Tropical Storm Hilary tore across Southern and Central California during peak harvest time for table grapes. Over a quarter of the crop was lost.
As California produces 99% of the table grapes grown across the nation, experts warn of shortages and price hikes.
"This is a devastating, devastating impact on the industry as a whole," Kathleen Nave, president of the California Table Grape Commission, told FOX 58. "So it is a big significant hit to the industry, to all the rural communities that are supported by grape growing, to the individual companies, to the farmworker community. It's a big economic hit."
Rare tropical storm in California
Summer is usually the dry season for the Central Valley of California, which produces a quarter of the nation’s food. The commission reported that California’s warm, dry climate is ideal for grape growing.
"Rain is not good for any fruit that is full of sugar," Nave said. "There can be decay."
That is what farmers are seeing – grapes literally rotting in clusters on the vine. Clearing out the decay to protect the rest of the fruit is time-intensive, which means higher labor costs.
"A skilled farmworker who is going in and looking at that bunch and shaping it and cutting out any berries that might have any imperfections, it's going to take longer," Nave added.
A quarter of the crop lost
About 30% of the crop was harvested before Hilary hit. The commission estimated that about 26% was destroyed, representing 25 million 19-pound boxes that won’t end up in grocery stores. California usually ships more than 65% of the crop after Sept. 1.
The 2022 grape crop totaled 95.1 million boxes of grapes valued at $2.13 billion. This year’s estimated crop total is only 71.9 million boxes. A crop specialist with Wells Fargo estimated that growers lost about $550-$600 million. The hardest hit are the farmworkers and farmers.
"The impact of the hurricane and its aftermath is devastating and heartbreaking," Nave in a statement. "To say that the grower and farmworker community is in shock is an understatement."
The commission is prepping retailers for paying a premium for the remainder of the crop.
"Retailers understand that even with skilled workers it will take more time to harvest much of the remaining crop and that accordingly, to keep grapes on the retail shelves throughout the fall the price paid to growers will need to be enough to make it worthwhile to harvest," Nave said in a statement.
The last time California’s table grape crop was under 75 million boxes was in 1994.
This will be the second grape shortage of the year for the nation after high table grape prices were reported in the spring.
A cold, windy and wet winter pushed back Mexico’s grape harvest. As Chile’s grape season ended, shelves at stores were bare until late spring when Mexican grapes ripened.
California grapes are generally available from May through January.
The commission estimated per capita consumption in the U.S. of about 10.1 pounds in 2022. California exports about 30% of the crop.