Feasibility of Grapes as a Sustainable Crop in Northwest Iowa

Final Report for FNC02-392

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2002: $5,982.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $13,487.00
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Year One:
In the latte summer of 2002 soil tests were taken to adjust the levels of pH, potassium and phosphorus. After these amendments were made the soil was worked with an in-line ripper to alleviate any compaction concerns while keeping any residue on top. In the fall of the same year the deer fence was completed.

The one year-old grapevines arrived as planned at the end of April, 2003. Since the plants were obviously alive they needed to be kept in a cool, moist place. To accomplish this I drained an underground water reservoir that was used to hold well water. This provided a near perfect environment for the plants. There was some concern that it would be too wet to use into the tree planter to plant the vines. However, it did dry enough on the surface to get started planting on Friday, the 2nd of May. Things couldn’t have gone better. The actual planting went very quickly, the slow part was preparing the vines. When the vines come out of the box they have extensive root systems and have vegetative growth of 1 to 2 feet. The roots needed to be trimmed back to fit into the slot that the tree planter provides. The upper growth needed to be cut back to 3 to 5 buds so the plants don’t become bushy. This is also done to concentrate the vigor into a smaller number of growing point. The first day we planted about an acre or so.

The field day on May 3rd also went very well. Eli Bergmeier, Iowa’s viticulturalist (grape growing technician) spoke about site selection. I demonstrated how to prepare and plant the vines. To generate interest a press release was sent out to the local radio stations and newspaper. The regional farm and news station, KICD, announced the field day every day for about 2 weeks many times a day which was probably the greatest help. Eldon Everhart was gracious enough to do an interview with them as well. I put together a flyer which was placed in local businesses in Clay and Dickinson County. Clay County ISU Extension helped in printing the publication for me by printing it at a reduced cost. I also did an interview with another local radio station which was aired in the week prior to the field day. In addition, the local newspaper did a story on the field day as well. There was definitely no shortage of press coverage. It also helped that field conditions were too wet to be planting crops, so farmer turnout was very good. There were approximately 100 people in attendance. This far exceeded expectations. In central Iowa where grape growing is much more concentrated, similar field days like this one would expect 20-100 people. I was very happy with the attendance. Growing grapes is also very new to people in this area and farmers are looking for alternative sources of income. The students from the local college, Iowa Lakes Community College, were unable to attend that day so another field day was held specifically for them later in the summer. This worked out well because it provided more one-on-one contact, as well as an opportunity for me to discuss marketing options. That session was more informal. A tour of the vineyard was given and an explanation of the steps involved was discussed. Also, a general overview if the economics of the vineyard was highlighted. Numerous tours of the vineyard were help throughout the summer to whoever was interested.

Year Two:
Pruning the vines began in late March. At that time I began noticing a lot of the growth that had been attained the previous year appeared to be dead. This was especially evident in the Edelweiss and to a lesser extent, the LaCrosse. When the buds started to swell and leaf out there was a definite difference between varieties. The St. Croix came through the winter with little to no injury. The Frontenac had more injury than the St. Croix, but it was still manageable. The LaCrosse and Edelweiss were in much worse shape. There were approximately 15-20 dead vines between the two varieties. The vines that were left were pretty much starting over. Some of the damage was probably due to the plants’ wood not being fully hardened off and ready for winter. Also some bud damage had occurred just because of our cold winters here. This prompted me to make the decision to pull out the LaCrosse and Edelweiss. I will be confined to growing only the hardiest grape cultivars available.

The Frontenac and St Croix have done well and most of the original planted vines have survived. I am guessing up to half of the Frontenac will have enough growth to allow them to produce a crop. The amount of production is determined by the amount of growth the vines had last year. The St. Croix is looking even better. Most of those vines will have some production next year.

The fruit is being sold to Little Swan Lake Winery in Estherville, IA. The little production I had this year went there. Those grapes will be blended into one of their commercially sold wines. The amount was so small they are just going to give me some of the finished wine.

The deer were a problem this spring. In the north vineyard the deer were coming in from the trees and browsing on the leaves. There was about 60-80 vines with leaves removed. Of the vines that were affected, some were completely stripped, but most had 30-50% defoliation. This prompted the extension of the existing fence from 5’ to 8.5’. This was done by renting a portable welder and welding extensions onto the tops of the fence posts. This may have slowed the deer down, but a few still got through.

Foliar disease was not a major problem this year. I purchased an air blast sprayer intended for use in vineyards. I sprayed every two weeks or so and that seemed to control disease pretty well. My plan is to spray more often next year since there will be a crop to maintain.

Year Three:
Pruning of the vines began in late March and proved to be a much larger undertaking than in previous years simply because the size of the vines had increased. This was also due in part to factoring in shoot density and the general well-being of the vine in question.

Warm weather early in the growing season promoted bud break and shoot growth. This proved to be problematic in that there were multiple late frosts. Temperatures dipped down into the low 20s when shoots were 3-4” long on the Frontenac, when they are more susceptible to freezing temperatures. High amounts of damage were experiences. A third of the shoots were lost on the Frontenac.

Another step that had to be taken this year was cluster-thinning. The vine wants to produce more grapes than it is capable of and it has the potential to focus on the fruit instead of the vegetative and root growth. Establishment of the vine is crucial at this stage. About half of the clusters that were forming were removed.

Shoot positioning was also required to maintain a healthy growing environment. This involved combing down of the shoots and hedging them at the base of the vine. A spray program was enacted as well throughout the growing season.

The decision was made to protect the fruit from birds with plastic netting. This proved to be a very effective way to protect the grapes. The netting came in a 14’ wide roll that was hung from a loader tractor and pulled along the trellis.

High winds and hail was sustained in mid August which damaged fruit on the Frontenac vines. The north vineyard had major trellising destruction. Under the weight of bearing vines and 70 mph winds the posts were unable to withstand the pressure. Posts were either pulled from the ground or broken in the ground and most of the wires were broken. Most of the vines were laying flat on the ground. Luckily only minor amounts of damage was noticed on the vines. The grapes took on a raisin-like appearance and several of the skins were broken. This moved the harvest date ahead a month because of the damage. Buffalo Run Winery in Vermillion, SD, the buyer of the Frontenac grapes, advised the grapes be harvest to reduce the stress on the vines and to save from further loss of fruit and also to prevent from disease outbreaks.

The Frontenac was harvested with the help of family over two days. Four tubs that held approximately 600 pounds of fruit were purchased to aid in the transport of the grapes to Vermillion. Temperatures were cool during the harvest period so that the grapes could maintain a low temperature. Otherwise they would have to be refrigerated or picking would have to be postponed when temperatures rose. About 2580 pounds were harvested total.

The St. Croix was picked immediately following the Frontenac harvest and took about two days as well. The hail and winds did not damage these grapes due to their thicker skins. St. Croix yielded very well. About 2560 pounds were harvested total. St. Croix yielded twice as much as Frontenac per vine. The majority of the St. Croix was sold to Little Swan Lake Winery in Estherville, IA. About 500 pounds was also sold to a home-winemaker from Eastern Iowa that has planted St. Croix and wanted grapes to practice with.

The week following harvest the Spencer Chamber of Commerce officially welcomed King Vineyards as a local business entity. During this visit several business people, as well as the local newspaper, were present. A small article was published highlighting the first year of production and the marketing strategy that was employed. In addition, Eldon Everhart, Iowa State University Horticulture Extension, recommended the vineyard to a gentleman from Eastern Iowa that is publishing a book on the vineyards and wineries in Iowa. A short interview was conducted and photos were taken of the vineyard.

Success as defined by the grant proposal has not been achieved in some aspects and has in other. As previously noted, nearly 30% of the original planting did not survive. Economic success was achieved in that a grape crop was harvested and marketed from the remaining vines. The remaining vines amounted to 1.5 acres. An average of $0.54/pound was obtained. In the initial proposal it was said economic success would be receiving $750/ton. At $0.54/pound $1080/ton was achieved. This works out to $1850/acre gross income. This is outstanding considering about half of the potential production was removed due to cluster-thinning. Assuming next year us a normal year in regards to the growing conditions, the crop should double in size and by year five the vineyard should be at its maximum sustained production.

Environmental success was defined as reducing the amount of nitrogen that is added to the soil and the lessening of soil erosion. There was no nitrogen applied in year one or two. In year three, 30pounds of nitrogen to the acre was applied. If the site of the vineyard was used for producing corn 240 pounds of nitrogen would have been leeched into the ground water, therefore compromising our drinking supply. The planting of blue grass between the rows has slowed the amount of erosion that is sustained due to natural factors like rain and wind. Open ground surrounding the vineyard has proved this. After heavy rains you can see soil has been deposited in the blue grass that has flowed in from the bordering field.

Social impacts from this project were viewed through the feedback received from the attendees of the workshops and field day, which was very positive. In a questionnaire distributed after the grapevine planting many attendees had interest beyond the basics of grape production and even had interest in how the grapes were doing after the first few years. It was found that several of those interested already had a site in mind that was marginal for corn and soybean production. Even three years after the field day calls still come in regarding grape production and vineyard management. There was concern expressed with the long-term issues of financing and the hours involved in the management of a vineyard. Contacts were made between attendees and experts in viticulture that presented information at the field day. Social impacts also include a reduction in subsidized production of corn and soybeans. These acres were taken out of the farm program, saving taxpayers money.

The vineyard will be kept at 2 ½ acres, replacing the vines that had to be pulled with another variety. The third year, being the most labor intensive to this point, has proved it would be wise to hold out and see what the current plantings will entail in both the management and the harvest aspects before adding more acres. Grapes are a very marketable product in this area. At this point there are more wineries looking for grapes than grapes being produced. As long as this situation continues grape growers will be positioned well.


Participation Summary
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.