Rhythm of the Harvest

By Sara Herrmann, August 2010

Each year the local grape harvest has its own unique story to tell. There are bumper crops when warm springs usher in summers full of sunshine, giving the fruit a chance to ripen beautifully on the vine. There are other years when early frosts kill off countless acres and cool, rainy summers lead to lower yields. Such is the yearly ebb and flow, generation after generation, on family grape farms in the Westfield area.

Since 1868, Nixon Bros. Farms has rolled with the seasons, tied innumerable vines and picked tons upon tons of fruit. It is a rhythm that is second nature to Joanne Nixon, but the harvest seems to come up quickly every year nonetheless. “You go along, all the while knowing it’s coming,” she says. “Then all the sudden it’s here.”

Nixon Bros. now harvests 95 acres of grapes on its farm on Rt. 20, mostly Concords, with seven acres of Catawba and four acres of Niagara. While it’s difficult to be sure, Joanne Nixon suspects that there are vines that date back generations to the family’s first harvest. The farm lost 25 acres in an early April frost this year. There are other farmers, according to Nixon, who lost much more.

A lot has changed in grape farming in Nixon’s lifetime, the most significant of these changes being the introduction of the mechanical grape harvester about 40 years ago. “It allowed us to pick in the rain and at night, really any time,” says Nixon. Before the harvester came on the scene, grapes were picked by hand and rainy weather could hold up the harvest. “The yields were very different back then,” she says.

Evolving methods, new markets and increased yields have altered the economic landscape for grape farmers as well. “It used to be possible for a husband and wife to support themselves financially with about 15 acres of grapes,” says Nixon. Now, she says, it would take about 70 acres. “It’s definitely not an occupation that’s going to make you a lot of money,” she says. “But it really is a wonderful life.”

Part of what makes it so wonderful is the steadfast camaraderie between other grape farmers in the area. “It’s not competitive at all,” says Nixon. “Well, perhaps self-competitive. We all want to do better than we did last year, of course.” Nixon Bros. saw the depth of that camaraderie firsthand a few years back when they lost a barn, along with forty-six grape bins, in a fire. Other farmers in the area lent their support, their encouragement, and their grape bins so the picking could continue. “There’s such a great deal of cooperation and respect,” notes Nixon. “It’s a lovely feeling.”

For Nixon, that cooperation and respect starts at home. She credits George Abbey, who has worked at Nixon Bros. for 45 years, and Henry Smith, who has been with the farm for about 20 years, with the farm’s continued success. Nixon’s daughter Nancy is tractor driver during the picking season as well. Nixon says it’s a team that has worked well together for years. “I really, literally, could not do it without them.”

As the harvest gets underway, regardless of the yield, the amount of work and area to cover is the same. And the grapes, as always, must be delivered to the factory less than 8 hours after picking. Those time constraints lead to some late night and very early morning picking. “It’s really beautiful, in its own way,” says Nixon, looking out over the vineyards. “When you pick at night, the harvester looks kind of like an ocean liner out there.”