The rebirth of the grape juice
industry in Niagara
BY TIFFANY MAYER
Don Kouri’s Grimsby farm might be seen as a bit of an anachronism – not because of the century farmhouse, set far back from a road that snakes its way along the Niagara Escarpment. What makes Kouri’s Concord Mountain Farm seem like a throwback to another era are the rows of grapevines lining Kouri’s front yard on Thirty Road.
The arthritic-looking woody trunks and branches are a rare sight above the escarpment, where a few degrees’ difference in temperature makes the air up there inhospitable to most grapevines. It’s a sight made rarer still by circumstances five years ago that saw many of the grapes grown by Kouri and his neighbours, the juicy Concords and Niagaras – much hardier varieties than the wine grapes that grow below the escarpment – rendered virtually obsolete.
It was the summer of 2007 and juice-grape growers, including Kouri, were put on notice that the Cadbury-Schweppes factory in St. Catharines, the last remaining processing plant purchasing their bunches of Niagara-grown berries to make juice concentrate for Welch’s, would be shuttered. The closure was seen as the death knell for Niagara’s grape juice industry, but a handful of entrepreneurial farmers have since found their calling, pressing on by resurrecting and growing a thriving cottage grape juice industry in the shadows of a now-forsaken grape juice monolith.
“We sell out every year and we’re starting to get busier year after year,” relates Kouri, who farms with his wife Jane and bottles his own Concord grape juice to sell at the Grimsby Farmers’ Market and local farm-gate shops.
Although a few Niagara wineries and processors do press excess wine grapes into juice for sale after each harvest, it’s the sweet liquid made from Concord or Niagara grapes, known as juice grapes, that kept Niagara’s grape juice industry alive for more than sixty years.
The Kouris had no way of knowing whether there would be healthconscious, local-food-loving consumers willing to shell out $5 a litre for their Concord grape juice. Like other juice-grape growers at the time of the Cadbury-Schweppes plant closure, they were offered cash from the province to yank their vines as a way to temper the blow of a lost market and uncertain future.
Farmers also had the option of sending their purple harvests across the Niagara River to the National Grape Cooperative in Westfield, New York, which feeds Welch’s in the U.S. However, with a testy border that’s prone to hold-ups which could put the squeeze on timesensitive freight like freshly harvested grapes, many growers saw this as too risky a venture and begrudgingly bid adieu to their vineyards.
“We realized we had no sales for our grapes and we couldn’t afford to send them to the U.S. because they were paying even less,” Kouri recalls.
With the 2007 Cadbury-Schweppes shutdown, followed by the imminent 2008 closure of nearby CanGro Foods (packers of Aylmer, Del Monte and Ideal brands of canned fruits, the last such plant remaining in Canada) and the knowledge that fruit trees on their farm would also need to be uprooted because of foreseeen lack of demand, the Kouris had little choice but to take a gamble on staying in an industry for which the obituary had been all but written. The couple left four of their sixteen acres of Concord grapes intact and drafted a new business plan on the fly that included pressing, heat-packing and selling 3,000 litres of pure, unsweetened local grape juice themselves.
“If we pulled everything out, we’d have nothing to sell. We’d have been out of business,” Kouri relates. “Really, we wanted to keep the farm going. People will buy direct from farmers.”
When Cadbury-Schweppes announced their plans to close up shop in Niagara and concentrate on using cheaper foreign fruit in their products, eighty-six farms were growing 1,700 acres of juice grapes on contract for the plant. Today, only thirty-two juice-grape growers and 870 acres remain, with three-quarters of these shipping their harvests across the border to National Grape. Some sell their grapes to wineries for use in blended vintages. Others have gone the route of the Kouris, bottling their own private-label juice.
“Thank goodness for some of them who decided to [bottle their own], because it was a huge loss,” says Debbie Zimmerman, executive director of the Grape Growers of Ontario, which negotiated the prices growers received from Cadbury-Schweppes for their crops. “But the market could never continue to grow.”
The Grape Growers tried to find alternative markets for the fruit instead of lobbying for government financial assistance to pull vines, but those plans were shelved because of a lack of consumer support for a local product at that time. According to Zimmerman, “People were comfortable buying cheap imports. They’re happy to go to Wal-Mart, happy to not read labels. With the interest there is in local food now, maybe we would have had a choice if [the closure] happened today.”
After yanking one-half of his fifty acres of juice-grape vines, Jordan farmer David Honey started dividing what remained between National Grape and his own line of five to seven kinds of juice made from grapes with names that sound more like characters in a spy novel than fruit. Le Commandant, Brighton, Geisenheim 318 and Sovereign Coronation grapes, in addition to the usual suspects, the Concord and Niagara varieties, are pressed and sold to thirsty locavores at his Honey Valley Farms stand and at the Welland and Pelham farmers’ markets.
“When the government offered the pullout program, they ruined the best product southern Ontario had to offer, and one of the most nutritious,” Honey laments. “I just had so much, I couldn’t pull it all out. I wouldn’t have had any income at all if I hadn’t gone into business [making grape juice].”
The first harvest post Cadbury-Schweppes was Honey’s “trial-anderror year” of making grape juice. He started selling it in plastic jugs but the limited shelf life brought on by the containers caused the juice to ferment before customers could drink up. “I thought it would have been a niche market but then we would have been selling alcohol,” he laughs.
Like the Kouris, sales of his juice are brisk, becoming more of a musthave item with each season and each person who tastes the naturally sweet elixir. “People want things as close to natural as possible and my juice sales are going up every year,” Honey notes.
Last fall, Curtis and Kate Wiley, who grow juice and wine grapes in St. Catharines with Curtis’s parents, George and Hilda, and brother Ben, have a waiting list of people wanting a share of the 700 litres of juice they sell. The Wileys, who have pressed and sold their own juice since the 1970s, credit the use of Groupon, the discount online coupon giant, with bringing more thirsty customers to their farm and helping bring back some longtime local juice lovers who thought the Wileys’ juice operation had dried up years ago.
“People are becoming more conscious of buying local,” Kate explains. “The health benefits of grape juice are more publicized; the antioxidants. People don’t want to give [sugary drinks] to their kids. Seniors, it’s the same thing. They don’t want the concentrates and the high sugar. People are more health conscious.”
The family, who didn’t have a contract with Cadbury-Schweppes when the plant closed, are hopeful the resurging interest in local grape juice means the years when they’ve had to dump hundreds of litres of juice that they couldn’t sell will be fewer and farther between. And, while he toys with the idea that expansion of his Concord grape acreage may one day be a real possibility, Curtis Wiley doesn’t see it growing by much.
“The problem is, they’ll always be small scale,” Curtis Wiley explains about makers of local grape juice. “Price is always going to be an issue and local juice will always be more expensive than going to the store [and buying the imports].”
As for Ontario juice makers banding together and perhaps starting their own co-op, none of the farmers interviewed was convinced it would work. “I’d be hesitant,” says Wiley. “It’s a good idea but I don’t want to lose my shirt. If you’re going to have a co-op, you’d have to have more than just farmers. Farmers are good at running farms but we’d need other business people.”
Still, there’s no denying that an industry once destined for Niagara agriculture’s history books is writing a new chapter, filled with plot lines of niche markets, the farmers who serve them, and redemption. “The juice has saved our farm here,” Kouri says. “Without it, across the front of the farm here, you’d just see grass.”
Concord Mountain Farm juice: (905) 563-1835
Available at: Lake Land
Meats, 1226 St. Paul St. West, St. Catharines
Grimsby Farmers’ Market (May to October).
Available at: Honey Valley
Farms seasonal stand, 2131 King St.
, St. Catharines; Welland
Farmers’ Market (year-round); Pelham Farmers’ Market (May to October).
Tiffany Mayer has covered agriculture as both a reporter and freelance writer for the past ten years. She lives with her husband and four cats in Niagara Region, where she finds no shortage of food and farming inspiration.