Farmer Q&A: Concord Grapes
From the Farmer's Tractor
March 24, 2013
How did you get into farming?
Well, to be honest, Concord grape farming is in my genes. My family has been in the business for five generations – I learned directly from my grandfather and father. A lot of my childhood memories take place on the farm. As soon as I was old enough to sit on the tractor, I was working hand in hand with my dad learning the ropes of the harvest and how to correctly prune a vine. My family has been a family-farmer owner of Welch’s for the last three generations, and even my daughters have been featured in Welch’s advertisements. In 1999, after college and a four year post as a mechanical engineer, I returned to the family farm to take on a new career and dedicate my life to the grape industry which has always been my passion really. My dad and I are still partners in the farms we operate today.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Our farming practices at Militello Farms have changed over the years as we constantly look for ways to innovate, ensuring the highest quality produce. My farming approach has changed over the last few years with an increased attention to soil and plant testing for fertilizer requirements. Fertilizer has become extremely expensive and we don’t apply unless it is needed. We find that consistent testing and measuring of the grapes allows us to keep an eye on the vines’ progress where we can make changes as needed thus eliminating the need for fertilizer or other interventions unless absolutely necessary. Regular testing, especially close to the harvest time, is critical for us as we need to know exactly when the grapes are ready to be picked and move quickly once that window presents itself. It changes every year based on weather conditions during the growing season, but traditionally our harvest season is only a few short weeks each fall, and the Concord grapes, once collected, are delivered to Welch’s and pressed into juice within eight hours of harvesting to help capture the ripe flavor.
One other big trend over the last ten years has been a move toward vineyard mechanization specifically in pruning vines. This allows us to maintain the vines on a regular basis without being tied to a specific number of team members. We find this process to be beneficial from a farm management perspective as well as best for the crops. Simply put, vineyard mechanization means we use large machines to pick grapes – they can move up and down a row quickly and gently shake the grapes loose for harvest. Currently, most of these mechanical grape harvesters have been fitted with a MOG (Matter Other than Grape) remover. This eliminates the bin attendant, which traditionally removed leaves, stems, and other plant matter from the grapes. This “MOG remover” not only saves on labor costs but also eliminates a potentially dangerous job.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
Farming will continue to innovate and evolve this year and over the next five years. I predict that the use of multi-row equipment will become commonplace. Efficiency through machines is the wave of the future as these large-scale tools give us the ability to farm more acres with the same amount or fewer workers while still providing safe handling and detailed attention to the crops ensuring high quality grapes. Even with machines helping to make the tedious farm work more efficient, nothing will replace the honed skill a farmer brings to his crops. I said we do a lot of testing at harvest time to make sure our grapes are at their highest quality, but an experienced Concord grower can almost walk out the back door and make that call. When the Concord grapes are ready to be harvested, an intense, rich aroma fills the air – it’s like the grapes are telling us they are ready to be picked.
In addition to a keen nose and mechanical innovation in the field, technology will play a larger role in the next few years. The use of total farm management software systems, just as SAP may be used in a manufacturing environment, will give us a controlled database of information from which farming decisions can be made for each crop. This software will collect and organize data on cultural practices, yields, accounting, etc., to help the farmer make fiscally sound decisions on large farming operations.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
Weather is one of our biggest allies and enemies. Just like wine, the taste of a Concord grape is a result of where the grapes are grown. Our vineyards are in unique microclimates, usually near large bodies of water, which result in the best-tasting Concord grapes and that distinctive taste of Welch’s. We need the specific weather patterns these microclimates present in order to grow the grapes. When Mother Nature throws us curve balls, like this past year with the drastic changes in temperatures, it impacts the crops and makes our job as farmers even tougher to manage current crops as well as predict the next year’s crop size. The weather is always a great challenge for farmers because it is never average. It seems as though the weather is constantly changing, and the successful farmers are the ones that can remain agile and deal with the change.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
As a family-farmer owner of Welch’s, I market my grapes to retailers through the brand of Welch’s. The grower owners rely on Welch’s to deliver what our consumers are asking for as far as taste and quality in the grape products we provide. Welch’s sets certain standards that our grapes must meet in order to be used for the products. For Concord grapes, it is unique in that all of these grapes used over the course of a year at Welch’s are harvested within those few short weeks each fall – they do not source Concord grapes from anywhere else. The supply of Concord grapes is based on the growing season and harvest for that year, and as I mentioned before, the changes in weather impact the grape output from year to year. It is a constant struggle to ensure that we can grow enough superior grapes to meet Welch’s exacting standards and allow them to always produce the consistent, high quality juice consumers expect.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
On a yearly basis we review our farming operation using the NYS Cornell Cooperative extension sustainability workbook. This process helps me identify areas in my operation that need to be improved to make my farm a more sustainable operation for the environment and future generations of my family. We also work with our local soil and water conservation department to plan and maintain our farms’ drainage systems to limit runoff. It is important that we take these steps as I plan for our farms to continue to be in our family for many more decades and we must do things right today to be in a good position for tomorrow.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
I sell fresh picked strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries at our roadside stand and at our local farmers market. I market these products under our 50-year-old family brand “The Berry Bush.”
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
I love meeting and interacting with consumers. I find it a growing trend that consumers are very interested to know where their food is grown and who grew it. Frequently at the farmers market many of my customers ask, “Did you grow this?” and will not buy the berries unless they are talking to the guy that actually grew the produce they are looking at. I also have contact with people at the grocery store looking at my Concord grape products marketed by Welch’s. I love to ask them questions about their interest in Welch’s. They are always excited to learn that I’m one of the 1,000 grower owners of the company and that some of the grapes in the bottle of juice that they are buying could be off my farm. For years, it has been a consistent group of family-farmer owners that grow all of the Concord grapes for the Welch’s products consumers get on store shelves nationwide. Concord grapes are a finicky, regional fruit that not many families would be able to enjoy unless they lived in an area where they are grown – Welch’s gives families across the country the opportunity to experience the bold taste of Concord grapes with healthy 100% juice that tastes straight from the vine.