Apr 7, 2007
Grape Grower Optimistic About 2005

What Michigan Niagara and Concord juice grape growers need is a really good year. For many of them, it’s been four bad years running.

For grower Bill Schultz, near Mattawan: “Grapes used to be my biggest source of income, but not recently. We’ve had poor crops – some extremely poor – in three of the last four years.”

For Terry Holloway, the viticulturist for National Grape Cooperative working out of Lawton in southern Michigan, things looked good in mid-April.

“I feel optimistic. We had a light crop in 2004, so the capacity is there to carry a big crop. The wood quality this spring is excellent. We’re looking at bud break on April 18, and that’s a week early. A longer growing season means we could have good quality – if nothing else happens.”

But, he added, until that full moon passes the third week of May, nothing is certain.

“We had a poor set in 2001 when the spring turned cold after a good-looking bloom,” he said. “In 2002, we had frost. In 2003, we set a huge crop early but couldn’t ripen it because of a cool summer. In 2004, we had frost again. We need better weather.”

Schultz had a pretty good crop in 2003, when some other growers couldn’t get their crops ripe.

“I have really sandy soil, so I can’t get the crop load some others get. But I have less problem getting them ripe.”

Bill and Denise Schultz own Schultz’s Fruit Ridge Farms, 150 acres of apples, cherries and peaches and 150 acres of Concord grapes. They have two sons, William, 23, and Dan, 18, who want to farm, and the Schultzes are planting 18 more acres of Concords and 30 more of Montmorency tart cherries this spring.

Is that a sign he’s optimistic? Actually, Bill thinks he might have too much information to be optimistic. He is a member of two cooperatives, both of which tell their members pretty much the facts of life. It’s a competitive place, this global market.

This spring, Knouse Foods held grower-member meetings and described a bleak outlook for American processed apple products.

“Prices in the future won’t be what they were in the past,” Bill remembered them saying. “Knouse said it could lose 20 percent of its sales volume to apple imports from China.”

His grape buyer, Welch’s, owned by its 1,333 members in National Grape Cooperative, reported that costs were up more than the normal annual rise. Prices of energy, transportation, labor, health insurance and plastic containers all spiked up. Payments to growers for past grape deliveries, which are made over two years, were lower than normal in both December and May.

Being diversified does help. He has seven acres of wine grapes he sells to St. Julian Winery, and wine seems to be selling well, he said. He has peaches he sells u-pick, but this year’s crop doesn’t look promising.

Half his apples go for processing and the other half fresh. The farm’s market, under the direction of Denise, is doing well. He raises 13 varieties of apples, including Yellow Delicious, Honey Crisp, Jonagold, Cameo, Macoun, Gala, Fuji and Sun Crisp, all of which sell well at the market.

Schultz also has a 30-animal herd of American bison ¬– and that project hasn’t blossomed either. What was supposed to be a low-fat, natural meat in high demand has turned out to be hard to sell. A bison growers’ cooperative in North Dakota, of which he was once a member, hasn’t done well and is sitting on huge stocks of burger. Steaks and roasts sold better.

Bill likes fruit production. Apples are harder to grow than grapes, he said, and are plagued by many more insects and nasty diseases like fire blight. Both grapes and cherries are mechanized ¬– Bill bought his own grape harvester two years ago.

Holloway agrees with Schultz that the food industry is becoming ever more competitive. Still, the market for juices is getting stronger ¬– even if there are more fruits vying for a piece of the action. Juice consumption in the U.S. is “huge,” and the health benefits of both white and purple grape juice are being recognized.

He has confidence in his company. Welch’s products are based on two grape varieties, one of which – the Concord – its founder adopted when he started the company in 1869. The other variety, Niagara, was developed about the same time but was not used for making grape juice until much later. Welch’s is the world’s leading marketer of grape products based on Concord and Niagara varieties. Sales last year were $583 million.

National Grape Cooperative was founded more than 50 years ago. It’s composed of grape growers in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Ontario, Canada. National Grape is the sole owner of Welch’s. National Grape focuses on delivering quality grapes grown in about 49,000 acres of vineyards, while it is Welch’s role to convert the grapes into juices, jams and jellies and then market and sell those grapes. Having growers and processing facilities in different areas takes some of the production risk out of the business.

Holloway’s job is related to helping growers with production.

There are no major crises, he said. While the insecticides Penncap M and Guthion were canceled for use on grapes, Danitol and Capture are there to take their place in fighting grape berry moth, leafhoppers and Japanese beetles.

“We have an array of fungicides to use against black rot, powdery mildew, phomopsis and downy mildew.”
John Jasper, the central region (Michigan) manager for National Grape, will be happier to get into the actual production part of the annual cycle and past the uncertain stage of spring.

“We’ve got to come through with a crop this year,” he said. “That makes the growers really nervous.”

Jasper works with the 350 Michigan growers who grow for National Grape. Many of these growers’ 13,000 acres are Niagaras. He handles contracts, member relations and winter meetings before getting into the real work, especially around harvest.

“About 60 of our growers have harvesters,” he said. “They harvest their own grapes and custom harvest for the others. I help them with scheduling.”

In the fall, as the grapes mature and come up to their optimum sugar levels, growers schedule their deliveries and hope to have everything harvested before freezing affects the crop.

“When everything is in the tanks and accepted, that’s when you’re happy with the season,” he said.

National Grape also partners with Michigan State University in research, funding projects to reduce costs of pest control. National is also interested in adopting Integrated Pest Management techniques as a means of reducing pesticide usage overall.

“Grapes are becoming a mechanized crop all the way through,” he said. “They are all harvested by machine and pruning is being done by machine as well.”

One new project reflects events of 2003. That year, National Grape paid growers $600 an acre not to harvest 1,500 acres of low-sugar grapes in Michigan.

“We’re trying to develop a process by which we can estimate in mid-season how many grapes we can ripen,” he said. “If we have to, we can thin then.”

MSU viticulturist Stan Howell is working to develop a protocol that will allow the producer to assess crop status to ensure that grape quality and maturity targets can be met and to ensure that the vines’ production potential for next season is not compromised by an excess crop level.

75 Applewood Drive, Suite A
P.O. Box 128
Sparta, MI 49345
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