Yakima Valley grape growers get good news

By:  Tri-City Herald – Kristi Pihl
Source: Tri-City Herald

Yakima Valley concord juice grape growers got welcome news Monday with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's announcement that it would buy $11.5 million worth of Concord grape juice to stabilize prices.

While Washington Concord grape farmers had an average year, the inventory of Concord juice swelled with large harvests in Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.

Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in August to consider reducing the Concord juice inventory early this year.

Similar buys of excess grape juice helped stabilize the market in 2006 and 2007, according to the senators.

Taking some of the excess off the market should have helped depressed prices, which have been lower than the cost of production, said Grandview farmer Dick Boushey, who serves on the board of National Grape, the farmers' cooperative that owns Welch's.

"It will strengthen the price for next year," he said.

The grape juice will be used for domestic nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, although exactly which programs will receive juice is not determined yet.

Generally, the juice is used for the Women, Infants and Children program or in schools, said Tim Grow, a Grandview farmer who grows Niagara and Concord juice grapes, who is on the board of directors for Welch Foods and National Grape.

Welch's participates in the Women, Infants and Children program, he said.

Companies need enough inventory to supply customers until the 2014 crop is processed, starting in January or February 2015, Boushey said.

But Welch's was going to have to enter the market with a big inventory nationwide. "It was cutting into our returns because of how to move such a large crop," Boushey said.

Grow said the industry as a whole will benefit from the USDA program.

Washington farmers finished harvesting about 21,000 acres of Concords and another 1,600 acres of Niagara juice grapes around mid-October. Last year's harvest, at an estimated 164,000 tons, is down from the previous year, and slightly below the 10-year average of just over 193,000 tons.

"Washington's fruit farmers have made the Yakima Valley world famous for grapes, juices and wines," Murray said in a statement.

She added that the USDA purchase of excess juice "will ensure these local farmers and agriculture workers won't be harmed by dangerous price fluctuations beyond their control."

Cantwell said in a statement that farmers brought the issue to the senators' attention.

"We are glad it has reached a fair conclusion that keeps unstable prices from hurting a critical Washington agricultural market," she said.

USDA will open up bidding to buy the juice from U.S. companies soon, according to a news release.

Grape juice can get a bad rap because of the sugar content, but it's a good source of fruit for children, Grow said.

Welch's 100 percent grape juice, which it typically offers for USDA bids, includes no added sugar. Each 8-ounce cup of grape juice has two servings of fruit, he said.

Farmers are not expecting a similar situation with the 2014 harvest.

The eastern U.S. had good growing conditions last year with a warm spring, Boushey said. And the previous year's crop had been light, so vines were especially fruitful.

But this year, bad weather in the eastern U.S. has likely damaged buds, leading to a smaller crop, Boushey said. In contrast, weather in Eastern Washington has been good for grape vines.