Heard It Through The Grapevine: Raisin Grower Goes Rogue
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, the story of a man many call an outlaw. His crime: growing raisins and then deciding to sell them all. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Planet Money's Zoe Chace has the story.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: You might imagine that such an ordinary thing like a raisin works the same way lots of other stuff works. The raisin grower takes his sun-dried grapes and sells them, as many as he can to whoever wants them. That's not what happens.
What happens instead is that lots of the decisions about buying and selling the raisins are made here, on the second floor of a nondescript red brick office building in Fresno, California.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEETING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All in favor say, aye.
RAISIN ADMINISTRATIVE COMMITTEE: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Opposed? Motion carries Thank you, Bob.
CHACE: This is the Raisin Administrative Committee. They do lots of stuff, common in California where food is such big business: set grades and standards, come up with raisin advertising, But there's one other thing they do that's more unusual.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The recommendation that a diversion program not be recommended for the 2015...
CHACE: Diversion. What this means is that the Raisin Administrative Committee gets together and decides how many California raisins to release onto the market every year. Yeah. The supply of raisins we have available is not determined simply by demand or the weather but by the people in this room. What in lots of other industries would be called collusion - conspiring to limit supply and keep up price, in the raisin industry is perfectly legal. It's more than legal - it's enforced.
Just ask Marvin Horne. He's a raisin grower. Back in 2002, the raisin committee decided that he and his fellow growers would have to divert a whole lot of their raisins. Not sell them to keep the price of raisins from collapsing. Set aside almost half their crop.
MARVIN HORNE: Forty-seven percent. A lot of us - we all jumped and yelled and said, no. That's crazy. What's the matter with you guys? And it was at no avail. And that's when I came home and I talked with my wife and we said, no.
CHACE: Instead, Marvin Horne and his wife went rogue; decided to sell all their raisins. The way the Raisin Administrative Committee saw it. The Hornes were violating a law that goes all the way back to the depression - Marketing Order 989. So they went after him. Both sides had sued each other, appealed, case went before the Supreme Court this year before getting kicked down to a lower court. The Hornes expect results in a few months.
To talk to raisin growers about what they think of the raisin rebel and Marketing Order 989, the law Marvin Horne flaunted, you got to wake up pretty early - 5 A.M., McCoy's Diner.
DAN KING: Well, I think there was a set that there's a set of rules that everybody was playing by during the time that he was not.
CHACE: This is Dan King, raisin grower. And he remembers that year too, 2001 when they had to give up half their raisin crop. He didn't like it, but to him, if everyone just sold all their raisins, it would've been worse. The price maybe collapses. People maybe go out of business. So to him, this law, Marketing Order 989, protects raisin growers from a big bust.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
SIMON SAHOTA: Do you think you would've been better off if there wouldn't have been a marketing order and you would've got more for your crop in those years or not?
KING: You don't know that though.
CHACE: The guy with the question, that's Simon Sahota, and like everyone, he remembers that year too. He went a different route, says he pulled out most of his grape vines, planted almond trees instead. Almonds are big business is California right now - apparently less finicky than grapes and no marketing order to limit supply.
SAHOTA: That's the tough part about the raisin industry. There's a lot of deductions and things that go on behind the scenes. And so we want to be in something that's simple and full speed ahead, and I found that to be the almonds.
CHACE: The thing is - almonds used to be like raisins - have meetings about whether or not to limit the supply, lots of California produce did. Those farmers voted to give up that system. Raisins are some of the very last holdouts.
Zoe Chace, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")
GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.