Growers’ Co-Operative constructing two new tanks

Photo by David Prenatt A worker welds a section of one of two new tanks being constructed at the Growers' Co-op in Westfield.

Growers’ Co-operative Grape Juice Company is building the future — literally.

The Westfield company recently marked its 90th anniversary of collecting grapes from local growers, negotiating the best price possible and returning the profits to the farmers. Now it is banking on the future of grapes by constructing two 500,000-gallon tanks.

“This is a multi-million dollar project,” said Growers’ Co-operative general manager Steve Cockram. “This is investing in our long-term growth as a company and allowing our farmers to grow more concord and other grapes.”

Cockram said the addition of a million gallons of juice storage will enable the company to continue to grow as an organization and provide a stable market for local grape-growers.

“This allows us to expand what we do. We have been chronically short on tank space for many years,” he said.

Cockram said the new tanks will be especially useful to store more single-strength juice, which is juice made by pressing the grapes and not from concentrate. There has been an increasing demand for single-strength juice as the wine-making industry continues to grow, he said.

This in not the first such investment that the Growers’ Co-op has made on behalf of area grape growers. In fact, Cockram said, the history of the company can be seen in the construction of its tanks.

“We have done very well in our decisions that we have made,” Cockram said. “We have tanks from the ’60s, tanks from the ’70s and tanks from the ’90s that have allowed us to continue to grow.”

The two new tanks are being built adjacent to the row of six tanks built in the 1990s. As each 8-foot wide ring of stainless steel is welded on, the tanks will rise up until they are 70-feet tall, Cockram said.

Cockram said the main construction is expected to be finished by July 1. But there is still a lot of work after that, such as electrical and plumbing work and access stairways.

While the physical construction of the tanks required a builder from outside of the area, Cockram said the company is employing local contractors as much as possible for tasks such as the piping, electrical and accessory construction. “We’re trying as much as we can to keep the work in town,” he said.

Growers’ Co-op was founded in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression when grape prices were plunging and local farmers were struggling to survive. Many agricultural co-ops were formed back in those days, but very few are still in existence, Cockram said.

Growers’ Co-op, according to Cockram, turns the fruit into value added products and returns all the earnings to the farmers. The co-op also produces juice and concentrates from a variety of other fruits, including blueberries, cherries, apples, cranberries and peaches.

In the early years, the value added product the Growers’ co-op made was bottled single strength juice, but today the co-op produces juice concentrate and purees, as well as single strength juice for wineries. The finished products are shipped to companies in the United States, Canada, Asia and Europe.

Cockram said that currently 80 farmers, primarily from Brocton, Portland, Westfield, Ripley and North East, PA, belong to the co-op. The farmers deliver the grapes to the company, which in turn measures the weight and determines the Brix level, that is, the sugar content of an aqueous solution.

What is most important, however, is that the Growers’ Co-op feels that the future of its area grape farmers is worth the investment, Cockram said. The new tanks will rise as a testimony to that trust. “They say that we still believe in the concord industry and we want our farmers to be able to grow,” he said.

COMMENTS