Technology Transfer for the Burgeoning Midwest Grape Industry

Final Report for ENC08-103

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2008: $68,828.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Paul Read
University of Nebraska
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Project Information


Most Midwest states rank high in total agricultural farm-gate value, but this production is predominately based on traditional commodity crops and livestock. As a result, Extension professionals have been well-grounded in those subjects, but have not gained knowledge or experience in specialty crops such as grapes and other fruit crops. However, the burgeoning grape and wine industry in the Midwest has created pressure on Extension professionals to provide science-based information to a demanding new audience. This project was therefore designed to bring the viticulture knowledge base of Extension professionals up-to-date, i.e., to “Educate the Educators” so that they may more effectively meet the needs of this new audience. Traditionally educated Extension professionals have been taught through this project to be better able to meet the needs of the rapidly developing Midwest grape and wine industry. Participants in this project have become more knowledgeable about viticulture, enology and the grape industry, including relevant economic impacts and logistics of vineyard and winery start-up. Their comments indicate that they are becoming more effective as they strive to assist individual entrepreneurs pursuing establishment of vineyards and wineries. They also have accumulated valuable resource materials that will enhance their ability to serve this rapidly growing clientele. This means that these extension professionals have made strides toward becoming a locally available resource for people wishing to learn more about the advantages and challenges facing them as they consider growing grapes and/or starting a winery. Details of legal and logistic challenges have been brought to their attention, but more education on these subjects is necessary. Furthermore, it will be important to engage more of the traditionally educated educators in future educational opportunities related to viticulture and enology. For those who participated in this project’s workshops, it is clear that they are now in a position to provide better service to people pursuing opportunities in the emerging Midwest grape and wine industry.

Project Objectives:

1. To conduct regional in-service workshops to educate Extension professionals (Extension Educators, Extension Assistants) about the fundamental viticulture information required to respond to questions presented by the developing grape and wine industries in their assigned areas. Hands-on vineyard opportunities will assure that participants will gain familiarity with the characteristics of the grapevine.
2. Because poor site selection is one of the most common causes of vineyard failure, to involve Extension professionals in evaluating various site characteristics in order to establish commercial vineyards.
3. To provide Extension professionals with resources critical to their ongoing viticulture education (books, bulletins, websites, other electronic media).
4. To encourage Extension professionals to communicate effectively with the public about the economic impact of vineyards and wineries on the local economies, especially those in rural communities.
5. To involve Extension professionals in development of communication tools appropriate for ready use in their future viticulture educational programs.

Education & Outreach Initiatives


Workshops were attended by Extension professionals from several Midwest states, including IA, KS, MO, NE, ND and SD. Initial participation by Extension professionals from KS was slight, but as noted in the 2011 Annual Report, involvement was rejuvenated toward the end of the program. Furthermore, although participation by Extension professionals from ND was more or less continuous, increased participation was evidenced in the 2011 part of the project. All participants gained insights into the challenges and opportunities inherent in the establishment of vineyards, wineries and other grape-related industries (e.g., gourmet vinegars, other value-added products). Historical background of the Midwest grape and winery industry was part of the educational process, including recognition that native grapes (Vitis riparia, the River Grape) are found throughout the Midwest and that they have played a pivotal role in new grape cultivar (“variety”) development. These new cultivars are a major factor in the success of the developing industry in the Midwest, so this information formed a firm foundation for subsequent studies and discussions.

Tapping the knowledge of both University professionals and successful grape growers and winery owners enabled the participants to gain in-depth knowledge conducive to an enhanced advisory role. The final Advanced Viticulture and Enology workshop in 2011 incorporated an exploration of the challenges involved in starting a winery, along with information on creation of new cultivars (breeding). The latter related the challenges and needs of grape characteristics necessary for success when growing grapes under the stressful conditions inherent in the Midwest, which highlighted the goals of a grape breeding program. Consultant Ed Swanson (Cuthills Vineyards, Nebraska’s first Post-Prohibition winery) was featured at this workshop and his insights and experiences were stated to be of great value by the Extension professionals in attendance.

Outcomes and impacts:

Extension professionals who participated in the programs provided by this SARE grant have indicated that they consider themselves better equipped to respond to questions from their clientele regarding vineyard and winery start-ups, inquiries from current vineyard and winery owners and questions from the public at large regarding the growing importance of this potentially sustainable industry. They have been especially enthusiastic about the resource materials provided, indicating that they feel an increased level of confidence when trying to find answers to clientele questions. All participants indicated that as a result of this SARE sponsored program they are “more knowledgeable about the grape and wine industry in the Midwest”, and that they are now “better able to assist clientele with grape and wine-related questions”.

Other comments from their evaluations of this program included:
“Thank you for the hands-on demonstration, valuable information, networking and presentations”
“This was very valuable”
“I feel like I can better serve the clientele in my area”
“One of the best workshops I have attended in my entire extension career”

Letters of commendation and expressing impact of this valuable SARE-sponsored program can be obtained if desired.

A complete list of university experts (15) and commercial growers/winery owners that provided instruction can be provided if desired.

Total participants for the project were, by category:
1. Extension Professionals (Extension Educators, Extension Assistants, Extension Agents) - 27
2. Instructional and Consulting Faculty and Staff - 14
3. Grape Growers and Winery owners/winemakers - 11

The latter provided insights through panel discussions and consultations.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

All participants received a large number of valuable resources to enhance their reference capability when encountering questions about vineyard establishment, winery start-up and vineyard management topics. Of special note are the following: “A Pocket Guide for Grape IPM Scouting in the North Central and Eastern U.S.” (Michigan State Univ.), “From Sunlight into Wine” by Smart and Robinson, the “Midwest Grape Production Guide” (Ohio State Univ.), “Winegrape Cultivars” (CD from Iowa State Univ.), Tony Wolf’s “Wine Grape Production Guide for Growing Grapes in Eastern North America” (Cornell and VPI) and Bruce Zoecklin’s “Starting a Winery” series of CDs. Sunlight into Wine and Tony Wolf’s book are considered to be essential references for serious grape growers and Zoecklin’s series of CDs on winery start-up can provide valuable assistance for Extension professionals thrust into an advisory role for individuals interested in starting a winery. The funds made available through this SARE grant provided these resources to the Extension professionals participating in this project, thus enhancing their ability to better serve their grape growing and winery clientele.


Future Recommendations

Challenges and Lessons Learned

One of the greatest disappointments was that of the total participants, only a modest number were “traditional” commodity crops or livestock oriented Extension professionals. The majority of those who participated were individuals that were already responsible for horticulture extension programs, so this “Educating the Educators” project served them well. In fact, several of them were expanding into a greater focus on grape-related extension programming, so this project was timely for them.

Perhaps more funding would have been desirable for travel, subsistence and other costs related to attending workshops that were in many cases several hundred miles from their assigned Extension site. Some Extension administrators provided financial assistance in the first year, but subsequent funding was apparently unavailable.

Greater effort on the part of the P.I. and cooperators to lobby the Extension administrators for more support should probably have been expended. If state Extension administrators had more strongly encouraged participation by the target audience of traditional crops and livestock Extension professionals, perhaps a greater attendance by such individuals would have resulted and thus led to a greater impact on the knowledge base of Extension educators in the respective states.

In spite of the problems noted above, the project is considered to have been overall very successful and should have long-lasting and positive impacts on the Midwest grape and wine industry.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.