Colleen and Jason Gerke are living proof that it is
possible to turn a hobby into a sustainable business.
As they branch out from their winemaking
hobby to growing their own grapes, they are not
averse to trying new things and sharing their experiences
with other growers.
Babydoll sheep keep all the ground cover trimmed at the Norton grape block without the need for equipment or controls other than fencing.
PHOTOS BY STEVE TRUSTY.
They started making wine in the basement of their downtown Kansas City home. Seeking a move to the country, they found and purchased 16 acres just 20 miles north of the Kansas City airport in 2003. The land was in the hilly portion of Platte County. The terrain reminded Colleen of the conditions she'd loved in the Santa Barbara wine country. With the land, growing their own grapes for their hobby seemed like a logical extension.
The next step was to learn a little Missouri vineyard history and information on the grape varieties grown in the area to make wise choices for their experiment in growing. They discovered that at one time Missouri was the highest wine producing state in the U.S., ahead of California. That was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then, Prohibition came along and most of the vineyards were destroyed.
The Gerkes determined that Norton, the Missouri State Grape, was the best variety to start with and planted 250 Norton grapevines in 2004. They worked on a business plan and decided they had the skills, energy, desire and drive to turn their hobby into a business. Since Jowler Creek ran through and behind their property they thought it sounded "winey" enough, and Jowler Creek Vineyard and Winery was born.
In 2005, they planted 850 more vines, 250 more Norton and 600 Vignoles. Two thousand vines were added in 2006. They included Traminette and Cabernet Franc. Most of the Cabernet Francs were killed in a 2007 Easter freeze, so they pulled that variety and planted a total of 650 more vines. They now have 2 acres of Norton, 2 acres of Vignoles and 3 acres of Traminette.
After receiving the necessary state and federal permits, the first harvest was pressed in 2006. Jowler Creek now produces about 1,000 cases of wine a year, with a goal of 1,500 to 2,000 cases in the near future.
The Norton grapes are grown on 6-foot Geneva double curtain trellising. The other grapes are on the VSP trellis setup. All vines are irrigated with a drip system. The water comes from rural water. They have bat houses around the property to encourage insect control, and they have also purchased 22 chickens to aid in that chore.
Weed control study
A vineyard block showing the cleared area around the vines and the need to regularly mow between the rows.
The Gerkes shared the story of their successful experiment in weed control at the Missouri Grape Growers Conference. They had read about a UC Davis study on training sheep for use in vineyards. Since Jason and Colleen had raised livestock for 4-H and FFA, this was of special interest to them. They also figured the sheep would be cute, cost-effective and add to the "attraction" of their operation. They wrote a seven-page application and supplied letters of reference for a farmer-rancher grant. The study was to test the effectiveness of controlling grass and weed growth in Midwestern vineyards with managed, rotational grazing of Babydoll sheep. Babydolls are a miniature breed of Southdown sheep, originating in England. The grant they received from the North Central Region-Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (NCR-SARE) paid for labor, testing, research and 50 percent of the fencing and reseeding.
The challenges of Midwestern grape growing include large amounts of rain, high humidity and high temperatures that encourage grass and weed growth. Control requires time, money, constant tilling and/or herbicide use. Colleen said, "Our goal is to operate a truly sustainable business that goes beyond making a profit. We want to prevent injury to nontarget vegetation, eliminate residues in soil and water and still produce optimum crops." Prior to the research they mowed the grass between the rows of grapes every 10 days between April and October. They kept a 3-foot bare strip surrounding the vines with a combination of tilling and herbicide treatment on a monthly basis. That process resulted in significant areas of erosion and a flourish of broadleaved weeds. When they tried to control those weeds they killed some of the vines.
The Gerke family enjoys working together. Jason lets 3-year-old Addie (Addison) pretend she's steering the tractor, while Colleen holds 6-month-old Sawyer, who is usually smiling and taking in the activity around him.
To implement the project in 2008 they reseeded the 3-foot strip around the vines with fescue. They installed a 6-foot-high woven wire/electric fence around the entire 7-acre vineyard. They then installed a 2-foot-high woven wire portable fence around the test area. Because the Norton grapes were on the 6-foot trellis and out of reach for the little sheep they used 1 acre of the Norton vineyard for the test and the other acre as the control. They stocked the test area with 12 Babydoll wethers. The sheep were rotated regularly over half of the acre at a time with portable fencing.
The results of the test were gratifying. They eliminated the herbicide application and the tilling, which showed a savings of $390 per acre. The grass cover and no tilling eliminated any soil erosion, they used less fuel, and the natural fertilizer from the sheep improved the soil. The sheep need to be shorn each spring, and the Gerkes can sell the wool. They may also be able to sell the sheep for meat. The original cost of the sheep was $900 and care was $75 the first year. The Gerkes expect the project will break even by 2012. They also realized some social benefits. It gave them more to talk about on their website, www.jowlercreek.com, and in press releases. It increased awareness of sustainable agriculture. Family visits increased slightly, and the sheep shearing gave them an event to bring more people out.
A family operation
The entrance to Jowler Creek Vineyard & Winery lets visitors know they are at the right spot.
Merlot greets visitors to the Jowler Creek Winery outdoor seating area, which doubles as the family's patio.
Jowler Creek is definitely a family operation. Colleen has left her job in town and works full-time in the vineyard and hosting the wine tasting room. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jason still works four days a week in town, but oversees the technical aspects of the winemaking. Three-year-old Addie is already learning to "shoot prune" and says, "I feed the chickens and pet the sheep." Six-month-old Sawyer greets visitors with an engaging smile. Merlot, the family dog, helps herd the sheep and greets visitors with a friendly, but authoritative, bark. Members from both sides of the Gerke family have helped whenever needed.
Colleen says, "We also have an extended family, which has been an excellent help. They are members of our 'Creek Club.'" Club members receive advance notice of events and varietal releases. Events included a grapevine pruning, demonstration where participants help get the vines pruned as they learn; the sheep shearing demo; and a Grapevine Planting Party. The biggest turnouts and the most help come from the harvest parties. Colleen says people sign up in advance and they even have a waiting list to help with the harvest. Because the three grape varieties they grow mature at different times, they have three separate parties. The attendees spend the day harvesting and receive lunch. It is a fun day for all, and Jowler Creek gets their crops harvested in a timely fashion.
The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.