle East and the Mediterranean, raisins have always played a huge role in the diets and cuisines of people who live in those regions, she said. They learned early on that the drying process preserves the food—and makes it lighter to transport.
Not much has changed over the years in how raisins are made. They still are, for the most part, “nothing but grapes and sunshine,” to borrow that famous Sun-Maid expression.
But turning grapes into those tiny, wrinkled nuggets of sweetness is also no easy feat. The process takes place in the Fresno area of California's San Joaquin Valley, where a long, hot growing season has turned this region into the nation's raisin capital.
Nearly 3,500 raisin growers in the San Joaquin Valley produce almost all of the United States' raisins and 45 percent of the world's crop, according to the California Raisin Marketing Board.
Mitch Sangha is one of those growers. His family has been producing raisins in California for more than 50 years. It started with his grandfather, who emigrated from India and was on his way to Canada when he arrived in the agricultural oasis of the San Joaquin Valley. Sangha said the region immediately reminded his grandfather of his native Punjab, which is also rich in agriculture and renowned for its fertile soil and many rivers.
“He didn't have any money when he got here, so he worked on a raisin farm and slowly saved his money,” said Sangha.
Eventually his grandfather bought a ranch and started growing his own raisins. Today, Sangha farms this very land and uses the same method of drying grapes that's been passed down for generations.
“We do everything by hand,” he said.
In August, when his grapes are sweet and ripe, an army of about 100 workers descends on his fields with clippers and pans to pick the grapes. The workers lay thin sheets of paper beneath the vines. Then they cut bunches of grapes into the pans and drop the grapes onto the paper trays. Sangha said his workers can pick about 400 trays a day.
Spread out on the paper trays, the grapes sit in the baking sun for about two to three weeks, depending on how hot temperatures get. During that time, the intense summer heat caramelizes the natural sugars in the grapes, giving raisins their distinctive color and flavor.
After the sun has worked its magic, the fruit is ready to be collected. Workers roll the paper trays into bundles and transfer the raisins into bins destined for the processing plant, where the raisins are washed and cleaned, stemmed, sorted and inspected before packaging.
The majority of California raisins are made from Thompson seedless grapes, which were first introduced in the 1870s by farmer William Thompson, a Scottish immigrant who was growing the seedless grape variety on his ranch in Sutter County in Northern California. Thin-skinned, sweet and, most importantly, seedless, the versatile green grape was born to be a raisin, but is also used for fresh consumption, juice and winemaking.
A few other grape varieties are also used for raisin production, including Muscats and Zante currants, which are used primarily for baking, but these varieties make up less than 5 percent of all U.S. raisins.
Contrary to their appearance, black and golden raisins are both Thompson seedless grapes, just dried differently. Black raisins—also known as natural raisins—are dried in the sun, which gives them their dark, shriveled look. Golden raisins are mechanically dried and treated with sulfur to maintain a certain plumpness and preserve their golden color.
Steve Kister, of Kerman, is a third-generation farmer whose family has been producing raisins since the 1940s. He is one of California’s nearly 3,500 raisin growers.
Although making raisins the “old-fashioned way” is tried and true, it is also extremely labor intensive, said Steve Kister, a third-generation farmer in the Kerman area of Fresno County. That's why in the last 10 years he's been adopting a newer method of raisin production that allows him to cut down on hand labor—by letting the grapes dry directly on the vine and then harvesting the raisins by machine.
“What motivated me was the idea that if you mechanize, you can lower your harvest cost, because labor in California is expensive,” said Kister, whose family has been growing raisins since the 1940s.
Instead of growing his grapes in traditional vine rows typically found in California's wine country, Kister's grapes hang from a flat overhead trellis that's high enough for a mechanical grape harvester to get underneath and gather the dried fruit.
“It's the leaves that make the sugar for the grapes,” he said. “With an overhead trellis system, you have a complete canopy that captures 100 percent of the sunlight. As a result, you're able to get higher production.”
To help facilitate the drying process, about six weeks prior to harvest, work crews go through the rows and sever the canes that the fruit is drying on. Because drying the grapes on the vine, also known as DOV, takes longer than drying them on paper trays, Kister uses newer grape varieties, Fiesta and Selma Pete, both of which were developed specifically for DOV production.
Whether they dry their grapes on trays or on vines, raisin growers are still indebted to the sun, and that's not going to change any time soon.
“We're using solar energy probably more than almost any other crop, because the grapes are drying naturally, so there's no gas and no carbon burned,” said Kister.
He compares his vineyard to a solar farm that has wall-to-wall solar panels.
“Essentially what I've got is almost the same: all these green leaves facing the sun,” he said. “They're just in a field. And they're kind of pretty.”
Although Americans generally think of raisins as a snack food, Ferguson points out that they are much more versatile than that. Most people associate grapes with wine, but raisins can be fermented to make wine or distilled to make brandy, she said.
And while raisins are incorporated into a variety of familiar foods from puddings to cinnamon rolls, they're also found in savory dishes that may not be so familiar, such as meatloaf, Italian meatballs, chili and sauces that pair with steak, ribs, lamb and game, said Ferguson.
“One of my favorite dishes is to plump them in the microwave with a little bit of water and spoon sour cream on them,” she said.
Quaker Oats with raisins is the breakfast staple at Kister's household. He always carries raisins in his car and likes to eat them about a half-hour before he hits the gym for energy. That's because the natural sugars in raisins are released slowly, he said, “so it's not like eating a tablespoon of sugar that just hits your system all at once.”
For Sangha, there's nothing like a good ol' oatmeal raisin cookie, the only kind he eats. He makes a habit of putting raisins in his salads and loves the raisin pies that his mother-in-law makes. His family has also learned to use raisins in a variety of traditional East Indian dishes, such as chutney and sweet rice cooked with milk. But he said the best raisins are those that are straight out of harvest.
“I just eat them right out of the bins,” Sangha said. “As a kid, I used to eat raisins that way all day.”
Freshly harvested grapes are laid out on thin sheets of paper, also known as paper trays, where they dry in the sun for two to three weeks. Workers then roll the paper trays into bundles so the raisins can be collected from the field.
Dried on the vine
Grapes hanging from an overhead trellis system are dried directly on the vine. The grapes are planted this way to allow mechanical grape harvesters to get underneath and gather the dried fruit.
The raisins are destined for the processing plant to be washed, stemmed, sorted and inspected.
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.