(Feb. 14) Despite a weakened U.S. dollar in the global marketplace, disease and encroachment in key produce-growing states, and a questionable labor force, an international bank sees good times ahead for grower-shippers.

“We’ve very optimistic,” said Andrew Pederson, Bakersfield-based regional vice president for Rabobank Nederland. “The weak dollar is helping the exports, out of California especially with exports to Europe and the Far East. Those commodities have been fairly profitable over the last few years.”

Established more than a century ago in Europe, Rabobank began operations in the U.S. 25 years ago, Pederson said at World Ag Expo, Tulare, Calif., on Feb. 12. It has just begun its fifth year of financing U.S. production agriculture.

In California, Rabobank is heavily involved in financing almond, pistachio, stone fruit and table grape grower-shippers, Pederson said. While stone fruit growers endured a difficult 2007 due in large part to overproduction and an abundance of competing crops, it is the table grape industry that, he said, is undergoing changes.

“California table grapes are becoming very much a late-season deal,” Pederson said.

Competition from other summer fruit last season kept prices soft through August, but the fall quarter of last year was very good for late season varieties. The problem is that the districts’ deals are overlapping, he said.

“There used to be specific windows for Coachella, then Arvin, then Delano, then the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, when nothing was coming in from Mexico,” Pederson said. “Now it’s all pretty much blended together and it’s caused real problems in Coachella.”

The building industry slowdown may be a burden to the economy, but Pederson said it is something of a silver lining for agriculture.

“Many of the deals the homebuilders made to buy land around rural communities are falling through, and the land is going back into agriculture,” he said.

Although encroachment is an issue the bank and its customers can tolerate, California’s water woes are another matter — an issue that promises to increase food prices for retailers and consumers alike.

For the most part, Rabobank has found the California land that is going out of production is often cotton land. Many growers, however, are converting the open ground to permanent crops, specifically nuts and table grapes, he said. It is the increased cost of water that is driving growers to the higher-margin crops.

At the same time, Rabobank does not anticipate a shortage of fresh produce.

“There’s still going to be plenty of farmland available,” Pederson said.

Mechanical harvesting may be the next big movement in agriculture, especially in California.

“Common sense tells you there’s going to be more and more automation,” Pederson said. “We have to compete with developing countries where the labor is a fraction of what we have to pay.”