By DIANE R. CHODAN
OBSERVER Staff Writer
WESTFIELD - Many people in Western New York recognize a season in addition to summer, winter, spring or fall. The season is called grape season or often simply "grapes." I have even heard of a couple that had to plan their wedding "after grapes." To those involved in the grape harvest or processing, this is totally understandable. For the growers of grapes and those who haul or process the grapes, it is an intense time of year. There is much work to be done in a relatively short time, usually a four- to six- week season.
The year-round employees at Welch's in Westfield work mandatory 12 hour days as many as seven days in a week. Temporary agencies supply extra manpower. The drivers who haul in the grapes for the growers of the National Grape Co-op often do this on a part time basis, while still holding down a full time job. Some retirees come out of retirement for the season.
My mom picked grapes when I was a child, in the years before the automated picker was widely used. For a few weeks each year, she and some of her friends and neighbors were trucked by a farmer to his vineyard to hand-pick grapes. She went to work with a "lunch bucket" and a portable radio. This was in the days when the World Series was played during the daytime. The ladies would listen to the game or to music while they worked in the vineyards. Mom thought the two farmers in the Silver Creek area (Morrison and Yonkers) for whom she worked were generous. She was paid hourly instead of by the crate. High school students sometimes worked for a farmer on a "piece work" basis.
In addition, Mom was allowed to bring home grapes in her lunch bucket. I remember both the purple (concord) and green (Niagara) grapes and looked forward to sampling them each year. Mom also canned jelly and grape juice prepared from the grapes she brought home.
The weather would vary from year to year. If it rained too hard, picking would be halted until weather improved. Besides the difficulty of working in the rain, the rainwater dilutes the sugar in grapes. Sometimes the weather was warm and sunny; sometimes it was so cold that long underwear was worn. Mom remembers working in the snow in November to get in the last of the crop. The season also varied in length, so the length of her employment and the money earned varied each year.
Even though I lived in the city of Dunkirk, the grapes were not that far away. I retain pictures in my mind of my friend and me, aged 11 or 12, biking near Vineyard drive (which had vineyards on it instead of businesses and a lot less traffic). I enjoyed warm sunny days, the brightly colored fall foliage and the smell of the grapes.
The first time I saw a mechanical picker was at the first Grape Festival in Silver Creek. The year was 1967 and I was a college freshman. I went to the festival myself, just because grapes interested me and the idea of a grape festival intrigued me. I remember hearing many unfavorable comments about the picker and some predictions that the majority of grapes would continue to be handpicked. The predictions were wrong. Nowdays, handpicking is the exception and the mechanical picker the rule.
After I retired from my state job, I found a job listing for a seasonal fruit inspector. In this area, the fruit inspected is grapes. I was lucky enough to work during four seasons (2007-2010) for New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets for National Grape Co-op in Westfield.
For me, it was a great job, but clearly not what most people visualize an "inspector" does. One of my friends had a picture in her mind of me clad in a white uniform in a laboratory setting. While there is the need to use scientific equipment, most notably a refractometer that measures sugar content, normal attire is blue jeans. Like my mom before me, I dressed according to the weather. That ranged from short sleeved T shirts during a particularly warm season to layered clothing during cold, wet, and even snowy weather. It just depended on how the weather was that season. Mercifully, there is a roof over the dock where the trucks are inspected. However, it is elevated and the sides are open, so I had to dress for the weather.
Mom would laugh when I appeared ready to go to work in jeans and an old fleece jacket with my hair pulled up and tucked under a cap.
"You look like a farmer," she said.
The setting was most definitely not a lab. White uniforms would have quickly turned purple. I came home every night with grape juice and pulp on my clothes and on me. The first year I bought an economy size bottle of a stain remover and washed my clothes after I got home just before midnight each night. The next year, I visited the thrift stores and bought several old comfortable pairs of jeans as well as a huge men's fleece sweater that would go over the shirt and hooded sweatshirt I wore on cold days. Jeans usually cleaned up decently, and dark colored shirts or sweatshirt , navy blue or maroon, did the best coming clean. I could wash clothes every three days if I pretreated the stains.
As for myself, my supervisor told me lemon juice removes stains from the hands. It did work to a point. My hands were back to normal by Christmas.
Inspecting is a very physical job. When I started, I was already regarded as a senior citizen in some situations. After spending the bulk of my working life at "desk jobs" this represented a challenge for me, but also an opportunity. There was something satisfying about requiring my body to learn a physical task, remember all the steps, and get good enough at it to be both fast and accurate. When I had good sample help, we could get the trucks through quickly. My personal best was six trucks in an hour with a wonderful and funny man named Bryce who would stand on the platform and say "bring 'em on; bring 'em on" as the trucks lined up. The next year, I did it again with David, a recent high school graduate who was polite, hardworking and kind.
I quickly discovered a good way to explain why I liked this job. I told people, "This is a job that puts me to sleep at night instead of keeping me awake."In addition, learning about grapes and the process of inspection provided just enough mental challenge.
The inspection process starts when a truck pulls into the dock area. After the truck stops, the gates are extended out from the platform so the large bins of grapes can be reached. The inspector's job was to "pull lids" on one side of the truck. That involves moving large bungee type cords on each side of a bins over and lifting the lid. This can be difficult, especially if the bins are crammed too tightly together or the cords are tight or caught. It took awhile for me to be able to do this efficiently.
A sample helper uses a tool called a probe to obtain the sample. The probe is a long cylindrical metal tube that is hollow. It is pushed into each bin in a closed position, opened, pushed a little forward to obtain a sample and then closed. Once closed, the probe is taken out of the bin, held over a plastic bucket and opened so that the sample falls into the bucket. It takes muscles and skill to probe correctly. I learned how and in an emergency could do it and could teach the process to others.
For sampling, the key term is a "representative sample." It is important to sample all the bins and push the probe into each. A small truck may have eight to 12 bins. Larger trucks hold 16 to 24. In general two samplers work; one on each side of the truck.
While the sample is being taken, the inspector looks for anything unusual. The inspector should be alert to such things as fermentation, an unusual amount of foreign material or a large quantity of grapes that are a different variety. In Westfield, during the years I worked, only concords were processed, so seeing a large amount of a different variety was cause for concern and a call to the fruit receiving supervisor.
Once the sample is gathered in the buckets, it is poured into the top of a device called a "splitter." The top is comparable to a large funnel that can be closed on its bottom to hold the sample. Underneath and to the side of the funnel is a frame a where large metal baskets are hung. By releasing the hold on the funnel, some of the sample falls through to a bucket directly underneath, and some falls into the metal baskets. The funnel is then closed again and the contents of the metal baskets are poured back into the funnel. This may be repeated several times depending on the size of the sample. Splitting the sample mixes the grapes to create the smaller representative sample that will be searched for defects.
For the final split, a screened basket that separates the liquid from the solids is used. The liquid is measured and entered, and the solids weighed. Considering both the liquid and solid, the sample should be about two pounds.
The sample is first checked for Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles (MALBs). These are insects which look somewhat like our ladybug, but are non-native. Classified as a beneficial insect by some sources, the problem with this insect in connection with grapes is too many of them can create a bitter taste in the grape juice. If even one is found a larger sample is taken and searched to see if there are too many in the load. (In my years, while we found some MALBs, fortunately the concentration was not high enough to cause a problem.)
Once the issue of MALBs is resolved, the inspector signals to the sample help that the larger sample can be blended (in a blender as tall as a person) while the inspector looks for, weighs and enters the weight defects such as grape plant parts, non-grape plant parts, immature grapes, decay, or foreign material in the smaller sample.
At National Grape, the computer automatically calculates if there is a problem with the defects and a load can be downgraded or even failed.
The final test, which is extremely important, is the sugar level. The large blender is stopped and a small amount of the grape mixture is spooned into a folded "kimwipe" (essentially laboratory filter paper). After letting a couple drops filter through the paper into the waste basket or sink, the inspector squeezes a few drops on the refractometer, a scientific instrument that measures the sugar concentration. At National Grape, the refractometer is connected to the computer, so that the result is recorded on the computer record. At least two tests are done to assure the results are consistant.
After each test, the lens is cleaned with distilled water and dried. The instrument is checked "for zero" about once an hour. Distilled water on a clean lens should test as zero. If it doesn't, the lens should be cleaned again and retested. Sometimes the lab has to come to check the instrument.
For the grapes, a final reading of 15.0 (on the Brix scale) is accepted by Welch's for concord grapes. Levels testing over 15.5 are considered first class loads. In general, higher sugar levels mean more money for the grower. Depending on the growing season, "making sugar" can be a problem. Rain in the bins can affect the level. It is also very important that after cleaning the blender and the splitter no extra water is left.
Mark Amidon, who serves as Fruit Receiving Supervisor, commented about this year's grape season, "The sugar is running really well. I would say it is slightly better than average."
Amidon also said, "This year we started on Sept. 22. The average start date is Sept. 24."
I was asked back this year, but because I am working full time for the OBSERVER, returning wasn't possible. Still it was nice to get permission through Richard Erdle, director of member relations at National Grape Co-op to go and take pictures for a story about grapes.
I enjoyed talking to Amidon who signed my attendance sheet and was there if I had a problem or question.
I took pictures of Claudia Romanchuk, a graduate of Purdue, who is young enough to be my daughter but started inspecting before I did and taught me so much my first year. I admire her efficiency, knowledge, and calm manner.
Occasionally, I see some of the truckers as I go about my business locally: Mr Kusneske who is now at least 80 and has threatened every year would be his last; "Shakey" who always came in with a smile, and several times grew his hair to donate to locks of love; the young trucker who kept inspection going while I waited for an ambulance with the sample helper who seemed to be having a heart attack; Dawn, the female trucker who joined me in the "Birdy Dance" in reaction to the rap music of a couple sample helpers; and Dave Wilson, Stockton Town Supervisor, whose meetings I now cover as a reporter.
Grapes is truly a unique season for many special and hardworking people in our local area. I'm glad I got to experience it firsthand.
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