It wasn’t so long ago that Greg Hyman’s farm near Conway, S.C., grew lush every summer with the green leaves of the flue-cured tobacco he grew annually.
No more. Over the last four seasons, tobacco has been completely supplanted by an enterprise that no one would have thought of in the old days: Muscadine grapes. Since he set out his first vines in October of 2005, he has turned it into a very realistic alternative on his coastal plain farm near Myrtle Beach.
The reason he was looking for an alternative was the uncertainty that surrounded tobacco after the Master Settlement Agreement 11 years ago, which eventually led in 2004 to the quota buyout and deregulation of leaf.
Hyman was very involved in the negotiations culminating in that legislation, and he believes it was a good thing for farmers. But he personally wasn’t anxious to grow tobacco in a direct market.
“I feared a sea change in tobacco, with farmers having less control,” he says. “I wanted a crop that would let me be in charge of my future.”
A muscadine vineyard seemed like a good choice for a former tobacco grower.
“One of the big reasons is that it is a high-management, high-value crop like tobacco,” says Hyman. “The management skills you develop growing tobacco are very adaptable to grape and wine production.”
One advantage grapes have over tobacco: Grapes are perennial, so after the three years it takes to get a vineyard started, he says, they will require less upkeep than a comparable tobacco operation.
Grapes are a lot of work but certainly not any more than tobacco, Hyman adds. And vineyard work is similar to tobacco work. “Men are no better at it than women,” says Hyman. “There is physical work, but it is not tremendously demanding. And it doesn’t seem that workers from any one group are better than any other.
“Anyone who can stand up long hours and take the heat can do it. Actually, it is a lot like tobacco harvest, but maybe not quite so hot because of the wide rows and the breeze.”
There was a definite learning curve in making the transition to wine making, Hyman remembers. “That was especially true of marketing,” he says. “To run a vineyard, you have to deal with people. And you have to grow what you know will sell, not what you know you can grow.”
But there have been a few lessons in the production area also, he says. Some that stick in his mind:
• It takes two years to train a vine. “You have to make sure cordons go left and right, because the vines have to support the grapes,” he says. “Those cordons have to be straight. You get more fruit from a proper vine.”
• In the spring you have to remove the tendrils. “This is a major concern,” says Hyman. “They will girdle a vine if you don’t. It takes about three months to properly prune.”
• Harvest is traditionally done by hand, but mechanical harvest is available. “Mechanical harvest is much cheaper initially, and yield-wise it is just as good,” he says. “But grades are lower compared to picking by hand and sorting afterward.
• The clay-based heavy loam that Hyman uses to grow grapes was good for tobacco. “But it sets low for grapes, so I put mine on beds,” he says.
Besides some soybeans, he raises fruits and vegetables on a small scale and sells them with grape products at a “General Store” he has built at the edge of the vineyard and at other direct-to-consumer markets.
Besides several types of wine, he is selling a number of muscadine products, including juices, ciders, soap and cosmetics and “nutraceutical” products that feature the healthful components of muscadine.
Hyman is excited about another sideline, agritourism. That includes wine tastings and special events at the General Store and at a nearby covered meeting area. And in a bold extension of the agritourism concept, he is building an 82-lot luxury housing community on the banks of the nearby Waccamaw River. Called the Vineyard at Keysfield, it features easy access to the river and the vineyard. Residents will be members of a wine club he is organizing.
Hyman has made a big investment in the future of muscadines, but far from worrying about competition, he hopes to see more vineyards in the Carolina Low Country.
“I think grape production is one of the alternate enterprises with the most potential to supplement or replace tobacco in this region,” he says. “The state departments of agriculture and commerce and a number of local development agencies have taken an interest in grapes.”
An unexpected benefit has been a dramatic rise in the population of quail, which eat insects.
An unexpected drawback has been an explosion in the population of raccoons.
“They feed on grapes,” says Hyman. “They climb up on the vines like a squirrel and cause more problems than deer.”
He has also seen more foxes and coyotes since he put in the vineyards.