SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – An early thunderstorm soaked California’s vineyards, threatening the nation’s raisin crop even as many farmers missed the deadline to qualify for crop insurance.

California fields produce all domestically grown raisins. Farmers this year were expecting to harvest 240,000 tons and emerge from a glut that forced them to pull out 100,000 acres of vines over the past five years.

But this year has been a tough one.

“Some farmers are going to hurt real bad,” said Richard Garabedian, chairman of the Raisin Administrative Committee in Fresno. “We can save some of this crop if the weather stays good, but it’s going to take a lot of money, and a lot of workers, which we don’t have.”

The warmth that draws out the sweetness needed to make good raisins came late, delayed by cool spring showers. This, combined with a shortage of farm workers, pushed the harvest off by two to three weeks – past the Sept. 20 deadline the Federal Crop Insurance Corp. set for growers to get their fruit off the vine if they want to qualify for coverage.

Several of the state’s elected officials petitioned the U.S. Agriculture Department – which operates the crop protection program in partnership with private insurance companies – to extend the crop insurance deadline.

But the department said in a response letter that an extension was not possible and “would put the reinsured companies at additional exposure to loss.”

“Crop insurance covers causes of loss that are natural, like storms and cold weather. It doesn’t cover the fact that they don’t have enough workers,” spokeswoman Shirley Pugh said.

All this means farmers are entering the rainy season with much of their fruit still on the vine, no insurance coverage and few people to pick their crop.

Garabedian estimates that about 15 percent of the crop is safe, stashed away in barns. But 40 to 50 percent of raisin grapes have not been picked, and what’s been gathered is laying out on paper trays, exposed to the weather, he said.

In the rural Central Valley, raisins are made the traditional way. The bunches are hand-picked over four to six weeks, then laid out on trays to dry in the sun. It takes about five pounds of grapes to make one pound of raisins. The raisins are turned to make sure they dry evenly and don’t spoil.

Raisins are one of the nation’s most work-intensive crops, requiring about 40,000 workers every August and September. But farmers say this year was harder than usual to find enough workers to do the job.

Increased enforcement along the US-Mexico border has made it harder for immigrants to cross in search of work, and a construction boom in the fast-growing Central Valley attracted former farmworkers with higher paying, year-round employment.

Grower George Flagler has been hit hard by the work shortage and the rain. With only seven workers to pick 600 acres, he has almost all his fruit still on the vine, uninsured and vulnerable to the mold that often comes with fall’s increased moisture. Last year, he had 100 fieldhands.

“We’re locked in” now, he said. “We’re just going to have to play the cards we’re dealt.”

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Idaho beet growers could benefit from a rise in sugar prices because Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the Gulf Coast’s sugar industry, officials say.

The hurricane put two Louisiana sugar refineries out of production and ruined much of the region’s sugarcane crop. That has prompted Amalgamated Sugar Co. to increase sales of beet sugar stored in silos in Nampa and the Twin Falls region.

Ultimately, the changes mean the company will probably be able to pay farmers more for their crop this year, said Amalgamated CEO Ralph Burton.

The national sugar quota system limits how much sugar Amalgamated can sell, often leaving unsold inventory to be stored at company plants. But the government eased the quotas this week because of the hurricane damage, allowing Amalgamated to sell 50,000 tons of sugar more than it normally would have been allowed to, Burton said.

“We’re selling it at a price that is $2 to $3 per hundred pounds more than we were getting,” he said.

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