When I was a little kid, my mother gave us raisins as a snack all the time. She knew they were nutritious, and the little boxes they came in were perfect for the lunch box. Later, my mother figured out that the little boxes were costing her more, and she started wrapping a handful of raisins in wax paper for our lunch boxes. We kids gobbled them up. We didn't give them another thought.
Picture-perfect Thompson seedless grapes being turned into raisins by the power of the sun.
Now that I am older and live in one of the premier raisin producing areas of the world — if not the most — I have found that there are things I took for granted about raisins and other fruit. I mention prunes as an example: I always assumed that a prune was a type of fruit, and you took a prune off the tree and dried it. Now I know that prunes are dried plums. In a similar way, I didn't realize raisins came from grapes, and I certainly didn't think they came from the same type of grape we ate fresh.
When we first moved to California's San Joaquin Valley, I saw grapes laid down on the ground on what seemed to be paper between the rows of the vines. What was this? Marty, my husband from Bakersfield, said "Oh, those are raisins." Raisins, I said? "That's the way they dry them," he said. That got my curiosity going, so then and there I vowed to learn more.
Fortunately, through my local CSA I found Three Sisters Organic. Three Sisters Organic/Soghomonian Farms is a third generation farm near Fresno. They grow table, wine, and raisin grapes. We visited the farm on a warm September day at the height of harvest. We pulled up to a clean, new office barn and were greeted by Johnni. Joe and Natalie joined us later.
Natalie, Johnnie and Joe
Johnni Soghomonian is the wife of Joe, whose father first farmed the land. Joe's father came from Armenia after making his way cross-country from Cuba and the east coast. He started with 40 acres. Then Joe was born, and the farm eventually grew to 60 acres. Joe's grandfather came from an area in Armenia where the climate and the agriculture are very similar to California's. So even though no one knows for sure, it seems very likely that they were familiar with grape-growing methods. So they started working diligently, and pretty soon they had the grapes, eggs, and chickens that they sold at the early farmers markets.
Years went by, and Joe met Johnni. They married, and today the farm is named after their three daughters: Christa, Celeste, and Natalie. Natalie runs the operation. We all sat at an antique table that came down from Johnni's grandmother. We talked about what it was like to run a small farm.
"You keep your back strong."
Three Sisters Organic/Soghomonian Farms is a successful farm because they live by one special rule: Don't spend tomorrow's capital. This is good advice for the rest of us, especially if we're contemplating or involved in a small homestead. Through hard work and dedication, the Soghomonians put their profits back into the farm and now have 600 acres. They went 100-percent organic in 1979 and were certified in 1982 (before it was fashionable). They did this because Joe was not pleased to find his fields devoid of animal and insect life. Things are much better being organic, even though in some ways they are harder. It's easier to be a conventional grower, but it's so much more gratifying to be certified organic. Customers are coming around to this way of thinking.
Natalie plants her grape vines in late winter or early spring after danger of frost is gone. The young vines are trained up stakes. After the vines are 3 years old, they get their first crop. At TSO, they grow Zante currents, Flame variety for table grapes and raisins, "natural" Thompson seedless for raisins, and Jumbo Thompson for table grapes and raisins. They also have wine grapes: Colombard, Grenache, Carignane, and Muscat. Ribier is their seeded variety. Another seedless is the Crimson varietal.
Natalie says: "Eat the seeds. There's a lot of nutrition there!"
Cover crops are planted in between the rows in winter and tilled under in late spring. The vines are pruned in winter to leave 4-5 canes.
Demonstrating where the cut is made when pruning
Then they take off the existing crop canes, leaving the remaining canes that will produce the next year's crop.
Handpicking is mandatory for the delicate grapes
The grapes are picked when the sugar tests at the appropriate level. They are picked by hand because of their fragility. To get the land ready to dry grapes to make the raisins, the soil is tilled between the vine rows to make it smooth and terraced slightly to the south so the slight slope of the rows catch the rays of the sun better. Also, vine rows are normally planted on a east/west axis to take full advantage of the direction of the sun.
Grapes are laid on poly paper on an east/west axis to take full advantage of the sun
When the grapes are picked and laid on poly-lined paper trays, they dry for 10 days to two weeks. The weather of the San Joaquin Valley is perfect for this, because there's very little danger of rain and there's little concern about ants or birds stealing a few raisins here and there. There's plenty to go around on 600 acres.
Folded poly trays are ready to be picked up
If you're bold like me, you blow off the sand and they taste good right now!
The dried grapes are shaken to get rid of the sand, and then they're washed and stemmed. Three Sisters only ships grade 1 (the highest grade) to be sold as table grapes. What is not selected goes to the making of the raisins. What little is left over after that goes to distilleries or cow feed, so nothing goes to waste. In addition to their own rigorous standards, their product is subjected to USDA inspection and a safety audit before and after processing. They are different from most growers in that they sell their products direct to the consumer or user. Most growers sell their product to packers so there is an extra step that results in the consumer getting a mixture from a lot of different farms. When you buy from TSO, you know you're getting products that only TSO have grown.
The other thing that they have is a unique custom pack where their raisins go to cold storage or are frozen the day they're packaged. With other methods, the raisins will sit out and dry even more. Doing it the way TSO does it results in plump raisins that have a lovely, moist texture. The raisins defrost on their way to the buyer, so they stay really fresh and consistent.
In addition to direct-to-consumer sales, the raisins are sold to the better bakeries for breads, cookies, and pastries, but grapes are also used for juice concentrate and canneries (think fruit cocktail, for example). I bet you didn't know this: all those brown raisins are from the green Thompson grape variety. Golden raisins are Thompsons but with sulfur dioxide added to keep them from turning brown.
I have a greater appreciation for raisins and grapes today. Go have some yourself and enjoy!
Three Sisters Organic/Soghomomian Farms
8624 S Chestnut Ave
Fresno, CA 93725