- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

NORTH EAST, Pa. (AP) - The Concord grape harvest is under way, but North East Township farmer Chester Sceiford isn’t expecting big things.

After bumper crops in 2013 and 2014, the 71-year-old fruit grower said his harvest will be average or a bit below average.

But ho-hum yields aren’t the only challenge facing Sceiford and other local growers.

The problem is abundance.

There’s too much grape juice in storage and not enough demand for more.

Even as National Grape Cooperative, owner of Welch Foods Inc., awaits the arrival of truckloads of grapes each day at its plant in North East, the industry is struggling with the question of what to do with it all.

The source of some of the problem is our changing perception of what’s healthy.

“With all the other beverages out there - fruit juices, water beverages, power drinks - there is a lot of competition,” said Andy Muza, an educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension.

“The other thing affecting them is a lot of things coming out in the media that you don’t want your kids to be drinking fruit juice because of the sugar and the calories. They are not looking at Concord juice as being healthy for you despite all the other benefits.”

No one can say for sure if tastes are changing or if consumers are worried about sugar. But a 2015 report by the Produce for Better Health Foundation confirms that overall juice consumption has declined 14 percent over the past five years.

PERFECT STORM

Experience tells Sceiford - who expects to harvest about 6 tons to the acre, instead of the 9 or 10 tons he had in 2014 - that a big crop usually means lower prices.

This year, a combination of surplus juice, lower demand and other factors have produced the same result.

Most growers believe the cost to produce a ton of grapes is about $250. But the price this year on the open market is about $180, Muza said.

“We are seeing a perfect storm of declining agricultural commodity prices, slumping demand for juices and the closing of local ConAgra processing facilities,” Kevin Martin, an Extension educator in business management for the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program at Cornell University, wrote in a recent report.

The results, he said, are lower prices and uncertain demand.

Sceiford counts himself as fortunate. His membership in the National Grape Cooperative means he has a guaranteed buyer for whatever his 40 acres of vineyards produce. Some growers aren’t so lucky.

“Some of the processors have cut back because they don’t need as much Concord grape juice,” Muza said. “Some of them have cut tonnage contracts by 50 percent for a second year in a row.”

That’s left some growers without buyers for their grapes - or at least no buyers who can make their efforts profitable.

Sceiford, who explained he had to invest more money in chemical sprays than usual this summer, said the current cash price of $180 is near the break-even point.

“It will be nip and tuck in terms of making a profit,” he said.

Growers who don’t have a committed buyer could make far less, he said.

Martin said some have sold grapes on the speculative market for as little as $60 a ton.

“That’s nowhere near the cost of production,” he said. “It’s better than leaving them there (on the vine) but that’s all it’s better than.”

Some growers in Chautauqua County opted for an even less desirable alternative in 2014.

Growers there left an estimated 10,000 tons on the vine in 2014, according to a report in the Buffalo News.

As prices have ebbed and flowed over the years, there’s been talk that the region’s vineyards would disappear if higher prices aren’t sustained.

It hasn’t happened yet, largely because farmers have found ways to produce more grapes and to grow them at a lower cost, Muza said. But that might not always be the case.

At today’s prices, Martin said, there’s no money to invest in needed equipment or to make other improvements.

“It’s not sustainable over the long term,” he said.

From where Sceiford sits, the answer to the industry’s problems is simple.

“We need a lot more people to drink grape juice and eat jelly,” he said.

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Online: https://bit.ly/1VuFsJQ

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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