Old school juice grapes a proven performer

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 10, 2012 

While Washington is not the ancestral home of the Concord grape, it has long held the title as the grape juice capital of the world.

Last fall, Washington juice grape growers crushed 185,000 tons, which equaled half of the production of the United States.

“We’re looking at a solid year,” said Dick Boushey, who is best known for growing wine grapes near Grandview but also has 87 acres of Concord and Niagara grapes.

Boushey is on the board of directors for National Grape, a farmers cooperative that has owned Welch’s since 1952. The $700 million company is based, appropriately, in Concord, Mass., though its biggest operation is in Grandview.

Boushey is quick to point out that Welch’s is not the only game in the Yakima Valley. Its Grandview plant processes about half of the Concords in the state, and other players include Milne and Tree Top in Prosser, Valley Grape in Sunnyside, and Smucker’s and Fruit Smart in Grandview.

The Concord grape was cultivated in the mid-1800s by Ephraim Bull, who experimented with 22,000 seedlings of wild native grapes before developing the cold-climate variety. The original “parent vine” of all Concord grapes still is in Bull’s farmhouse garden in Concord, Mass.

Concords have been a solid crop in Washington for a half-century. More than 40 years ago, the Washington State Grape Society was formed to help growers, said Deb Heintz, executive director. She said Walter Clore, the Washington State University researcher known as “the father of Washington wine,” also was a proponent for Concords.

Concords make up the majority of Washington’s juice grapes with 21,000 acres, but the state also has 1,600 acres of Niagara juice grapes.

Juice grapes were worth $48.9 million in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That year, 174,000 tons of juice grapes were produced, with Concords representing 156,000 tons.

Harvest of Concords can begin in late September. A historically early freeze in November 2010 significantly damaged Washington’s wine and juice vineyards, causing a shortfall in 2011.

“It is unusual for Concords to get hurt,” Boushey said, “but they did that year. Now we’re back.”

Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard west of Wapato, has been growing Concords since 1971. He said he normally gets about 11 tons per acre from his 90 acres of Concords, though his crop was down last year because the vine is compensating for an overly large amount of fruit last year. Sauer expects his vines to be back to normal next year.

Boushey said Concords are much easier to grow than many other crops, including wine grapes and tree fruit. This is because they are generally winter hardy, rarely need to be sprayed, bear a lot of fruit and are primarily machine harvested, which cuts down on labor costs.

“I just water and fertilize,” he said. “They are immune to most diseases and pests,” unlike on the East Coast, where the grapes are more susceptible to problems.

In fact, the East Coast had a disastrous season with juice grapes last year, Boushey said, because a spring frost took out as much as 75 percent of the potential fruit.

While Concords are not as sexy as wine grapes or as famous as apples or cherries, they are an important crop for Washington, Boushey said, because they can be grown in areas that are not good for other crops, Boushey said.

“A lot of wine grape growers like to grow Concords in deeper soil,” he said. “It’s a part of our mix of crops in the valley, and it does really well. Everyone wonders why I still have them, but they’re in a spot where I can’t grow tree fruit or wine grapes.”

The one downside is the price, which has kept Washington from continuing to expand its dominance in the juice grape market. In 2011, growers averaged about $255 per ton, which is a quarter of what they would get for wine grapes. Because of this, about 3,000 acres of Concords have vanished from the valley in the past five years in favor of hops and other crops.

As recently as 2005, Washington harvested a record 305,000 tons of juice grapes. Boushey isn’t sure that can happen again anytime soon because new acres being planted aren’t keeping up with those being lost.

The largest vineyard in the state is Snake River Vineyards near Burbank. The 2,400-acre Concord planting is owned by the Taggares family.

And for nearly 100 years, juice grape processing was an important part of the Kennewick economy. Church’s Grape Juice was founded in 1906 and became Welch’s bottling operation in the 1950s. Welch’s closed the Kennewick plant in early 2006.

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