Did you know that the UK is the world’s biggest importer of Californian raisins? We can’t get enough of them - quite literally now that world supplies are being squeezed. So with prices going up, it’s a big deal for bakers.

"We’re coming to a very tight time right now on supply and demand," says Gary Schulz, president of California’s Raisin Administrative Committee. The raisin industry has historically done itself no favours by building up huge mountains of surplus raisins. That, in turn, depressed the price for the growers. Over the last seven years, programmes have been implemented to reduce that supply, bringing supply closer to what the worldwide demand is.

"Like any pendulum that swings, sometimes it swings too far," says Schulz. "The last time that we went by without a reserve, it was because of a crop failure or weather conditions. This year, the carry-over was 83,200 tonnes the lowest it’s been in 32 years."

This October the California crop estimate was 293,272 tons shorter than the trade demand for the 2010-2011 crop year of 297,387 tons. That’s the lowest inventory since 1980. The California raisin industry had been operating a two-price system of domestic and export prices, for the purpose of stimulating world sales of raisins, funded by California raisin growers. While this expanded export sales by nearly 50% in four years, the declining stocks mean a decision had to be made to discontinue the system last month. Similarly, world market conditions have been driving raisin prices up during the past months to levels not seen in recent years.

Also suffering of late is the growth in organic market. "There was an aggressive movement towards organic production up until 2008," explains Schulz. "With the worldwide economic downturn, the world demand for organic and the premium price that’s required fell off."

Of the near-300,000 tons of natural seedless raisins produced in California, about 10,000 tons is organic. "My prediction is that as the economy warms up, we’ll see more demand for certified organic raisins," he says.

One of the costs of organic production is freezing rather than the two-step fumigation to eliminate pests, using phostoxin and methyl bromide. "We’re moving from methyl bromide to sulfuryl fluoride, which is more sustainable because it doesn’t cause any greenhouse problems," comments David Steinhauer, quality control manager of Boghosian Raisin Packing Co, which operates one of the most modern equipped raisin plants in the US.

The industry has been investing elsewhere in its processes, particularly by shifting to dry on the vine (DOV) grapes as opposed to sun-dried grapes. What’s more, new strains of DOV grape are being developed that will be more productive than the current Thompson seedless grapes, which have been used for generations. DOV works by cutting the vines to starve the water supply to the grape; they then dry out in the shade, as opposed to being laid out on the floor in the sun.

This means they can be mechanically harvested, resulting in a cleaner, more efficiently gathered grape. Tests done by Lion Raisins, California’s largest grower and processor, showed that shaded DOV raisins had a softer, moister texture than those dried in direct sunlight on the ground. Furthermore, it found that in freezing them and then tasting, shaded raisins remained soft, but sun-dried raisins were harder.

So while supplies are tight, the thinking is that growers will respond to the shortfall for next year’s harvest and will be well-placed to take advantage of industry investments in the future. Says Schulz: "Hopefully we’ll be looking at a crop that’s bigger a year from now and we can start to build a little bit more of a reserve."




Why do US bakers buy ready-hydrated raisins?


Raisins supplied into bakeries often come ready-hydrated for consistency and ease of use. "The difference is that standard raisins are 16-18% moisture," says Harold Hilker, vice-president of sales at Sun Maid, which developed a heat process to rehydrate raisins without leeching out any sugar solids. "If you don’t rehydrate them and you put them in the dough, you dry out the crumb. So we’ve taken the raisins up to 24-28% moisture and they’re ready to go. The bakeries like them, because they don’t always know how many doughs they’re going to do in a day. They don’t have to worry about someone soaking them. Often, they’re not soaked at the same time, so they have different moisture levels, surface water and, when they dump the drain water, they’re dumping sugar solids down the drain and sanitation enforcement objects to that, so they’re penalised."