This year's Washington's juice grape crop was a good one.
But Grandview grower Dick Boushey said he sees signs that Concords are at a crossroads.
Competition for land is pressuring some juice grape growers to replace their vines with crops that pay better, such as hops, tree fruit and blueberries, said Boushey, who serves on the board of National Grape, the farmers' cooperative that owns Welch's.
Washington had a small, manageable harvest this year, but prices dropped overall in the juice market, he said. And Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania ended up having one of their largest crops ever, lowering prices for concentrate.
The cash price for Washington juice grapes was down from last year by about 20 percent to near $225 per ton recently, said Trent Ball, agriculture department chair and viticulture and enology instructor for Yakima Valley Community College's Grandview campus.
Having the cost for concentrate drop makes it more affordable for processors to use the concentrate in juice blends, Ball said.
Most of the Concords grown in Washington go into the bulk concentrate market, Boushey said. A lot of juice from the West Coast goes all over the country and the world, including to Japan.
Farmers finished harvesting about 21,000 acres of Concords and another 1,600 acres of Niagara juice grapes around mid-October.
Washington's harvest, at an estimated 164,000 tons this year, is down from last year, and slightly below the 10-year average of just over 193,000 tons, Ball said.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a crop size of 167,000 tons.
"Maturity was as good as it's been in quite a few years," Boushey said. "The heat helped."
But because Concord and juice grapes bloom earlier than wine grapes, they were hit by significant rain.
The cool temperatures and rain interrupted pollination, and growers ended up seeing smaller clusters with fewer berries, Boushey said.
In the end, the size of the berries was good, but there just wasn't enough of them.
"It was too bad because we were poised for one of the best crops we've ever had," he said.
So farmers ended up picking an average crop when it came to quantity, but with above-average sweetness, Boushey said.
With higher sugars, Boushey said it takes fewer grapes to get the standard juice concentrate of 68 percent sugar, also called 68 brix.
The heat also caused some grapes to lose color. That's important because people tend to expect a dark, rich-purple color.
Ball expects to see some improvement in yields next year, since grape vines will have recovered from the 2010 frost. He expects an above average crop, barring any bad weather conditions.
Concords will be around long-term, but to what degree is the question, Boushey said.
Still, there is optimism in general, Boushey said. Welch's is working on new product lines, improving processing and consolidating plants back East.
He sees hope in companies like FruitSmart of Grandview, a specialty fruit ingredient company, that he says has taken an innovative look at the industry, including using all parts of the grape.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com