WESTFIELD – With the announcement of the closing of Carriage House still fresh in everyone’s mind, people wonder if the Grape Belt will continue to hold the county’s pants up.
The League of Women Voters hosted three grape industry presenters at the Grape Discovery Center in Westfield recently to talk about the future of vineyards along the shores of Lake Erie.
The first speaker, Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory Viticulturist Luke Haggerty launched the program with a heartfelt statement.
“Grapes don’t know borders,” he said. “They don’t have anything to do with the dollar sign.”
Haggerty commented on the cultural practice of soil nutrition and ridding grapes of any diseases.
“My job is to collect data and make it presentable to growers in the area,” he said. “I stepped into a good role here; we have such a great area for grapes.”
The cold weather has affected grape growth.
“Grapes have a dormant period to rest and hopefully wake up,” he said. “We want the buds to stay asleep until the growing season.”
The wind off the lake helps to keep the area warm in the fall, which helps with growing.
“The wind helps keep disease off the leaves,” Haggerty said. “It helps with air flow.”
Haggerty loves the history of the area.
“It was the first thing I went digging into when I came here,” he said. “Some of these vineyards go back a very, very long time.”
The technology group places the vineyards into boxes, creating maps of specific areas in the fields.
“This makes my job much easier,” Haggerty said. “I go to the areas that need fixing in the vineyards and see what I can do to fix the problem.”
There is 50 years of data collected on tracking the progress of vineyards. There will be a nice long growing season if the weather stays warm.
“When the Polar Vortex came through it took a big hit on the wine grapes,” Haggerty said. “The freezing weather adds a lot of stress on growing rates.”
The second speaker, Retired Welch Executive Richard Erdle, threw out statistics of the grape industry.
“I spent 35 years working with growers,” he said.
Chautauqua County has 19,000 acres, 600 growers, and an economic impact of $141 million: $92 million in juice, $10.5 million in wine and $25 million in wages.
“This is an industry we need to pay attention to,” Erdle said. “It has a huge impact on the economy.”
Chautauqua County grapes, juices, and wines are bought all over the world.
“Carriage House is the largest jelly maker in the world,” Erdle said. “They buy their grapes from Chautauqua County; they are still in the jelly business but now the grape supply will go to the Kentucky plant.”
“Cott in Dunkirk is the largest juice maker in the world,” he continued. “Thirty-thousand tons of juice is bought every year; they are very busy.”
The last speaker, Executive Director at Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association Andrew Dufresne told stories about the birth of the center and why tourism is so important.
“Tourism attractions are very important for the economy,” he said. “Tourism helps the grape industry.”
Dufresne and a few of his friends came up with an idea to incorporate the grape industry with tourists.
“There is 150 years of grape growing heritage here,” he said. “This attracts people so we came up with Concord Grape Heritage Association.”
Farmers and other industries got involved in the association.
“We promoted Concord grape juice as healthy,” Dufresne said. “We market grape juice as healthy and beneficial.”
The grape heritage in New York is historically unique and makes these places valuable. There are what is known as Heritage Tourists, who specifically look for historical sites and learn about the area’s heritage.
“This gives us a great opportunity to tell stories,” Dufresne said. “We build on that.”
Dufresne has been to 47 out of the 50 states and he said this grape belt has been the most unique he has ever seen. He came up with the brand, America’s Grape County.
“We say our grapes are red, white, and blue,” he said. “We have Native American grapes; our grape festival is the most popular.”
There is a lot owed to Sen. Catharine Young for getting the Grape Discovery Center made.
“She understands and supports farmers,” Dufresne said. “We took a 1970s auto shop and turned it into the Grape Discovery Center.”
The Prohibition era; and the Great Depression were very hard on the growers. People were hurting for money so there was a decline in wineries.
“Now we are in a good growth period,” Dufresne said. “There is more money in promoting wineries and all the attractions come together.”
“These are some of the most rewarding memories and most agonizing,” he continued. “It is all to the grape industry; it has been fun. I hope to see it grow.”
Some questions were posed about signs, fracking, wine and future of grape growers in the area.
One guest wanted to know why a Grape Discovery Center sign was not placed on the Thruway to inform people on the Thruway about the center.
“It is hard to get a sign on I-90,” Dufresne said.
One guest from Ohio was concerned about fracking and how that affects grape growing.
“Our association doesn’t take any sides,” Dufresne said. “Some are concerned about pollution, but there are two sides.”
“I am interested in the topic,” Haggerty said. “There are environmental problems with fracking.”
Haggerty talked more about the water waste and how it affects the soil, but also believes there are two sides.
Concerned Residents of Portland Co-founder Diane Hofner commented on the huge economic impact the area has recently been slammed with.
“Tourism is the only thing we have left,” she said. “See if you can develop a stand on fracking.”
Hofner added it is a serious threat to the area and it would help if Dufresne would take a stand on the topic.
There are 30,000 tourists a year who come just for the wineries alone. One guest wanted to know why she can’t buy wines in the supermarkets.
“There are only a dozen states (New York included) that don’t allow selling of wines in supermarkets,” Dufresne said.
“There are small wineries in the area that would suffer,” Erdle said. “They go through a broker now who isn’t interested in stores; it is all very controversial.”
Since the area has already lost so much, there was concern about the future of the grapes and if they would stay in the area.
“Big suppliers move more bulk,” Erdle said. “Supply and price are related; the process doesn’t depend on local growers to sell crops, it all comes down to two large corporations.”
“There are a lot of grants pushed out there to create alerts,” Haggerty said. “This freeze was an eye opener; there is a lot of talk about climate change.”
“You have to sometimes look at the facts; study the economic impact on the growing area,” Haggerty continued.
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