From Vine to Wine — Vermont Farmer Cultivates Cold Climate Grapevines
Grapevine grower finds conservation success with high tunnels, irrigation, and cover crops.
In an industry where winemakers are celebrated, their names etched upon the bottles of wine, it’s the farmers who nurture and grow the contents in that bottle who are the real heroes. And, the Farmer family of Vermont is committed to caring for and protecting the natural resources on and around their farm.
A Pioneer in His Field
You could say Andy Farmer was born to make a living from the land. Ironically, he says inexperience gave him the edge he needed. “Having a little ignorance served me well because I didn’t know how big of a thing I was getting into,” he chuckles. Seventeen years ago, the 23-year-old was a beginning farmer. Today, he’s established himself in a niche market that specifically serves cold climate grape growers in the northern United States. He and his wife India operate a nursery in Pawlet, Vermont, where they cultivate these specialized vines. They also grow table grapes for local markets on their small farm in Vermont’s Mettowee Valley, along the Mettowee River.
In 2002, Andy and India created Northeastern Vine Supply, Inc,. It grew quickly, and they realized they needed their own land to really make their business succeed. “When we purchased this farm in 2009, we knew we needed a combination of well-drained soils and an abundant irrigation supply,” explains Andy. The Mettowee Valley has naturally fertile soils and their farm is suited for their unique grapevine production because of its deep sandy loam soil, a favorable northern climate, and of course, the adjacent river. The Farmer’s purchased their land with the help of the Vermont Land Trust and in 2010 secured a conservation easement that limits development and subdivision and protects natural resources. Andy says that without this assistance they would not have been able to afford the land. “I was very interested in farming, but I knew I also had to make a living, and that isn’t always easy,” he admits.
The industry of cold climate grapevines, of which Andy was an early adopter, didn’t exist two decades ago when he got started. Recent development of cold-hardy hybrid grape varieties has given new life to a blossoming market. He spends a good bit of time on the road at conferences, sharing his experience with other growers. People are getting excited about what he’s doing. When the Farmer’s embarked on their business in 2000, northern grape growing was a novel concept. Now, they are a trusted provider of high-quality grapevines to growers in cold climate areas, from Maine to Montana.
Soil: The Foundation of the Vine
When asked about the secret to success, he says, “You figure out how to grow something, and then you have to do it a lot.” The Farmer’s started with 1,500 grapevines. Today, they grow a quarter million vines. Their farm consists of 188 acres, 35 which are cropped. “We try to use the best viticultural practices possible while managing our nursery and vineyard.” Viticulture is the science of growing grapevines. New viticulture technology in the form of cold-hardy and disease-resistant hybrid grape varieties has made it possible to grow in cool and cold areas that were previously thought to be impossible. And, the Farmer’s know it’s important to have a solid foundation upon which to cultivate their vines.
They began working with their local USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office as soon as they broke ground on their operation to ensure their farming practices protected and improved soil and water quality. Utilizing Farm Bill programs, the Farmer’s secured technical and financial assistance to install a number of conservation practices. With help from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA), they installed a pipeline to get water from the river to an efficient drip irrigation system, thereby replacing a less efficient one. The new irrigation system helps conserve water and improves vine health by directing water straight to the plant. Crop rotation and multi-species cover crops protect against soil erosion, regulate vine growth, and improve soil fertility and water holding capacity.
The Farmer’s also grow table grapes for the local market. These are thriving in a controlled environment thanks to an EQIP-funded high tunnel. These plastic-covered structures protect plants from severe weather and allow farmers to extend their growing seasons. And because high tunnels prevent direct rainfall from reaching plants (which also helps reduce the risks of fungal diseases), the structures utilize drip irrigation for precise delivery of water and nutrients to plants. “Ultimately, the high tunnels are providing us with an opportunity to try growing table grapes organically,” says Andy.
These structures are working so well, they are in the process of constructing an additional two this year with NRCS assistance. “Growing grapes and grapevines is extremely intensive work per acre,” he explained. “It takes me eighteen months to produce one saleable unit of grapevines.” There are also lots of risk involved including finding labor, preventing pest damage, weather extremes, increasing energy costs, market variability and natural disasters. These factors make the controlled environment of the high tunnel even more valuable for the table grape business.
From the Garden State to the Green Mountain State
In 1996, Andy left his home state of suburban New Jersey to attend Green Mountain College in Vermont. He never left. It was there that he met his wife and earned a degree in environmental studies. The school is rated first in the nation for its environmental, social and economic sustainability curriculum. With a solid foundation and passion for stewardship under his belt, he began working at local farms and his interest in making a living off the land blossomed. “My mom’s family is Italian, so we always had big gardens growing up,” says Andy. “I have a strong work ethic, and my dad raised my brother, sister and I to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Despite his Farmer namesake, he’s the first in his family to pursue the profession full-time. He admits it has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. “In 2007, when the housing market collapsed, our phone stopped ringing,” he recalls. “But, 2010 was one of our best years.” Andy and India have two children–a seven-year old son and three-year old daughter. He says that his son is already taking an active interest in the grapes, and soon enough, as he grows taller, will be able to pick them. But for now, he’s delighted to deliver the grapes in his wagon to local neighbors who buy them. “It’s his summer job,” says Andy. When asked about hopes to expand, Andy says that he and his wife don’t want to grow too large. “We can do a lot with this minimal acreage.”
The Farmer Behind the Vine
Andy is honest when he speaks about the realities of his profession as a supplier of cold hardy vines. “The nursery industry is not really sought after. Nobody in their right mind would do this. I don’t work with grapes. I don’t work with wine. We work with sticks, we are covered with dirt, we are bent over, and we are in a facet of this industry that no wine drinker every considers,” explained Andy. Yet, he loves what he does and is committed to conservation for the protection and improvement of the resources on and around his farm. When asked about his vision for the future, he says, “I hope we can keep doing this and take care of the land. It grows on you. You make everything from dirt, and you get attached to it.”
Farmers like Andy and India, who plant, nurture, protect, and grow the vine, are shaping the future of this important agricultural industry. So, next time you raise a glass don’t forget to thank the farmer behind the vine.
Amy Overstreet is a public affairs specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Vermont. A native of South Carolina, she is learning to drive in the snow, but hasn’t yet taken up winter sports. She lives with her husband Tim and two dogs, Gus and Newton, in Williston, Vermont. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about conservation technical and financial assistance, contact your local USDA Service Center or visit www.nrcs.udsa.gov.
With help from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA), the Farmer’s installed a pipeline to get water from the river to an efficient drip irrigation system, thereby replacing a less efficient irrigation system. The new irrigation system helps conserve water and can improve vine health by directing water straight to the plant.