POMFRET - After you've been trimming grape vines for 30 years, Jim Joy told me, it becomes second nature.
I'd only been doing it for about 30 minutes, though, and I was ready to hand his pruners back to him and never set foot in a vineyard again.
''I'll bet this makes you realize you're glad you're a reporter,'' Jim said to me at one point, as we stood side-by-side in the cold trimming those vines - he doing it seemingly effortlessly, me quite tentatively and without a great deal of understanding of what I was doing, of which snips were correct and of which may have been dooming a vine to a slow and painful death.
Jim owns 70 acres of vineyards, stretching along Route 20 from the village of Brocton to downtown Fredonia. Recently, he gave me the chance to get just a small taste of the winter maintenance that must be done on every single vine to ensure that another bumper crop will arrive in the growing season to come.
Trust me, it was just a small taste. And trust me, that was good enough for me.
With no offense meant to anyone who works in the field, I'll stick to journalism. Hours and hours in grape vines, clipping and pruning, just isn't for me. Jim told me I did a good job in the 90 minutes or so I was out there, so I think I'll retire on top.
After a spring thaw overtook the area in mid-February, several inches of snow fell overnight on Jim Joy’s grape farm prior to our visit. It made for a picturesque environment as I?learned that vine pruning is something better left to the professionals. For more from this adventure, including videos, visit www.post-journal.com and click the ‘‘Lifestyles’’ tab.
P-J photos by Aimee Frederick
Jim told me that by following him, a seasoned veteran, through the vines, I?would learn the ropes quickly. I’m not sure how much I?learned, but he did tell me I?did a decent job, so I?decided to retire on top.
The vines that hadn’t been pre-pruned mechanically required much more attention than those that have been worked ahead of time. For me, however, they seemed to require far too much work.
P-J?photos by Aimee Frederick
There is a certain natural beauty that comes from the sight of a vineyard covered in freshly fallen snow. Concord and Niagara grapes have been growing in the Chautauqua region since the mid-1800s.
It's a thankless task, doing the work that it takes to ensure that delicious fruit products are on Americans' kitchen tables every day. We salute you, farmers - but I'll keep my hands on my keyboard.
SURVEYING THE EQUIPMENT
Before we made our way out into the vineyards immediately surrounding Jim's family farm on Farel Road in Pomfret, he showed us some equipment that has been developed in recent years that has revolutionized the industry.
Leading us to a storage building, Jim showed us a massive mechanical grape harvester by Korvan that he purchased last year. Using this machine, Jim said, approximately 30 tons of grapes can be harvested in an hour. By hand, he said, it would take an entire day to harvest one ton of grapes - which in and of itself sounds pretty impressive to me.
I climbed up the ladders to get into the expansive cab of the machine and sat in the plush seat in awe. I felt like a fighter pilot, looking down from more than 10 feet up in the air with a joystick control covered in buttons in my right hand. Take into account the air conditioning, the radio, the tilt steering, the seating for two - it was far nicer and much more comfortable than the car we'd driven up from Jamestown in.
Jim explained to me that the harvester works by driving through the rows and literally shaking the grapes from the vines. While it sounds violent - and considering the hugeness of the machine, it seems violent - it actually does it quite gently and with minimal damage to the crop, he said. The grapes fall from the vines and into a conveyor belt system, which pulls them into a chamber that separates waste - leaves, sticks and the like - and blows it out the back of the machine. The grapes continue onward and are eventually sent on their way to a wagon, he said.
If we return to the farm in the fall, Jim said, we can take a ride on the harvester and then follow some grapes to the Welch's plant in Westfield to see them be processed. An interesting proposal - though I couldn't help but notice he didn't extend an offer to actually let me take control of the $240,000 machine.
We also took a look at a Lipco sprayer, which Jim told us is more environmentally friendly than those used in the past, as it is designed to collect any chemicals that are not applied properly to a vine. Those liquids are siphoned back into the sprayer to be reapplied farther down the line, rather than spilling out onto the ground or going out into the air.
Jim said that a greater amount of the fungicide and insecticide sprays used in modern grape farming are more ''green'' anyway, but this is just a further step toward being more responsible toward the environment.
One more piece of equipment that the Joy farm has recently begun utilizing is an advanced mechanical grape-pruning machine, one that Jim has been in the process of developing along with the Oxbo International Corporation, located near Batavia. The machine works to do the more tedious portion of the trimming process, Jim said, reducing the overall labor requirements of the task by more than half.
''I can pre-prune an acre per hour with the machine, followed by 10 to 12 hours of hand-pruning afterward to finalize the operation,'' he told me. ''The old way of hand-pruning takes around 30 manhours to complete a one-acre vineyard.''
Unfortunately, the mechanical pruner was not on the farm on the day we visited, as it was undergoing some adjustments with Oxbo. Just as with the harvester, though, I'm sure Jim wouldn't have wanted me asking to drive his fancy new machine anyway.
OUT WITH THE OLD ...
Jim is region manager of New York Area 1 of the National Grape Cooperative Association, headquartered in Westfield. The organization is composed of nearly 1,300 growers in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Washington and Ontario. They are the growers behind Welch's, the world's leading marketer of Concord- and Niagara-based grape products.
As Jim astutely pointed out as we trimmed vines during my visit, the most important thing I was learning during my time on his farm was that there is a great deal of effort involved in every single glass of grape juice and dollop of grape jelly people enjoy each day.
''There's a lot of work going into growing food, let me tell you,'' he said, adding that the effort isn't just limited to the grape industry. ''All tree and vine fruits need to be pruned - there's enough to keep agricultural employees busy around here.''
During the winter season, Jim said he has three seasonal employees who work full-time to maintain his vines. And in addition to pruning, he said, labor needs to be done to repair any posts that are broken or decayed, and the wire on which vines grow is also inspected to make sure it is holding up.
After setting me up with a tool belt and a couple pairs of pruners, Jim told me that the best way for me to learn would be to allow him to go through and do all the ''major work'' while I followed along and trimmed up the small stuff.
What I learned - or, at least, what I think I learned - as Jim thrashed his way through vines with his pruners is that much of last year's old and withered growth needed to be cut away in order to give younger, healthier growth a chance to flourish.
''It's almost like being a dentist,'' Jim said in response to my question of what he was doing as he happily hacked away. ''You know that when he's doing work on you, it's going to be all right. But you don't know what he's doing.''
He had that right. But as I followed him down the row, cleaning up what looked to me to be loose ends and trying to make the vines ''look pretty,'' Jim continued to explain to me that without this trimming, the grapes would not have room to properly grow.
''You have to get rid of the old and keep the new,'' he said. ''We want a lot of air exposure around it, so the sun can get through and get to the leaves.''
Getting rid of the old - which Jim said also has the potential to carry spores of disease that can harm new buds - is a time-consuming process, however. I began to grow weary of my task quite quickly, finding myself longing for the comfort and warmth of my desk and my computer screen. Jim said that's a common feeling out in the field.
''It's more than time-consuming - it's maddening,'' Jim said of the pruning process. ''In the olden days, someone who did 50 acres a year was a hero ... and if you did any more than that, nobody would believe you.''
Jim said that throughout his decades in the grape business, he knew there had to be a better way to tackle the tedious task. In recent years, he said, the industry has discovered that in the form of the pre-pruning machine.
Though it doesn't do all the work, he said, it does take a large percentage of the labor out. The machine cuts the lengths of the vines to a manageable size, and also breaks off a great number of the tiny ''curls'' that vines use to entangle themselves upon one another.
''Once I started trimming them with the machine, nobody wants to trim a vine that hasn't had the machine come through,'' Jim said. ''It's way too much work.''
The obvious question then was why we were torturing ourselves trimming vines that hadn't been pre-pruned. On that note, we turned tail and headed toward a vineyard nearby that had already been blessed with a visit by the time-saving trimmer.
AN ADMIRABLE WORK
As we marched through the fresh snow to get to the Niagara grape vines across the street, Jim told us that the land we were walking on has been in his family through three generations since 1909. His son, Andy, will be the fourth generation.
None of the vines are that old, he assured me, though grapes have been grown in the region since the mid-1800s.
When we arrived at a row of Jim's choosing, it was easy to see the difference already. The tangled mess that we had seen when we first arrived at the other vineyard was gone, replaced with a seemingly orderly arrangement. To my undertrained eye, it appeared no work at all needed to be done. I was ready to go home.
Instead, though, Jim said there was definitely still work to be done. Though the major labor had been completed for us, vines still needed to be trimmed up and separated, and tiny tendrils needed to be clipped away to allow for the vines to grow apart and create maximum room for growth.
We trimmed along for about a half an hour, chatting idly about the grape industry and about what it takes to be able to do this work day in and day out. The answer: a lot of patience.
Patience is something I don't come equipped with. Years in the lifestyle I've come to know and love have zapped me of it. In the three minutes it took me to type this paragraph, I refreshed my Facebook feed three times, checked my e-mail twice and considered checking my voice mail - only to remember that I just checked it 10 minutes earlier, and the phone hadn't rang since.
The mere thought of being in a field trimming grape vines all day for five, six or seven days a week makes me want to go crazy. Jim said that he can remember days packing his lunch at dawn, hitting the vineyards and staying out there all day until darkness fell. I asked him what it felt like to finally hit the end of a vineyard, realizing that the chore of pruning is done.
He described it as elation.
''You just want to throw these pruners as far as you can,'' he joked.
I felt like that already, and we'd only done a grand total of about 50 feet of vines. There were unpruned rows stretching as far as I could see, and these were just the vineyards surrounding the Joys' farm - we weren't even considering the ones he owns elsewhere.
We paused for a moment and Jim asked if we'd done enough for our article. Expectantly, I turned to my cameraperson Aimee and asked if she thought she had enough shots. To my great relief, she said she believed she did.
I'd enjoyed my time in the field talking with Jim and drawing from his vast knowledge about grapes, don't get me wrong. It was that terrifying thought of endlessly trimming vines that had me concerned that we were going to need to stay any longer.
As we walked back to the barn - where I would deposit my tool belt and pruners, never to pick them up again - I couldn't help but think about the people who make their living doing this labor on a day-in, day-out basis. It's quite admirable that they are hard-working and dedicated enough to do this job. Without them and their tireless efforts, lazy people such as myself wouldn't be able to enjoy the delicious products they help to grow.
That being said, I'm quite content sitting on my butt all day staring at a computer screen - even if there's nothing to be admired about that. But the next time I enjoy grape juice, grape jelly, wine or even just a big old bowl of grapes ... well, I know I'm going to savor it just a little bit more.