FRESNO -- FRESNO -- California's 2012 raisin grape crop is forecast to be one of the smallest in recent years, shrinking by 13.4 percent from the previous year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is estimating raisin grape farmers will produce 1.9 million tons this year. If the forecast holds, it will be one of the smallest crops since 2006.
A dry winter and springtime frost contributed to fewer bunches of grapes.
The light crop and continued high demand has caused some wineries to boost the purchase price for Thompson seedless grapes to $310 a ton, up from the record-setting $265 last year, said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers in Fresno.
Although used primarily to make raisins, the versatile Thompson seedless grape is a mainstay for wineries, which use it to make juice concentrate, brandy and white wine blends.
"The wineries need Thompsons to crush, so with a lighter crop and the demand being there, it is going to push prices up," DiBuduo said.
Last year, the per-ton price for raisins reached $1,700, breaking a record set in the 1970s.
It is unclear what price will be set for this year's crop. The industry's packers and farmers, represented by the Raisin Bargaining Association, haven't agreed on a price.
Growers are talking about a potential price of $2,000 a ton.
"I don't see what is wrong with that, especially with the crop being so light," said Greg Markarian, a Caruthers raisin farmer. "And even that is not great money. Almonds and wine grapes are making way more than that."
Farmers say higher prices do not necessarily mean an automatic windfall for growers, who are paying higher costs for fuel and supplies. They also may be facing a labor shortage. In the past two years, farmers have been finding fewer workers for the late-summer harvest.
"I can see why people just send in machines to harvest the grapes for the winery," Markarian said. "Growing raisins can be like torture."