Around Fresno at the end of August and in early September, the countryside is filled with the scent of drying raisins. In the evening, slowly drive with your car windows open and the subtle caramel fragrance of grapes curing in the sun can be felt.
Felt – if you understand the tradition of making raisins. Work the entire year, then in the autumn pick green grapes, lay them out in the sun to dry and if you don’t get rain, they transform into raisins.
Sounds wonderfully simple, and it is. And insanely stupid. We expose our harvests to nature and the elements; the process is extremely labor intensive; and it doesn’t always make economic sense.
That’s why if the average age of a farmer in the United States is 55, you can add about a decade or two to us stubborn old raisin farmers. We’re old, hanging on to a dying tradition and will probably pass away full of optimism, hoping nature will cooperate and we’ll get our raisin crop in with just enough reward and profit to do it again and again. I suppose we like pain.
Raisins have been around for centuries. Armenians were said to have discovered the art of drying grapes in the sun to make raisins, and the tradition still lives in the Armenian community around Fresno. Some of the major raisin processing plants are owned and operated by California Armenians.
The first raisins in California were produced in the early 1900s. Immigrants found this product of high value, a labor-intensive cash crop that worked well for Armenian, Italian, Japanese and Latino communities. Even today, a lively ethnic diversity including Asian Indians makes up the raisin community.
Raisins are made by the sun. One method, the more traditional way, begins in August. Grapevines are watered for the final time and the earth between the rows is disked and cultivated weed-free. The dirt bakes into a dry powder and is terraced with a gentle southern slope. Then green grapes are spread onto paper trays, each about 2 feet by 3 feet.
One acre can produce an average of a thousand of these trays. Even on our small farm we’ve had 50,000 trays a year. The grapes will lay exposed in the sun for three weeks, curing into raisins, which are then loaded into wooden bins and sent to the processing plants to be cleaned and packaged.
Recently, new changes have been introduced, such as drying grapes on the vine and then harvesting them mechanically. This saves labor costs and can be accomplished on a larger scale.
My farm is quickly becoming a dinosaur operation with small acreages. We make about 40 acres of raisins and still dry them on trays and use lots of workers. I will disappear in a decade or two.
Yet, I love stories of family farms and raisins. It was a crop full of uncertainty and perfect for struggling immigrants who were willing to take risks and dream of profits.
Raisin farm families have stories of watching rain clouds march into the Valley and pound green grapes trying to dry. We lost our entire crop in 1976 and 1978, my first years back on the farm after college. It rained; mold grew on the half grape-half raisins; and my father silently hooked up the disk to our tractor and plowed under the entire crop. Gone in a few hours. The pain still lingers. Welcome to farming.
I’ve heard of stories about a farm couple, just a husband and wife, together carrying and stacking 200-pound “sweat boxes” of raisins. The wife said, “Oh, I don’t know how we lifted those boxes, but we did.”
I know of farm families and farmworker families laboring together, kids and adults racing to save a crop. With an approaching storm, they rushed to roll up trays and protect them from a rain storm. For a moment, the lines are blurred between owners and workers. All parties recognized what was at stake.
Am I nostalgic for the old days? No, things do and should change. Do antiquated methods produce something golden that must be saved? I’m not sure; most raisins are the same.
By the way, the golden raisins often used in baking are highly processed and artificially dried in tunnels with sulfur and heat. Bakers use them typically for color and not flavor. Yet many incorrectly believe “goldens” come from green grapes and dark grapes turn into dark raisins. Golden raisins never get a “sun tan” in direct light.
We’re more of an industry now, fewer stories and more business. Machines don’t carry the same emotional attachment to the land. The hope of scratching out a living with the goal of buying a place of your own and sending your kids off to college is lost in the economics of modern day farming.
So, for a few more years, I’ll make raisins with change on the horizon. The scent of drying raisins will be gone, and we’ll just have stories and memories. A younger generation will shake their heads in amazement at the hard, hard work of immigrant great-grandparents and then question the return on investment.
I’ll take a deep breath of the dust and caramel aroma and simply enjoy the moment.