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Exchange-Welch Foods

Grapes, intended for nearby Welch Foods Inc., are harvested by Szklenski Bros. staff in Harborcreek Township, Pa.

North East, Pa. | Jim Szklenski on harvesting grapes: I like doing it. I always have."

Left to their own devices, grapes will turn to vinegar.

Add a few important steps and you have wine. Resourceful humans puzzled that out more than 6,000 years ago.

The real challenge, it turns out, is finding a way to preserve the taste of fresh grape juice.

It wasn't until 1869 — 150 years ago — that New Jersey dentist Thomas Welch picked 40 pounds of Concord grapes from outside his house and cooked, squeezed and bottled them, creating 12 quarts of the world's first shelf-stable fruit juice.

That grape juice, used for communion at a local Methodist church, helped launch an industry and gave birth to what's now Welch Foods Inc. The Concord, Massachusetts-based company is owned by National Grape Cooperative, made up of about 770 grape growers, including about 310 in the Lake Erie grape belt.

A family tradition

As an on-again, off-again drizzle turned their vineyard greasy with mud, two of those owners, Martin and Albert Szklenski, of Harborcreek Township, were harvesting grapes in their uncle's vineyard in North East Township on Tuesday morning.

As usual, their father, 72-year-old Jim Szklenski, was at the wheel of the yellow harvester. By late morning, he had picked five tractor-trailer loads of grapes, working with his sons who were shuttling 2-ton loads of grapes to a truck waiting nearby.

Martin, 40, and Albert, 42, bought the family farm this past summer, but their father isn't ready to give up his role.

"It's my 51st year doing the harvesting," he said. "I like doing it. I always have. You work all year long and you just watch the belt fill up with grapes. It's tremendous. The quicker they fill up, the happier you are."

The good news for the Szklenskis is that the trucks seemed to fill up pretty quickly this year. With 475 acres of their own to harvest - and a few more that they harvest for other people - they rank among the largest of the cooperative's member-growers.

The number of growers is down from about 1,500 as growers have consolidated, forming larger operations, said Mark Amidon, who coordinates member relations for the National Grape Cooperative.

Even after the consolidation, many are part-time growers with an average of 45 acres, Amidon said.

Even with more than 10 times that amount, Albert Szklenski said he and his brother remain a family farm with no employees.

"Me and Martin work from before sunup to past sundown," he said. "And we're going to have to get bigger."

For a month or more each fall, the Welch's plant in North East, the largest of four Welch plants in the nation, processes grapes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Amidon said growers throughout the region are assigned to times and dates to ensure the grapes arrive at the plant at all hours.

For those few weeks, the plant is a beast that must be fed.

"During harvest, my wife is a single mother for a month," Martin Szklenski said.

Neither of the brothers is complaining. Growing grapes on a farm where they've been grown since 1906 is what they want to do.

"I work with my brother and my dad. Not many people get to do that," Albert Szklenski said.

The job of making Welch's grape juice starts with the Szklenskis and more than 300 other growers in the Lake Erie grape belt, as well as growers in a small handful of other states. But the job doesn't end there.

Behind the factory gates

On Tuesday, grapes from the Szklenski vineyard made a 10-minute ride by truck to the Welch plant, where they were inspected and tested for sugar content before joining a line of other trucks waiting to be unloaded.

Trucks are unloaded one of two ways, said Keith Naughton, supply chain manager for juice management. Some are unloaded using a forklift by dumping one one-ton crate at a time into a large hopper. A growing number of farmers dump their grapes from large hoppers that hold 8 tons to 12 tons, he said.

The grapes are stemmed and pumped behind the closed doors of the sprawling Welch's plant, part of which was built more than 100 years ago.

Reporters from Erie Times-News toured the North East plant recently, but no cameras were allowed.

The juice is made in an environment a long way removed from Thomas Welch's New Jersey Kitchen.

The plant is at once loud and industrial, and kitchen-counter clean.

Visitors and employees alike, who wear hair nets and beard nets, are required to scrub in before stepping into certain areas.

But this is also a factory, where 340 employees - more during the busy harvest season - bottle a wide range of juices, jams, and jellies at all hours of the day and night.

Inside the building is a dizzying network of stainless pipes and tanks. Not far from one machine that removes the skins and seeds from the grapes is another giant filter that quickly turns white filter paper into a dazzling purple.

Workers wear ear plugs to silence the whir of machinery, the clank of the bottling line.

A key step in the process, one that Welch employed 150 years ago, is when the pressed and filtered juice is Pasteurized to kill any bacteria.

All of this happens quickly and it happens in a never-ending cycle each fall.

In just about 90 minutes, grapes turn into finished grape juice, Naughton said.

Much of it won't be bottled until it's needed. The Welch's plant in North East has enough tanks to hold 18 million gallons of juice in cold storage. That's enough juice to serve up 288 million single-serve 8-ounce portions.

The North East plant processes far more than just the Niagara and Concord grapes harvested from local farms.

This past week, cases of single-serve containers of apple juice were flying off one bottling line, while large, squeezable bottles of grape jelly were being filled on another line as plant manager Dave Piontkowski led visitors through the sprawling plant.

That plant, which sits at the southern edge of the borough, has played a significant role in the community, where it ranks as the largest employer.

"Welch's from the dawn has been a critical and important part of North East. The fabric of North East is well woven with threads from Welch's," said Patrick Gehrlein, borough manager. "They have always been a very strong partner of the entire region and have sponsored many events."

Most businesses suffer from the highs and lows of business cycles, he said. But through everything, Welch's has remained a steady employer, Gehrlein said.

"I hope they are always able to ride the wave and flourish," he said. "They always have a home in North East."

Albert Szklenski, who expects to be harvesting for a few more days, hopes that's the case. And he hopes that he and his brother can continue growing grapes for the company - a company he calls partly his own - for years to come.

He knows that he's lucky.

"If Martin and I weren't born into this family, we could never have done this," he said.

Even so, there's work to be done, and it won't be easy.

But "this is where I want to be," Albert Szklenski said.

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Entertainment Editor/Features Reporter

Eloise is A&E Editor and a food, entertainment and features writer for The Times, subjects she has covered for over two decades in and around the Region. She was the youngest of eight in a Chicago household filled with fantastic cooks and artists.