Take a drive along Routes 5 or 20 in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania in September and your nose will clearly communicate to you the abundance—and importance—of the grape-farming industry in Erie County. The sweet smell of ripening grapes hangs in the air along the 60-mile Lake Erie Concord grape belt, which stretches from Erie County, Pennsylvania, to Chautauqua County, New York.
At harvest, an estimated 800 growers pick 30,000-plus acres of Concord grapes—the dark purple, slip-skin fruits used in jams, jellies, and fruit juice. The total economic impact of the region’s grape industry is about $340 million a year, according to The Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association.
So if an invasive fruit fly shows up or a strange leaf fungus appears on a vineyard’s grape leaves, it could be economically catastrophic, not only for individual farmers but for the entire region.
That’s why, for more than sixty-five years, Penn State University has been helping growers through the College of Agricultural Science’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center (LERGREC). The center, located in a cozy white Cape Cod turned laboratory, is nestled on 40 acres of land in North East.
Experts in the house (and vineyards)
There are currently two full-time University researchers at the LERGREC—plant pathologist Bryan Hed, who has been at the center for eighteen years, and entomologist Jody Timer, who has been there for fourteen years. Each year, they work on ten to twenty projects, most of which evaluate methods of vineyard disease and insect control.
Until recently, the center was run by a University Park entomologist. But this summer, Dr. Mike Campbell, professor of biology at Penn State Behrend, was appointed director of the LERGREC. He’s splitting his time between the center and his teaching and research work at Behrend.
It’s a great fit for Campbell, a botanist whose research interests lie in plants such as grapes that experience dormancy. He said he is excited about the possibilities the center provides for collaborative projects with area farmers and applied research opportunities for Behrend students and faculty members.
Working with grape growers is not only good business, but helps to fulfill a land-grant mission.
University committed to serving the region
“As part of Penn State, our mission encompasses advancement of the region on a variety of fronts,” said Dr. Ivor Knight, associate dean for research and graduate studies. “We not only educate students, but we work to promote the welfare of our region’s people, businesses, and communities through research and outreach.”
Grape growers regularly turn to the LERGREC for help in identifying, treating, and preventing diseases and pests. They also use the center to test new varieties or growing strategies.
“It’s a pretty big risk for a farmer to clear six acres of Concords to try a new wine grape that may or may not work well in this area,” Campbell said. “Sometimes they will ask the center to experiment with the new grape first.”
In fact, staff at the center and faculty members at the University just completed an eight-year trial in which they examined the growth, production, and fruit quality of eighteen varieties of grapes.
“It was part of a multistate effort to provide valuable information about varieties that would be suitable for wine grape production in the Lake Erie region,” Hed said.
The Pennsylvania portion of the project was headed by Dr. Michela Centinari and Dr. Rob Crassweller from the College of Agricultural Science.
A working farm
The LERGREC doesn’t just study grapes; the center also grows them.
“We have twenty-three acres of Concords that are sold to Welch’s in North East,” Campbell said. “The farm work is outsourced to local growers and the profits are used as part of the center’s operating budget.”
In addition to Concords, the center grows several acres of wine grapes, including Niagara, Vignoles, Chambourcin, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Vidal, and Chancellor. Wine grapes, as evidenced by all the wineries that have popped up along the New York-Pennsylvania grape belt, represent a growing market. The center also is evaluating nine varieties of table grapes that are expected to produce their first crop next fall.
The only non-grape crops grown at the LERGREC are hardy kiwi and haskaps, which are planted to see how these relatively novel fruit crops fare in Erie’s climate.
“We’re always looking for other potential crops that would thrive here,” Campbell said. “The southeastern shore of Lake Erie in western New York and northeastern Pennsylvania is a unique microclimate.”
All about the lake
Vineyards thrive when they have the correct mix of warmth and cold, sunshine and rain.
Erie’s long, hot summers are ideal for growing grapes, and the lake moderates the climate year-round. Extreme cold can kill or damage grapevines, but Lake Erie keeps the lakeshore region 5 to 15 degrees warmer, thereby extending the harvesting season in fall, safeguarding delicate buds in spring, and protecting the vines from bitter cold in the winter.
“The same ‘lake effect’ that dumps snow on Behrend keeps the land closer to the water warmer,” Campbell said. “Lake effect is a good thing for grape farmers in our region.”