The challenge of being a California winegrape grower

Does this story sound familiar?

I am a husband, father and fifth-generation California farmer. I’m also a proud California winegrape grower producing quality grapes for quality California wines. But these days it is more challenging being a California winegrape grower than a husband and a father.

California is the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, accounting for 90 percent of all U.S. wine. Wine is California’s No. 1 finished agricultural product. There are 4,600 growers and 2,200 wineries in the state, contributing $51.8 billion to California’s economy.

With these impressive facts and figures growers should be doing well, but as I talk to grape growers in our state, many are not making a profit.

What is the problem?

Like other farmers in California, grape growers are being challenged with new laws and regulations at both the state and federal level: air, water, labor, pesticides, just to name a few … oh wait, a new one, agricultural hauling trucking regulations. These legislative issues inhibit expansion of operations, cost growers a lot of money and hurt their bottom line.

We are always happy to do our part, but it seems lately that we are doing it for everybody in the state.

California winegrape growers have been long-time leaders in sustainable growing practices. These practices include the way we treat our land and how we interact with our employees and community while staying economically viable. These governmental agencies need to be proud of what we are doing, not what we are not doing.

Glassy-winged sharpshooter, vine mealy bug and light brown apple moth … what’s next? All these new invasive pests and diseases are invading growers. With the world market and the open borders we have, growers need local, state and worldwide research on how to control and eradicate these new pests and diseases. The 2007 Farm Bill needs to address this issue.

California growers are also dealing with increased production costs. Land prices are up. Trellis materials and irrigation systems have gone up dramatically. Field workers cost 10 percent more in 2007 than 2006. Fertilizer costs have gone up. Yet growers’ price per ton has remained the same or has gone down. How much longer can growers survive?

American appellation is a huge loophole. Can you believe that 25 percent of an imported wine can be blended with 75 percent American wine and be called American? Do you think Italy would let us blend 25 percent of American wine with 75 percent Italian and call it Italian? I don’t think so. As California winegrape growers, the maintenance of our integrity and quality are vital in the production of California-grown winegrapes. As growers, we own the “identity” and “place” on the bottle. In that light, we expect that labeling be truthful and accurate. It is about integrity.

It is time for the wineries to commit to their sales increases and enter dialogue with California growers to ensure an adequate supply of fruit of the quality needed for the growth of their brands. The growers have carried the load over the last several years in lower grape prices to help the wineries weather challenging market conditions. Growers simply cannot stay in business continuing this subsidy. What the industry needs is genuine collaboration in working out formulas that provide sustainable supplies of quality fruit at sustainable prices to the grower.

What can we do as growers? Become active in groups like the California Association of Winegrape Growers and Farm Bureau. With imports invading the United States, now more than ever is the time to promote ourselves and our sustainable way of doing business in California.

By Bruce Fry.

(Bruce Fry is a Lodi winegrape grower, cherry grower, second vice president of the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau and vice chairman of the California Association of Winegrape Growers–www.cawg.org. He may be contacted at brucefry@mohrfry.com.)

Source: California Farm Bureau Federation.