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WESTFIELD -- The rains and gray skies of late September and October have prevented many Western New York Concord grapes from maturing and reaching normal sugar content, washing away the mid-summer prospects for an outstanding 1996 crop.

"Several thousand tons of grapes will not be harvested because their sugar content is below standards set by processors," said Tom Davenport, the viticulture specialist for the National Grape Cooperative, owners of the Welch Foods Co.

"The overall supply will be adequate, but some individual grape growers will be hurt," he added.

Earlier, the large crop and strong demand for juice and wine grape products made it seem likely that the state's 1996 grape crop value would jump well above the rich $39.8 million farmers received in 1994.

Davenport said that unusually good summer weather including adequate rainfall unexpectedly increased individual grape berry size by as much as 50 percent, thereby raising the size of the entire crop. The state Agricultural Statistics Service in late summer predicted a 195,000-ton New York grape crop, the highest in at least five years.

Indeed, the crop size was large and posted prices were good too, ranging from $180 to $240 a ton for juice grapes, depending on their sugar content. Some wine grapes were priced at $300 to $350 and a few for as much as a $1,000 a ton.

But many Concord and Niagara grapes failed to achieve the minimum sugar content processors require for purchase. "We had one test acre that produced an estimated 19 tons of grapes," said Westfield grower Dawn Betts, but the sugar content did not measure up.

A good average yield is from six to eight tons per acre, according to Barry Shaffer, a Cooperative Extension Service grape business specialist.

All processors lowered their sugar content requirement to accommodate the gray turn in the weather.

On the Brix scale for sugar content, levels of 15 and 16 are considered normal or good. National Grape lowered its standard to 14.3 while Cliffstar, Mogen David and Growers Co-op dropped theirs to the 13.6 and 13.7 levels.

Well over half the anticipated grape crop has been harvested and delivered, but deliveries for the remainder are uncertain. "We didn't even harvest on Thursday," said Mrs. Betts, who with her husband, Bob Betts, this year expected to harvest grapes from 97 acres.

Bob Betts, 39, a third generation grape grower, and Dawn, 30, are regarded as resourceful young farmers. "We just added 34 acres this year because we need more income for our growing family," he said. They have two children, Thom, 5, and Ashley, 4.

Betts hires himself out during the harvest season and normally returns home in late afternoon to harvest his own grapes.

"Last year, we bought our own harvester, a used one," Mrs. Betts said. "I am usually home until the afternoon when we harvest. But I drive our grapes to the Welch plant in Westfield at night. The earliest I have returned home is 12:30 a.m., but I have been as late as 7 a.m.

"We are very worried about being able to harvest all our grapes this year," she added. "We are hoping that maybe we can blend grapes with low sugar content with those of higher sugar content."

The vines whose leaves are gone have no chance of increasing the sugar content of their fruit and the prospect for many vines whose leaves have turned from green to light brown are not much brighter.

Davenport said that National Grape Cooperative must balance the needs of its farmer owners with the imperatives of providing grapes that will enable Welch Foods, its wholly owned processor and marketer, to present high-quality products to consumers.

The glut of sugar-short grapes poses another problem for the growers and government alike. A decade ago, to protect growers, the state adopted a rigid grape-pricing law that requires processors to announce their pricing schedule before the harvest begins. Under that current law, it's an offense to sell grapes for less than posted prices, theoretically preventing growers from realizing any returns from their immature grapes.

The problem has been brought to the attention of state Agriculture Commissioner Donald Davidsen by State Sen. Jess Present, R-Jamestown, and Assemblyman William Parment, D-North Harmony, chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee. While Davidsen said he lacks the authority to disregard the law to help growers, Davenport believes that a way out of the dilemma could be found through amending the law to allow a joint grower-processor committee to recommend pricing changes when conditions warrant.

Most of the state's juice grapes are grown on the 50,000 acres between Erie County, Pa., and Niagara County. Some wine grapes are grown in the region, but the Finger Lakes and areas in the eastern part of the state grow most of the state's wine grapes.

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