Cooperative Extension guiding grape growers

February 09, 2009
University Park, Pa. — Although the growers of wine grapes in the East generally have seen good times in recent years, juice-grape growers in northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York have been struggling financially, according to a Penn State Cooperative Extension vineyard-business specialist, who is trying to help them survive.
There are 840 farms growing approximately 30,000 acres of grapes in the Lake Erie region of New York and Pennsylvania, making it the largest grape-growing region outside of California. Of this acreage, more than 98 percent consists of grape varieties such as Concord and Niagara, which are used for juice, jam and other products.
"There has been significant downward pressure on the price of Concord grapes since 2001, and that has made it very difficult for growers in this region," said Kevin Martin, associate extension educator based in the Erie County town of North East. "It has been difficult for juice-grape growers to stay in business. Two years ago prices began to recover but still remain lower than the high prices growers experienced in the late '90s."
Martin works for the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, which consists of Penn State and Cornell University extension educators and research faculty and staff. The program aims to increase yields and product quality, diversify and improve cultivars, enhance production efficiency and profitability, and promote adoption of environmentally sound cultural and pest-management strategies.
The unique, collaborative approach to helping grape growers in both Pennsylvania and New York by the two land-grant universities has paid big dividends, Martin believes, but the business planning and financial guidance he offers is especially valuable in times of grape-market turmoil.
"What has happened in recent years is that the Concord grape has come into competition with red grapes grown in California for juices," he said. "The red varieties had been at historically low prices of around $100 a ton. That has caused a serious disruption in the marketplace."
In the late 1990s, Concord grapes were bringing historically high prices of around $300 a ton, Martin pointed out. But to compete, grape-growing cooperatives in the region were forced to drop their prices precipitously to a level where Pennsylvania and New York growers were losing money on production. "Prices have recovered some since then and are now at more than $210 a ton, a level at which many growers say they are just breaking even," Martin said.
"It is still a difficult time for growers in this region. The question is now, what is a sustainable price."
The economic answer for juice-grape growers is not as simple as just switching to growing wine grapes, Martin explained. Although more hardy hybrid grape varieties have been developed that will withstand the region's often-harsh winters -- that would damage traditional European varieties of wine grapes -- making a change is a significant endeavor.
"Because grapes are a perennial plant, growers have a big investment in juice grapes," he said. "And although growing wine grapes has been more profitable of late, there have been cases where the market has been oversaturated with wine grapes. That happened last fall in the Finger Lakes region."
Cooperative Extension is trying to help growers in the Lake Erie region with smart business planning and financial management, which are key elements of sustainable agriculture, noted Martin, who was a budget analyst for Sugar Land, Texas, (near Houston) before starting with Penn State Cooperative Extension last October. "We are here to educate them and extend the universities' research to help them succeed," he said.


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Last Updated November 18, 2010