(Feb. 24, 5:31 p.m.) Exports of California raisins should pick up after the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to an export replacement offer program from the Raisin Administrative Committee, Fresno, Calif.

“Because of weather problems in Turkey last year, our overseas sales in 2007-08 increased about 40% to more than 142,000 tons,” said Gary Schulz, president of the committee, which administers the federal marketing order. “That left us with unusually low reserves going into this year.”

The USDA’s approval of the program, which continues through April, permitted the committee to offer 18,000 tons of raisins immediately to packers, he said. To stabilize prices, the committee holds a percentage of each year’s crop in reserve. That reserve is released periodically to meet demand.

Additional export programs are likely before the harvest in late summer.

“As the demand for California raisins continues to increase around the world, we will continue to propose export programs to meet the demand,” Schulz said.

The lion’s share of a crop, known as free tonnage, is available to packers following each harvest. The committee is forecasting a 2008-09 crop of 313,231 tons, Schulz said. Of that volume, the committee recommended to the USDA that 87% be designated free tonnage, he said.

Raisin prices should remain strong through the rest of the year. The Raisin Bargaining Association, Fresno, announced a minimum field price of $1,310 per ton.

The Raisin Administrative Committee is funded through assessments of growers and packers, Schulz said. California’s San Joaquin Valley accounts for nearly all of the commodity’s domestic volume.