With corn at three dollars a bushel these days, it’s “thinking outside the box” that keeps the Worden Family Farm in business. The Worden’s have a small 6.2-acre vineyard on their property. They placed their vineyard in a location away from as many of their neighbors as possible to safeguard against potential chemical drift. Grapes have a high sensitivity to this chemical. For the other neighbors with farm land still potentially affecting the vineyard, Worden Family Farms has opened communication with them about dicamba, chemicals and chemical drift to educate and raise awareness.
Their goals in implementing a vineyard was to have a crop which was value-added and had less inputs than corn. The philosophy became feeding people rather than animals, since their corn is raised for livestock.
As they ventured into researching grapes, they discovered that on the maternal side of their family was a great, great, great-grandfather who grew grapes in Philadelphia. Besides the heritage, they found that grapes are drought tolerant, have deep roots and there was a market along the Front Range. These three things made this a perfect crop for Northeast Colorado.
They started the vineyard in 2004 and knew that production was not going to be immediate since grapes take four years to get established. In 2012, this small vineyard produced the best crop of grapes during a drought year of 44,000 lbs. with 3,600 vines.
Among the five cold hardy grapevines selected are Cayuga, Frontenac and Vignoles which produce a late season fruity sweet wine. They chose grapes from Cornell and Minnesota University. They also selected a wild grape from Richmond, VA — now an important grape produced in Missouri called Norton or Cynthiana — a black colored grape.
The biggest issue with the vineyard’s production was hail. The smallest hail still bruised the grapes and damaged canes and buds. With the vines, they add their old hog manure and do a foliar spray for micronutrients. Black plastic was initially placed along the row to combat weeds. Orchard grass grows between the rows placed 10 feet apart allowing enough room for a tractor at harvest time.
When it comes time to harvest, labor for picking can be scarce. It takes many hands to harvest this very perishable crop. Laborers have included FFA students and migrant workers. There is machine harvesting which was introduced in the 1960’s. However, using mechanical harvesters may not ensure a clean cut from the stem and/or damage or break the fruit which then begins oxidation and bacterial growth. Great care demands hand picking the grapes for quality. Once Cayuga or Frontenac is ready, there is only a three-day window for the crop to be picked and brought to the wineries. The laborers need to recognize good quality in a grape cluster. Having the same laborers return year after year is important, but not always possible.
Education on many levels has been a constant in operating the vineyard. From the banker to crop insurance, being the only vineyard in Northeast Colorado and a small vineyard, no one wants to take them as a customer. But over 13 years, they have sustained the production, kept the family farm a family farm and is still finding ways to take the market to the people. Locally, they have taken their grapes to the farmers market.
The Worden’s have set up a place for local weddings. Thus far, the family has decided just do to weddings for family and friends. The setting is ideal and could add value down the road.
Unlike most crops produced in Northeast Colorado, grapes are a long-lived crop. Vines can grow for 50 to 100 years. With corn, there is replanting every year. So, despite the drawback of hail and the extreme temperature changes that can occur in Northeast Colorado, grapes do grow well with little inputs.
After 13 years of producing grapes, the vineyard is still proven to be a value-added crop. Visit the Worden Farm’s Vineyard at http://tinyurl.com/y9sqlhu4 for more information.