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Grape farmers feeling effects of summer draught

September 22, 2016
By Rebecca Cuthbert - , Westfield Republican

Too bad farmers can't plant and harvest good luck.

In recent years, the area's grape farmers seem to have suffered one low blow after another. There was the closing of Carriage House, and the reduced contracts at Cott Beverages. Two hard winters that ravaged the vines and reduced the '14 and '15 crops. The fact is that consumers are buying less juice.

This summer's drought has left many wondering if the grape farmers are being kicked while they're down.

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In recent years, the area’s grape farmers seem to have suffered one low blow after another. There was the closing of Carriage House, and the reduced contracts at Cott Beverages. Two hard winters that ravaged the vines and reduced the ‘14 and ‘15 crops.


Rich Erdle, who owns Erdle Farms in the town of Hanover along with his wife Sue, explained that there was a potential for this year's grape crop to do better than average - but the drought hit, and that potential, well, dried up.

"This year's crop definitely could have been above average," he said, "since we had such a mild winter overall. The two years prior, there was heavy damage (due to harsh winter weather), so crops weren't great. This year we anticipated a good crop, but because of the drought, berry size is down."

For novices, "berry" can be misleading. The term is used for "grape." So, this year, each individual grape is smaller than normal - but not as small as grapes would have been without August's rains.

"We were kind of balancing on the edge in August," said Luke Haggerty, viticulture extension specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension. "Things were looking pretty bad. But then we got a fair amount of rain, and berries got a little bigger. They would have been about 20 percent below average; now they're only 10 percent below average size."

Here, size does matter, but not as much as other factors.

"Fifty percent of the weight on the vine is determined by how many clusters of grapes there are per vine. Thirty percent is made up of how many berries per cluster. The final 20 percent is weight per berry. In other words, the cluster number is the most important," said Erdle.

Erdle stated that across the country, there is a surplus supply of Concord grape juice. These grapes are growing faster and in greater volumes than we can squash and drink them, which drives down prices, and has, for the past few years. Locally, the Concord haul is about average, with greater volume more or less making up for those smaller berries.

And, because western New York seasons can't pass by without having their way with at least one or two crops, yes, there was frost damage.

"We did have frost damage in the Versailles-Brant-Hanover area in late spring," noted Erdle. "It was April or May, after budding. And then the drought didn't help."

Despite that late-summer rain, we aren't out of the drought quite yet.

"We're not out of the drought for sure," said Jim Mitchell, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "You look at your rivers and streams, and you can tell they're still really low. Things are greener, things on the surface look better, but the groundwater is still low."

Currently, Buffalo is still in about a seven-inch rainfall slump, though typically, rainfall in the Southern Tier is a bit heavier. As of Sept. 13, Buffalo had gotten 19.52 inches of rain since Jan. 1, while Dunkirk got 24.79 inches in the same time frame.

Things will surely moisten up, Mitchell said, due to the change in seasons, at least.

"Lake effect rain showers will be coming in soon; we should get some beneficial rain from that. Also, days are getting shorter, sun angles are getting lower, so there will be less evaporation. In the fall, there's usually more widespread rainfall, too, unlike very localized summer thunderstorms."


Fortunately, Concords have very deep roots. Thus, they were less affected by the dry weather than other crops might have been. But it also means any irrigation efforts would be largely wasted.

"In general, it doesn't pay to water Concords," said Erdle. "(For) Niagaras it would pay to irrigate, or some of the high-valued wine grapes. Quite a few studies have been done. It wouldn't make a big enough difference to yields overall."

Haggerty agreed, saying that the time and money spent on installing and running an irrigation system to water Concord grapes wouldn't be cost effective.

"The only time growers would really want to water Concords (in a drought) is if the vines were very young," he said, because their root systems would not yet be strong enough or deep enough to access stores of ground water and withstand the dry spell.

As Erdle indicated, wine grapes did get a little extra love this summer.

Beth Margolis, marketing director of Liberty Vineyards and Winery in Sheridan (owned by her parents, Gary and Pam Burmaster) said the Carmeneres had to be helped out.

"We have had to water a small vineyard of Carmenere," she said. "Those make a great dry red (wine), very peppery. The reason we had to irrigate that variety is they're very young vines."

There was also some spot watering done at 21 Brix Winery in Portland.

"Reisling (grapes) like it a little wetter," said Kris Kane, who owns the winery along with his wife Nicki. "They like cool wet years, so we have pumped water to that crop. We watered the younger vines as well, and gave a few small doses of water to some of the more mature vines."

But Kane said the drought's damage is long term, with the most drastic effect still to show itself.

"We won't feel the drought as much this year; the quality of the grapes is great. But in future years, we'll notice," he said. "During a drought, the grapevines don't have the energy or the water to put resources into growing those new shoots for next year's wood, and that could very well mean fewer berries next year."

And if the region experiences multiple drought years in a row, vines won't be able to recover; they'll slowly dry out and die out. Here's hoping that in 2017, May flowers bring some June showers.


What many outside of the farming community may not realize is that a dry summer, like the one we are just saying goodbye to, is actually pretty desirable for growers of wine grapes.

"The crop yields, which is the volume of grapes, will be a little bit less, but the flavor and the quality of the grapes will be really great, especially for the dry reds," said Margolis. "That's because the sugar content is higher."

Kane said he and others in the wine business were looking forward to what this fall's harvest would bring in; they knew it would be a vintage year. And for many varieties, wetter is not better.

"(Many of the wine varieties) are suseptible to a lot of moisture. (If it's a wet summer), moisture gets up into the tight clusters, and mildews and rots them. Then, when the grapes are ready to get to their peak maturity, they take in too much water and you get internal rotting."

Kane said there's a fine line to walk regarding grapes; you want just enough rain to keep them healthy, but not so much that they get rotten and the flavors become diluted. For wine grapes, the less moisture in the berry, the better.

"When berries are smaller, not watered down, the flavors are more intense," he said. "They don't weigh as much, so yes, yield is lower, but that bodes well for the wineries. I personally like lower yields, because you reach optimal maturity and get your best flavor. Right now, I have a full color pallette to pick from. With the mild winter we had, followed by a dry summer, every Varietal is available."

In fact, because Kane knew it would be a fine season for wine grapes, he doubled down, reserving more grapes from his dad's farm (Olde Chautauqua farms in Portland), securing other varietals from nearby growers, ordering extra wine barrels and increasing tank capacity.

"So far, we've pressed 110 tons of grapes at 21 Brix, and we're hoping to triple that, if all goes well," he said. "This is going to be our best year since we've opened."


With bulk juice prices down 50 percent from when they peaked three years ago (according to Kevin Martin, Cornell Cooperative Extension) and Mother Nature putting growers through the Hokey Pokey, it's fair to say they would appreciate community support, and there are plenty of ways you can help.

Buy directly from local growers and wine makers. Farmstands, wineries, farmers' markets - hit 'em up and take home some of that farm-fresh goodness.

Buy local products from retail stores. Many area growers are part of the co-op that owns Welch's, so even when you go to a bigger store like Walmart, you can help your friends and neighbors by searching for those labels.

Word-of-mouth and social media advertising. If you love a certain local winery, farm, or farmstand, say so! Tell your friends. Share their pages on Facebook and "like" their events and announcements.

Promote and engage in agri-tourism. Go on local wine tours, and take your out-of-town friends when they visit. Check out local farms and wineries as wedding and event venues. Or, ask them to be vendors for your events.

Give their products as gifts. Gift certificates, logo merchandise, flower arrangements, fruit baskets, wine. Think about it: One case of wine + one bag of bows = your holiday list, DONE.

Work for them. Wineries and farms need good employees, too. If the opportunity arises, join one of their teams. Who knows - there may be produce perks.

Visit their dogs. Seriously. A lot of these farms and wineries have cute dogs that just sort of hang out and greet visitors. Join their fandom (and buy something before you leave).



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