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‘Great time’ for grapes

High expectations for county crop this year

Submitted photo Last year’s grape crop was average due to weather conditions. This year is expected to be better.

In Chautauqua County and all along the Lake Erie shore, the grape crop, specifically that of concord grapes, is one of the dominant and beneficial industries to the area. In the Lake Erie region, there are over 32,000 acres of grape crop, most of which are concord grapes, while there are some vinifera and hybrid grapes.

The nature of the grape crop industry is that it fluctuates heavily from year to year. A good crop one year can put stress on the grape vines, leading to a smaller crop the next year if the vines aren’t properly balanced. According to Jennifer Phillips Russo, the Viticulture Extension Specialist at Cornell’s Lake Erie Research Laboratory, last year’s crop was hurt by the weather.

“Certain environmental factors can change how balanced the vines are or what they can produce,” Russo said. “Last year we had a frost/freeze event that killed a lot of primary vine buds. Not all of them, but a lot of them.”

Because of that, the overall crop of grapes last year was about average, and certainly not a banner year by any means. But because of that, the grape vines got to rest, and in addition to some fortuitous weather, Russo said that this year’s grape crop looks like it will be beyond average.

“We had an extremely beautiful April, it was hot and sultry,” Russo said. “The vines woke up a bit early, and even though the crop got thinned by a frost at the end of April and start of May, not everyone got hit and the rested vines let us anticipate the crop.”

The average crop typically falls between six to eight tons of grapes per acre of land, which can vary depending on how stressed the vines are. Thirty days after bloom, Russo said they do their crop estimate to try and predict how many grapes will be produced in the area. When the berries are sampled for this estimate, it is supposed to represent half of what the final berry weight will be. Of the 182 samples they took, more than half of them showed that the crops should be well above average.

“We sampled 182 samples from around the belt,” Russo said. “And of those, 54 percent came in, ranging from nine tons to 20 tons of grapes per acre. Twenty tons per acre doesn’t normally come to fruition but the weather we had right around bloom was perfect. We had a colder, wet May and a warm, dry, and sunny June.”

The Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory in Portland has been tracking the boom dates of the grape crop since 1965, and in that time, the average bloom date for the grapes in the region landed around June 14. This year however, the bloom date was June 7, meaning that the crop had more time to ripen, furthering the projected success of the crop.

Of the 182 samples, 20 percent look like they’ll produce 9 to 11 tons per acre, while 15 percent show 12-15 tons per acre, which Russo described as “phenomenal.” That success though does come with the word of warning that it may dip back down next year if vines aren’t taken care of.

“This year people got a big paycheck,” Russo said. “If you push the vines though you won’t get the same big paycheck.”

Even the growers that suffered the frost damage were able to recover because of the timing of the weather. The secondary grape buds, which serve as a backup to ensure some crop in the face of potentially damaging weather, got to push through, and that area of acreage is still showing six to seven tons per acre, which is right within the average.

“I’m really excited for our growers this season,” Russo said.

The supply of grapes too couldn’t have come at a better time. Russo said the concord market is higher this year due to a surplus last year that had been popular because of the pandemic.

“My business management specialist said that a lot of families stocked juices and went through that surplus we had,” Russo said. “It’s a great time to be a concord farmer because of demand.”

The grapes produced in the Lake Erie Region and Chautauqua County help supply different places all over the country, while also still supporting local commerce. Russo said this industry is pivotal to supporting wineries and grocery stores all over.

“Our particular grapes are sold globally and if you think of a winery in the middle of the nation, they don’t always have the ability to grow grapes well,” Russo said. “So, they have to ship in juice. A lot of our juice it’s what’s supplying other places.”

In fact, the grape industry serves as a huge economic boon to the county and region. While it might look small, Russo said that the industry includes farmers, families, wineries, processors, people in marketing and sales, and many more positions. Because of that, Russo wants to encourage people to both enjoy the benefits the grape crop provides while keeping those who contribute to it safe.

“Driving around the countryside, it’s amazing to smell the grapes,” Russo said. “But you’ll notice a lot of farm vehicles driving along the road. Please be mindful of them. We had one accident where someone could have been seriously injured. I know people are always in a hurry, but please be mindful of our growers.”

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