As the buyout of tobacco quota drew near, David Allen of Lisbon, N.C., and his father Ray decided to get out of the crop that along with peanuts had been the cornerstone of their operation in southeastern North Carolina.
But what were they going to grow instead? They needed a crop to replace some of the income that the golden leaf had provided for so long.
That crop would only be viable if it performs well on sandy land, can produce income from relatively less land than tobacco requires (since the Allens had access to less land than in the tobacco days) and one that could be produced with less labor, relatively speaking, than tobacco.
An alternative that deserved a close look seemed to be muscadine grapes. They do well on sandy land and can be economically grown on small plots. But for the Allens, there was one problem: If you harvest muscadines by hand, the labor requirement is very high. It was much too expensive to fit in the management plan.
“It is just not feasible to go out and hand pick 12 acres of grapes,” said Ray.
A solution was available — mechanical harvest. But the upfront cost of a harvester would also have been an insuperable obstacle to making any money on a new vineyard.
“It was not realistic to go out and buy a brand new harvester or even a two or three year old harvester,” said David. “It might cost $100,000.”
But David believed he could craft a grape harvester of his own out of material on hand.
“You could say we made it out of the junk pile,” said Ray. “It was a matter of economics. If we had to buy a harvester new, we would need a lot more acreage than we had to make it economical.”
An old flue-cured tobacco harvester provided the superstructure.
“We took it completely apart except for the carriage,” said David. “We moved the driver seat from the bottom to up on top. We built our own conveyor system. And we put in our own shakers to break the grapes off the vines.”
The grapes travel up two conveyors to the top. A cross conveyor discharges them into a vat that is pulled by a tractor down the row next to it.
“You never have over about 100 pounds of grapes on the harvester at any time,” said Ray Allen. “It is a constant flow. We have something that is just as good as a new harvester at a fraction of the cost.”
The Allens started working on their harvester as soon as they planted grapes in 2004. “We never had to hand harvest,” said Ray. “The harvester was ready by the time the grapes were ready. We used it on our first crop. So far we haven’t gotten in a situation where we can’t get the harvester through any part of the crop.”
They have 11 acres of harvestable grapes this year. The first vines wee set in 2004 and will reach full productivity next year.
“I wouldn’t recommend borrowing a lot of money to go into the grape business,” said David. “It is so long before you get a return. But it’s a good business to go into if you have something to support it until it gets into production. We used income from other parts of our operation to finance the vines. Now the vines are carrying their weight.”
The first thing to do is get a contract, said Ray. “I wouldn’t recommend putting grapes in anywhere unless you know you have them sold.”
Ray said grapes will never completely replace tobacco. “There is not going to be enough demand for grape products to replace the income that tobacco provided. Tobacco was a good crop to grow when a lot of people smoked. Now there are so many limits on smoking, and the contracts tobacco growers are getting are so low making a profit is tough.”
(For an earlier report on the growing popularity of muscadines in the Carolinas click here.)
The pendulum is definitely swinging in favor of muscadines, thanks to the popularity of resveratrol. “With their health benefits, muscadines are on the way up, while tobacco is on the way down,” said Ray Allen. “At least, that is how it appears to me.”
So muscadine grapes will not completely replace tobacco in a farming operation, said Ray. “But if you get a good contract, it will replace some of it.”
The Allens grow muscadines for La Belle Amie Vineyard of Little River, S.C., delivering at their facility in nearby Elizabethtown, N.C.
“We feel good that our contracts are going to hold up,” said Ray. “The wineries have so far found our muscadines grown very acceptable. But I don’t think there will be much room for new growers.”
Currently the Allens are growing only wine grapes, but fresh market grapes might fit into their system in the future.
“There will be a farmers market soon in Elizabethtown,” said Ray. “We think that might be a useful market for fresh market grapes.”
Fresh market muscadines are the fastest growing segment in muscadine marketing, according to Connie Fisk, North Carolina Extension horticulture associate. Some form of direct marketing like farmers’ markets, roadside stands or pick-your-own is a good way to sell fresh market grapes, she said.