Growers co-op reach 90 years

Submitted Photo These photos are from 1939, only 10 years after the co-op growers’ juice company began.

The growers’ co-op in Westfield is having its 90th anniversary.

For nearly a century, Growers Cooperative Grape Juice Company of Westfield has processed the harvest of local grape growers with the goal of giving them the best return possible.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing our farmers’ grapes come in and getting a good return back to them,” said General Manager Steve Cockram. “How good are our returns to our farmers” is the bottom line.

Growers’ Co-op, founded in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression when grape prices were plunging and local farmers were struggling to survive, is now in its 90th year.

Cockram said he is not familiar with how successful the co-op was during the Depression but he feels it must have done well. A lot of agricultural co-ops were formed back in those days, and very few are still in existence, he said.

Growers’ Co-op, according to Cockram, turns the fruit into value added products and returns all the earnings to the farmers. “We turn the grapes into products that we think will add the most value to those grapes,” he said.

Cockram said that currently 80 farmers, primarily from Brocton, Portland, Westfield, Ripley and North East, Pennsylvania, belong to the co-op. “The farmers deliver all of their grapes to us,” he said. “We measure the weight and look at the Brix level, which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution,” he said. “The Brix level is a general indicator of the maturity level of the fruit,” he noted.

It cost farmers $235 a ton to raise concord grapes in 2017, Cockram said. The co-op was able to return $250 a ton to the farmers, “so it’s an OK year,” he said.

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.

While the concord grape, which was developed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s, gave birth to Growers’ Co-op, Cockram noted that Niagara and Catawba grape juice is in demand by the wine industry so “we do those grapes, as well.” The co-op also produces juice and concentrates from a variety of other fruits, including blueberries, cherries, apples, cranberries and peaches, he said.

Cockram, who is completing his 14th harvest with Growers’ co-op, has been general manager since 2015. He said the harvest is a very busy time of year because “there is a very intricate harvest schedule.”

“We have two times the number of employees during harvest,” he said, “but we have people doing various operations throughout the year.”

Cockram said there is about a 30-day window from when the grape is ripe until it falls off the vine. “The most frustrating part is trying to operate at such a high level for an extended period of time,” he said. “Close to 40,000 tons of grapes will be processed this year.”

According to Cockram, the grapes are processed using the screw press method. He said the method was optimized in the 1950s and “there hasn’t been a good way to improve it ever since.” He said that whoever is processing the grapes, the methods used are very similar.

The finished products are shipped to companies in the United States, Canada, Asia, and Europe. We sell grape juice to Buckner, Kentucky, as well as to other companies in the Treehouse Foods umbrella, Cockram said.

“We’ve got some very big customers in Canada,” Cockram said, and “one third of our product goes there.” About 10 percent goes to Asia, he said, primarily to China, Korea, and Japan.

Cockram said there are no big events planned to celebrate the co-ops’ 90th year. “It’s the seventh week of harvest, and we’re all getting tired,” he said. “People get tired and grumpy. Machines get tired and grumpy. It’s not so much fun at the end of the harvest.”

Nevertheless, the Growers’ Co-op, located in the middle of the oldest and largest concord grape growing region in the world, will continue to upgrade its capacities and capabilities as it celebrates the accomplishments of the past 90 years.

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