When Christopher White of Clarkton, N.C., asked his father Jerome a few years ago if he could get more involved in the family farming operation, the logical decision seemed to be adding more tobacco.
The farm has a long history of producing good flue-cured on its sandy soils, and the Whites had plenty of experience growing it.
But this was soon after the federal tobacco program ended, and Jerome White didn't think tobacco had a stable enough future to be a good choice.
Instead, the Whites settled on what was a fairly new crop in their area of Southeastern North Carolina: Muscadine grapes for wine production, an enterprise that performs well on sandy land.
They started a muscadine grape vineyard four years ago. Except for one intense weather event, it would have been a good choice.
“Because of the Easter Freeze of 2007, we have had a tough start,” says White. “The damage from the freeze cost us two years of growth.”
But White still is optimistic about muscadines. “I think grapes will end up a good crop for us as long as we don't have any more freezes.” he says. “Getting them started is the hardest part. If we ever get past that part, we will be okay.”
Like tobacco, muscadines are fairly labor intensive. The major jobs after vineyard establishment are pruning in the winter and harvesting in August or later.
Fortunately, both of those tasks can be at least partially mechanized. White has a mechanical pruner and a mechanical grape harvester, both made by Taylor Manufacturing Co.
The pruner is a sickle bar cutter that operates off the PTO.
The harvester straddles a row while a trailer with grape bins is pulled beside it. The vine is guided between two free-turning cylinder heads positioned vertically to the ground, and fiberglass fingers rotate into the vine and shake the grapes off.
White tended 8.5 acres last season. Three of those acres were so damaged by the freeze he had to prune them all the way back and train a new shoot to grow back to the trellis wire.
Jerome White, Christopher's father, says that though muscadines do well on tobacco land, they are not going to take the place of tobacco any time soon, mainly because production right now is in good relation to demand.
“Our winery tells us there are enough muscadines now,” he says. “It doesn't think we should plant any more until things change.
Don't even think of putting in a vineyard unless you have a contract for it, says Connie Fisk, North Carolina Extension Associate specializing in muscadines. The first step is to make contact with potential customers, local wineries.
“If you plan on growing grapes to sell to a winery, visit local wineries and find out if they're interested in buying,” says Fisk. “If they are, they will tell you which cultivars to plant.”
Fresh muscadine production is another option: It will bring in more income, but requires more management, including extra labor for hand-harvesting.
Whatever type you grow, order your plants in the summer of the year before you will plant, Fisk says. You'll need 218 plants per acre for the single-wire trellis system. Choose a site with good water and air drainage and send a soil sample to NCDA for analysis. You'll apply lime and fertilize based on the results of the soil test. Then install the trellis before you plant.
Start small, says Fisk. “You can always add more acreage later if the market continues to grow, and you will learn as you go, so your later plantings will be even better than your first.”
The price you receive for your wine grapes will depend on your buyer, says Fisk. Wineries in the Southeast usually pay farmers around $500 per ton of grapes, and you can expect five to eight tons per acre from mature muscadine varieties like Carlos and Noble.
Finally, there are three things to remember if you are thinking about getting into grapes, says Tony Wolf, Virginia Extension viticulturist.
A vineyard is a very expensive investment. So like any business, you need to amass sufficient capital to successfully launch the enterprise, he says.
Operating a vineyard is too costly to allow for many mistakes. You need to thoroughly educate yourself about vineyard establishment and operation before you ever start production.
Grapes don't sell themselves. A potential grower must evaluate local markets for wine grapes, says Wolf. A winery might offer a greater return on the vineyard investment than selling grapes from the vineyard, but it substantially raises the stakes in terms of management and capital costs.