Eastern growers who rely on the Concord grape for their livelihood haven't been as lucky as their counterparts in the West, who have profited from a host of winegrape varieties.
In fact, a Penn State University Cooperative Extension vineyard business specialist says juice-grape growers in northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York have been struggling financially to survive.
"There has been significant downward pressure on the price of Concord grapes since 2001, and that has made it very difficult for growers in this region," says Kevin Martin, associate Extension educator based in the Erie County town of North East. "It has been difficult for juice-grape growers to stay in business. Two years ago, prices began to recover but still remain lower than the high prices growers experienced in the late '90s."
There are 840 farms growing aout 30,000 acres of grapes in the Lake Erie region of New York and Pennsylvania, making it the largest grape-growing region outside of California. Of this acreage, more than 98 percent consists of grape varieties, such as Concord and Niagara, which are used for juice, jam and other products, according to a news release.
Martin is part of the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, a joint effort between Penn State and Cornell University. His is to help the growers develop smart business plans and financial management.
"What has happened in recent years is that the Concord grape has come into competition with red grapes grown in California for juices," he says. "The red varieties had been at historically low prices of around $100 a ton. That has caused a serious disruption in the marketplace."
In the late 1990s, Concord grapes were bringing historically high prices of about $300 a ton, Martin says. But to compete, grape-growing cooperatives in the region were forced to drop their prices to a level where Pennsylvania and New York growers were losing money on production.
"Prices have recovered some since then and are now at more than $210 a ton, a level at which many growers say they are just breaking even," he says. "It is still a difficult time for growers in this region. The question is now, what is a sustainable price."
The economic answer for juice-grape growers is not as simple as just switching to growing winegrapes, Martin says. Although hardier hybrid grape varieties have been developed that will withstand the region's often-harsh winters, making a change is a significant endeavor.
"Because grapes are a perennial plant, growers have a big investment in juice grapes," he says. "And although growing winegrapes has been more profitable of late, there have been cases where the market has been oversaturated with winegrapes. That happened last fall in the Finger Lakes region."