Sunday, May 22, 2016
The Grand Maid
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
A welcome guest appeared at the front door.
So many of us have known her all our lives, but the intimacy of her friendship has been rooted since 1986 when Kingsburg, California became our home. We had contemplated moving our farming headquarters from Bakersfield to Fresno, but Kingsburg was always our choice to raise our kids and find our church home at Concordia. She came along as an externality, a gift, and a wonderful neighbor. The first president I saw in person, George H. W. Bush, was there one day in her patio area. He spoke to us as farmers along with then governor of the State, George Deukmejian.
We never did much business with her because of the confounding nature of free tonnage, retains, and reserve pools, but her products served as the standards under which all others were judged. We sold most of our raisins where we could get a cash price.
The Sun Maid, though, was the queen of the industry. Her virtues were always unquestioned, and … she served as a symbol of what was so right about California Agriculture.
Akin to the best of Courier and Ives, The Sun Maid Market catalogue sits in front of me on my desk. It proclaims gifts of California Sunshine.
The inside cover begins with the most ancient of raisins, Muscats, in uncoated or dark chocolate and milk chocolate coatings. Visiting last night, we ate the milk chocolate versions even when we had no more room to eat anything. We talked about our preference for their seed traces when most of the world has no idea what that means. Our experience with their uneven berries and syrupy sweet finish was one small block amidst an old Alicante planting that would stain you with its indelible red juice.
The other raisins were dominated by Thomson seedless, but, during the California life, there was also a block of Zante Currants at White’s Bridge, a planting of black Manukkas in Madera, and ruby seedless at Earlimart and on Elkhorn Avenue. We had enough experience to understand the implications of natural, sun dried which the Sun Maid proudly promoted.
She has been espousing the goodness of natural drying since 1915 when a local girl, Lorraine Collett Petersen, posed and her likeness became synonymous with the sun dried goodness of raisins for the California Associated Raisin Company. Only twice since then, 1956 and 1970, has the image of the maid been updated. In 2006, the maid also stepped out from within the label to appear in what the cooperative describes as “life” holding a big cluster of ripe fruit in a vineyard.
Started in Fresno, the name Sun Maid long ago replaced all references to the original name. In 1964, the business moved to its current location in the heart of raisin country at Kingsburg. It has always demonstrated a willingness to respond to constraints. In retrospect, that is the only way it has survived the manipulation of market and labor conditions.
The raisin world we first saw in 1981 was still a labor intensive undertaking with the requirement of thousands of farm workers to harvest the crop. Each step in the sun dried process, starting with the cutting and laying of the clusters on trays in the vineyard to dry under the California summer sun, was labor intensive. The trays were then turned and rolled before they were picked up to commence the automated part of the process, the cleaning, grading, and packaging the fruit.
As labor became more expensive and scarce, the regulatory burdens ever greater, and the margins for producing raisins thinner, Sun Maid became an agent of change in the industry. In 1994 and 1995, she filed for patents for Dried on Vine (DOV) processing and trellising systems that allow mechanical harvesting. Today, the entire process of growing and harvesting is changing. Machines are now well on the way to replacing labor in the production of the crop.
It is not necessary to fully rehash the constraints that caused the replacement of labor by mechanization, but there is reason to lament. There was always something eternal about the human involvement in raisin harvest. The gathering of the crews in the morning, the fires at 10:00 to warm midmorning food, the sound of harvest, and the songs that invariably came from an unnamed singer out in the vineyard were renewed and repeated each year in September. It was a cycle of effort that offered benefits to all involve, but social engineering prevailed. Mechanization became the ultimate solution and the annual ritual of labor intensive harvest is being dismantled.
With the substitution of labor for mechanization, the question must be asked. How are the impacted farm workers who once counted on California raisin harvests for their major fall income faring? Are they better off with all the social engineering that limits their opportunities because of the constraints placed on growers? The answer is the hardest hit employment segments of the state’s labor demographics are the rural extractive industries and agriculture is central player. The debacle of the State’s paper drought has been chronicled. Those who want to know that truth are aware of the political shenanigans that have hastened the demise of the world’s most productive farmland, the San Joaquin Valley ‘West Side’.
What is not being reported adequately is the very thing the raisin industry has been demonstrating over the last three decades … the necessity of countering the governmental regulatory strangulation impacting labor that is causing more economic harm to the state than the bureaucratic water shortages.
Welfare for Jobs
The fact is welfare pays better than agriculture in the Golden State.
The array of welfare programs available to Californians is immense. The total yearly welfare payments to individuals can exceed 96% of that state’s medium salaries. That represents more than the pretax wages for the state’s beginning teacher salaries. The obvious question arises. Why pick any raisins when accepting handouts equating to the average salary is the alternative?
Why work period?
Implicit in the whole debacle, however, is this is not just a California problem. It is a national problem and it impacts every tax payer. California has 12% of the nation’s population. It sops up much more than that share, however, in wealth transfers in the form of the welfare payments. In fact, it more than doubles its proportional population status. A total of 28% of the nation’s welfare payments are disbursed within that state. That affects every American. That affects the cost of goods and services and it affects and alters the dynamics of the nation’s food supplies and the cost of doing business.
The social engineering of California is … costing us all a fortune.
The Grand Maid
With bright red, yellow, green and blue packaging, the offerings from the Sun Maid catalog are many but not overpowering. The selections start with the aforementioned Sun Maid Treasures, but that is only the start. The bread and tortilla section comes next with an interesting new raisin cinnamon tortilla. Next come dried fruit and nuts with a wide variety of cooking and snack offerings. Dried nectarines, apples, prunes, dates, figs, and apricots are standards. Tropical fruits like pineapples and mangos join the list with cranberries, tart cherries and golden raisins. The nuts include almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, pecans, and walnuts.
The yogurt and chocolate covered dried fruits are expanded in the next section. Chocolate, honey roast, chocolate Jordan, toffee, and a whole variety of yogurt coverings are now added. Blueberries, a crop that was not even grown commercially when we farmed in California, is now included in the dipped fruit section. Blueberries, like all other fruit varieties that lend themselves to mechanical harvesting, are exploding in preference to labor intensive crops.
Finally, coffee and espresso beans and several proprietary specialty items are offered. That includes flame seedless jelly, raisin jam, and a raisin glaze for hams. Those products are arrayed alongside something that an enterprising New Mexican should have invented long ago … a pecan pie in-a-jar. This product, made especially for Sun Maid, is a gift that can be sent in the mail. The recipient needs to add only fresh eggs and butter and a special pecan pie can be baked in a personal selected pie shell. What a great idea, but Sun Maid has demonstrated it owes its existence to great ideas.
It has taken an ancient product, sun dried raisins, and prevailed. Along the way, it has weathered constant weather and man made disasters. In the end, it continues to show the world that political and social engineered disasters can be circumnavigated. The question the social engineers, the central planners, and the race hustlers should be forced someday to answer … was it worth displacing all the labor that was tied inexorably to this process for millenniums?
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Sunshine is still … free.”