Grant program offers money for new production but faces funding hurdle

Ohio has a grape deficit. Retailers, consumersand wineries find themselves buying grapesfrom far away-a situation that costs Ohioconsumers money, costs Ohio growers a profitopportunity, and costs society in terms of carbon footprint.

Seen here in early spring, St. Joseph Vineyard, Thompson, Ohio, got a VEAP grant in 2010 and will plant additional acreage in 2011.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. JOSEPH VINEYARD.

The Vineyard Expansion Assistance Program (VEAP) aims to increase Ohio grape production by 10 percent by 2013. The incentive program was created by the Ohio Grape Industries Committee (OGIC) and funded through the USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program.

“So far, it has been a great success,” says Christy Eckstein, executive director of the OGIC. “The wine and grape industry in Ohio is booming, even in these tough economic times,” she says.

Since 2008, the state has averaged more than one new winery per month. The Liquor Control Board has several applications awaiting approval. In the past two years, the number of licensed wineries has gone from 124 to 148.

The problem is getting juice for those operations. Ohio sources two-thirds of its grapes for wine and juice from out of state, Eckstein says. While she concedes the state probably never will produce 100 percent of its needs, she notes that there is substantial growth in the market. A lot of it comes from growers with production agriculture backgrounds expanding and diversifying.

However, the future of the VEAP is hazy. A new Republican governor and tight economic times have suspended grants for 2012. This, despite the fact that the program is funded by excise taxes, not from the general fund. Still, the OGIC is looking for alternatives.

One idea was to have the legislature pass a measure to allow OGIC to expand its duties from marketing and research to production. Unfortunately, the bill’s sponsor did not get re-elected (for reasons other than the bill). So, OGIC is looking for another representative to sponsor the measure. Several co-sponsors of the earlier measure may do that.

The program’s funding covers only the cost of the grapevines planted. Any grower can apply for a grant of up to $2,000 per acre. The idea is to encourage multiple small operations to participate, not to make large grape growers even bigger. The maximum grant is 3 acres, or $6,000.

Interest is strong. Brad Bergefurd, small fruit specialist with The Ohio State University (OSU) South Centers in Piketon, notes that the production and marketing aspects are coming together well.


COURTESY OF VINEYARD EXPANSION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM.

“Most growers in the program are establishing their own winery or working with an established winery,” Bergefurd says. “But there definitely is interest in table grapes.”

The table grape sector seems to be coming along more slowly and follows the trend to “eat local” in several market areas. One proposal for table grapes is for a plot in the city of Dayton. Other sites are scattered across the state.

How to qualify

For the past couple of fall seasons, the VEAP accepted applications for grants. Note that growers who received funding in one year are not eligible to get funding the following year.

Typically, applications were mailed to the growers in mid-September. Completed applications were due back a month later, generally around the third week of October. Within the next couple of weeks, the Working Group did an initial site visit and submitted its recommendations to the OGIC by mid-November. Applications were reviewed promptly and notification – one way or the other – went to applicants before Thanksgiving.

“At this point, we don’t have the funding for 2012,” Eckstein says. “We’d love to do it again.”

In 2009, the program drew 35 applicants and the OGIC funded 19. In 2010, for 2011 plantings, there were 39 applicants and 30 were funded. That added almost 50 acres of vineyards to the state’s total. In both years, there were table grape grower projects approved. In one case, the grower was setting up a you-pick operation. The others were to produce grapes for a farmers’ market.


South River Vineyard, Geneva, Ohio, was the recipient of a Vineyard Expansion Assistance Program grant in 2010.
PHOTO COURTESY OF VINEYARD EXPANSION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM.

“Several of the growers who did not receive funding told us they were moving ahead anyway,” Eckstein says.

The program is limited to Ohio growers. Each applicant must have a business plan with a clear route for the grapes to be put into the production chain. A written contract between the grower and a licensed winery or a well-described, self-managed pick-your-own table grape operation would qualify.

The November site visits are no slam dunk. Ohio State viticulture staff visited every site and walked the proposed vineyard area with the grower. The site had to meet geographic and soil requirements for the grape varieties the grower expects to produce, as well as be in the appropriate winter hardiness zone. They reviewed the business plan, which must provide both short-term (one to five years) and long-term (six to 10 years) goals.

In addition, Eckstein says, growers are expected to report back to the OGIC on a regular basis.

The OGIC did a baseline survey of the industry in 2008. “We will do that survey every third year,” Eckstein says. That means the OGIC will do a follow-up survey this fall.

Typically, Ohio growers will produce American, hybrid or vinifera (European) grapes. Vinifera are the most challenging to grow, but typically fetch the best price ($900 a ton or better) and produce the best quality wines. For this reason, vinifera acreage is the fastest growing in Ohio.

Hybrid grapes are typically quite cold-hardy and more disease-resistant. Both are true concerns in much of Ohio. Hybrids produce a good wine and, for those reasons, acreage of hybrids is also on the rise.

American grapes have been grown in Ohio longer than hybrid or vinifera. However, despite their adaptation to Ohio conditions, American grapes are on the decline. One reason is they fetch a low price per ton.

A vineyard must be at least 1 acre in size and have a minimum of 200 vines per variety to be considered for a grant.

Each grape variety has regions where it will do better than others. For example, a grower proposing to plant vinifera in Ohio Region 2 (between I-90 and I-70 and outside the lake effect area) had better have a good reason and good site for growing vinifera rather than a hardy hybrid. The opposite might hold true for a grower in the Ohio River Valley, where winter temperatures are moderate and the growing season is long.

Specifics on varieties and other horticultural information, from vine training to harvesting, are available in extension bulletin 919, available for a fee from local county extension offices.

Once the decisions on variety and trellis system have been made, the grower is ready to welcome the VEAP Working Group to the vineyard. The VEAP Working Group – a high-level group made up of OGIC members, OSU researchers and other industry stakeholders – will review each application with an eye to all of these factors. The final funding decision rests with the Working Group.

“It is not easy predicting consumer demand three to five years out,” Eckstein notes.

Pouring more wine

The VEAP is designed to provide a stable source of high-quality, high-value grapes for the state’s wineries, farmers’ markets and retail outlets.

Under the VEAP, the state hopes that availability of more Ohio-grown grapes will allow more local wines to qualify under the Ohio Quality Wine program. This, in turn, would give more incentive and backing to promoting Ohio wines, which have to be made with Ohio grapes.

Right now, the state has over 120 commercial wineries. Ohio State researchers figure that demand for locally grown fruit has increased by more than 100 percent over the past 10 years (not all wine is made from grapes, although most wineries do focus on grape wine).

As part of any marketing plan, growers are encouraged to meet with nearby Ohio winemakers to discuss the potential for contracting sales of fresh, local fruit.

“It is important to establish a good working relationship with the winemaker and learn what parameters are required in terms of pounds or tons needed, quality of fruit and degree of sugar content,” Bergefurd says.


St. Joseph Vineyard, Thompson, Ohio.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. JOSEPH VINEYARD.

Coordinating fruit harvest with the winemaker is another important factor. Most winemakers will have a specific date in mind for delivery of fresh-picked fruit. That will include a time-of-day requirement and certain size shipping container.

Maintaining good fruit quality during harvest and shipping will help assure quality fruit for winemaking, the researchers emphasize.

So far, the program has proved its worth. Acreage is up. The wine grape industry provides 4,100 full-time jobs and has a $582 million impact on the state’s economy. Add in the revenues from tourism and related activity, and it is obvious the impact goes beyond agriculture.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.