THE GRAPE BELT
Michael C. Barris, Ph.D.
27 October 2003, 28 October 2003
The Lake Erie shore of Chautauqua County produced more than half of New York State’s grapes in 2001. These grapes are used for table use, wine, unfermented grape juice and juice blends, as well as jellies, jams, and conserves. Processed grape products and wines have shelf lives measured in years. Concentrates frozen for years can be used to produce juices or wines. The predominant grape variety is the purple Concord variety followed by the white Niagara variety. Between 1995 and 2001, average New York State grape prices varied from $228/ton in 1995 to $311/ton in 1998. New York State grape production varied from 205,000 tons in 1999 to 139,000 tons in 1997. This annual production is dependent on acres in production, cultural practices, seasonal climatic factors (including last freeze date of the spring and first of the fall, rainfall, and temperature), and fungal and bacterial disease. Chautauqua County vineyard acreage increased from 15,500 acres in 1996 to 17,877 acres in 2001 (Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. 2003 New York State Statistical Handbook. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2003. Pp. 549-553). In 2003, mechanical harvesters are virtually universal in Chautauqua County. The switch over the last 20 years from manual to mechanical harvesting has visibly left harvesters’ motels vacant during the picking season. Less visible is the deviation of farm labor wages to agricultural equipment manufacturing wages and costs.
“Portland, from the beginning, has been the leading town in the culture of grape and other fruit…. From its small beginnings in 1824, during the fifty years that followed, the culture of the grape in Chautauqua County had been growing so that in the Lake Shore towns of the county it had become a leading and very important industry. About the year 1874 it had ceased to depend upon a limited home market and had found without the county, first in the oil regions of Pennsylvania, an extensive and increasing demand. A new era in the agricultural prosperity of the county had now begun.. Vineyards were spreading over the lowlands that extend from the foot of the hills along the southern shore of Lake Erie and soon began to climb the hillsides along the northern face of the Ridge and now the grape belt extends for a distance of about fifty-five miles along the southern shore of Lake Erie from Harbor Creek in Erie County, Pennsylvania, to Erie County, New York…. The entire territory of the grape belt now cultivated contains about one hundred twenty thousand acres of which one hundred thousand acres are in Chautauqua County. “(Edson, O. The Centennial History of Chautauqua County, Volume 1. Jamestown, NY: Chautauqua History Company, 1904. Pp. 260-261)
“,,,[T]he Welches, father and son, first made grape juice and bottled it in the kitchen of their home in Vineland, New Jersey. Its original purpose was a non-alcoholic communion wine. Known as ’Dr. Welch’s unfermented wine,’ this product represented the first successfully bottled and branded fruit juice on the market. Physicians and dieticians soon recognized its value as a health beverage, and its popularity at the soda fountain was soon established. It was in 1893 that Dr. Charles E. Welch relinquished his professional activities [as a dentist] and gave himself entirely to the making of grape juice. In 1897, after a careful survey of the Concord grape-growing possibilities, the first factory unit in Westfield, New York, was built.” Doty, W.J. The Historical Annals of Southwestern New York, Volume III. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1940. P. 619. Dr. Welch (The Grape Industry. Pp. 402-403. In Downs, J.P., and Hedley, F.Y. (Eds) History of Chautauqua County, New York, and Its People, Volume 1. New York: American Historical Society, 1921) offered his own glowing assessment of grape production and processing in Chautauqua County.
In 1984, Chautauqua County’s grape industry became the focus of the New York State Senate’s Task Force on Critical Problems (Tending the Vineyards: Renewed Growth for New York’s Grape/Wine Industry. Albany, NY: New York State Senate, 1984). Relief from certain New York State regulations was recommended and subsequently realized as a measure to renew growth.
The Lake Erie Regional Grape Program is run cooperatively by Cornell University in Fredonia, NY, and Pennsylvania State University in Northeast, PA. In 2001, they collected financial information from 42 Lake Erie Shore farms involving 4371 acres. Data collected in this program from 1991 until 2001 show extremes of a $100 loss/acre in 1995 and a $300 profit/acre in 1999. “Average yields were 5.5 tons per acre. The range in farm wide yields varied from 2.5 to 8.1 tons per acre.” http://lenewa.netsync.net/public/Crop%202002/0604cropup.htm
“Not only was the grape boom of the 1990’s especially high because of a rush of dot-com dollars, a surge in consumption following new health claims about grapes, and generally prosperous times, but the low [of the 21st century] has been unusually deep as a result of growing foreign competition.
“Wine from Chile, Australia and South Africa, raisins from Turkey; table grapes from Chile and Mexico – all of it relatively inexpensive and in increasingly great supply….
“A report by the California Agricultural Statistics Service showed that the 2002 harvest produced 3.79 million tons of grapes that were crushed for wine or juice concentrate, up 12.5 percent from the year before. The oversupply further depressed prices, as growers made an average of $462 per ton, 17 percent less than in 2001, with the high-end Napa Valley growers getting $2,942 per ton and the low-end Fresno-area growers just $136 per ton.” Murphy, D.E. California Grape Rush of 90‘s Withers as Prices Collapse. New York Times, 25 May 2003.
The strong US currency of 2003 militates against US sellers’ growth by reducing both import prices and export competitiveness. However, the unique “foxy” taste of the Chautauqua County Concord variety offers a specific market niche (New York State Senate Task Force on Critical Problems. Tending the Vineyards: Renewed Growth for New York’s Grape/Wine Industry. Albany, NY: New York State Senate, 1984).
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