Raising Raisins

For Navroop Pooni, it’s a generational thing. Like his father and his father’s father before him, raisins are the family business.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

If you pull into the driveway at the Pooni farm just outside Fresno, Calif., watch for tractor traffic. Not just the kind you can see from the cab of your truck; the toy kind, with plastic wheels and batteries. Devan Pooni—4 years old—is likely to be tooling around, checking out the 40 acres of Thompson Seedless grapevines that line the road, just like his pop does it.

Navi Pooni

Navi Pooni

“Yeah, he’s already showing the aptitude,” says Navroop Pooni—Navi for short—the proud dad. “That’s what I pray for with both the boys, that they both want to work on the family farm.”

Little Kian, 15 months old, isn’t old enough to drive Devan’s electric tractor, but “he’s getting to be like his older brother,” says Navi. “If I fire up the tractor or I’m working and he’s not with me, he throws a fit.”

The Pooni boys get it honest. Their family has farmed for generations, both here in California and, long before the family came here, in India. “Back home, they grew sugarcane, wheat, rice, potatoes,” Navi says. “But in California, we’ve always done grapes.”

Navi’s parents moved to California in 1977 to be closer to family that already lived and farmed here. His mom, Harjinder Pooni, and his dad, Satwant Singh, both worked off-farm to save money for buying land. The family home, purchased in 1986, is surrounded by 40 acres of old vines that were set up for table grapes. Four miles south is another 20 acres of Thompson Seedless; 2 miles north is another 40.

Devan Pooni might carry on the family business.

Devan Pooni might carry on the family business.

Chain Singh, Navi’s grandfather, also helped with the farm in the early days in California. Even after his grandfather retired, Navi continued to work with his dad until 2004, when Satwant Singh passed away. “I was with him all the time,” Navi says. “We worked hand in hand and he taught me everything.

“He groomed me pretty well to take over,” Navi continues, and not just in the farming practice. With the help of Navi’s sister, Harjinder, a lawyer in the Bay Area, “we did an estate plan,” he says. Everything was already settled before his dad got sick, and legally, “it was an easy transition.” The farm is in Harjinder’s name for now, and she handles the books while Navi runs the operation, with an eye on his inheriting the farm eventually.

“She lets me do my thing,” says Navi. “She’s like, ‘You are your father’s son.’”

Not Showing Their Age

Grapes are virtually everywhere in this state—in the mountains, the valleys, the cities, the boondocks, even along the Interstate highways. And while there are wine varietals, table grapes packed fresh in the field and fruit that will eventually be dried for raisins, they all have one thing in common: Even as vines age, they don’t stop producing if they’re cared for properly.

With table grapes, the age of the vine “is not about flavor” as it is with wine, says Navi, but “grapevines will last forever.” The youngest vines on the family’s properties are 40 years old, with the oldest being around 80. And year after year, those vines go through essentially the same processes.

Navi’s mother keeps the books while he runs the day-to-day operations on the farm.

Navi’s mother keeps the books while he runs the day-to-day operations on the farm.

Grapes go into dormancy in late fall, after harvest, and begin dropping leaves, “then we can see the canes for pruning,” says Navi. Canes are young branches growing off the vine’s main trunk, and pruning is necessary to focus the plant’s energy on growing fruit.

December is pruning season for Navi, and then the tractors come out, running shredders to cut up the prunings. “We’ll also go through with the tractors and put down our pre-emergent herbicide,” he says, “before the rain in February. Then, in late February, with some luck and some warmth, you get bud break,” the first signs of growth on the vine.

Navi’s grapes are drip irrigated, and after bud break he’ll run the drip every weekend for 48 hours. Meanwhile, growers use sulfur to manage the dreaded powdery mildew, which can cause leaves to shrivel and drop, and will scar, shrivel or even split fruit if left untreated.

Flowering begins in early May. The flower begins to form fruit quickly, but the grape is hard to the touch at first. “Around the first of July, the grapes will start to soften,” says Navi, a good indication the fruit is “starting to get sugar.” Once the softening starts, there is tillage in the middle of the rows to keep the ground soft and free of weeds, and a bit of downtime just before the harvest starts in August.

Praying For No Rain

When it’s time to pick the grapes, a tractor pass creates a “V” terrace that angles the ground slightly between the vines toward the middle of the row. Here, the raisin trays—usually made of high-quality, tear-resistant kraft paper—are rolled out. At 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, these paper sheets are where the grapes are placed after they’re hand-picked by Navi’s harvest crew of anywhere from 40 to 70 workers. The “V” terrace helps the grapes catch more sun on the ground, and they dry into raisins right there on the farm.

Because raisins are sun-dried, moisture is the biggest threat to the crop during this time. “It’s eight days at least to about 16 days at most of drying time,” says Navi, “and pretty much all you’re doing is praying that it doesn’t rain. I mean, you go to church every day and pray!”

Rain is so disastrous to the process that the old-timers in Cali can spout off the years from memory, 1976 and 1978 most notably, when rain took out half or more of the crop while it was on paper.

Once the grapes have dried, the paper is rolled—“it looks like cigarettes,” says Navi—and taken from Navi’s field to his shop, where raisins undergo a cleaning process before being shipped to packers. Navi says “3 tons per acre is a really, really good harvest for us.” His harvest is still conventional—hand-picked and dried on the ground—but there are mechanical harvesters that some producers use, and still others are using overhead trellises where the grape dries right on the vine. Navi is mixing in some mechanical harvesting, but believes that for a family farm, conventional is still best, and makes for a higher-quality product.

Raisin Layaway

Newly-planted almond trees get a drink.

Newly-planted almond trees get a drink.

Raisins, like some other agricultural products with long shelf lives, were for decades subject to a U.S. government “marketing reserve,” a system of setting aside a portion of the crop to keep prices (artificially) high. A recent Supreme Court decision deemed the marketing reserve unconstitutional. Even if the system helped raise the price growers received for the rest of their raisins, the court said, private property can’t be “seized” without just compensation. That will certainly impact raisin markets going forward, as will competition from upstart foreign markets like Turkey.

In 1980, the United States produced 40% of the world’s raisin crop, all of that in California. Today, the U.S. still produces 25% of the world’s crop, but so does Turkey.

Setting up new irrigation from a freshly dug well.

Setting up new irrigation from a freshly dug well.

Competition and volatility are two reasons Navi decided to pull out 20 acres of productive grapevines and plant the same land in almonds. “We have good, sandy ground, and we have good, clean water,” he says, a solid recipe for almond production. Plus, he can have a first crop in just three years. Meanwhile, the remainder of the family vines should still be producing when Devan and Kian are old enough to drive the real tractors.

“At the end of the day, the farm is going to get passed down to me, and then to them,” says Navi, who’s now 36 years old and has been farming for most of them. “I would love to actually expand it for the two of them, and keep it in the family for generations.” Given the family’s heritage, spanning continents and decades, history is on his side.