When George and Sonya Barber of Clarkton, N.C., were looking in 2001 for a crop to grow on the 40-acre farm in southeastern North Carolina they had just bought, there weren't a lot of good possibilities.
Whatever they planted, it had to do well in sandy soil. It had to lend itself to production with minimal labor. And it had to lend itself to production on a fairly small scale. That eliminated tobacco and peanuts, which had been grown on the land before they arrived.
They boiled their search down to either sweet corn and other fresh produce or muscadine grapes. They settled on the latter, and it has worked out well.
“We were looking for some way the land could pay for itself, and grapes seemed like a good choice,” says George. “We just planned on five acres then, but every year since we have put out a few more.”
They have grown 18 acres this season and last. “We would have expanded more this season, but we were set back by the Easter Freeze in 2007,” he says.
The Barbers have had good results with grapes, says Sonya. “It keeps us busy. We hire some labor at pruning and harvest but do most of the rest ourselves.”
They use a mechanical harvester to harvest and a mechanical grape pruner to prune. Their units are made by Taylor Manufacturing.
Pruning is an important practice in a vineyard, says Sonya. “Grapes only grow on new wood, so without pruning, you would have all wood and no grapes,” she says. “There is always some pruning going on,” says George.
In the winter, usually in January, they prune all the way back to six-inch spears using a mechanical pruner. Then they prune any loose material by hand.
“We start our fertility program (using drip irrigation) in March or April,” says George. “We will be done by June, when we take leaf samples to see if additional nutrients are needed. In the meantime, we manage weeds under the wire with herbicides, though we keep some grass in the middle.
“We start our fungicide spray program in mid-May and spray every 15 days for powdery mildew and black rot.
“In July, we trim the shoots from the grapes. If we don't, the mechanical harvester will not pick as efficiently.
“We start harvesting the second week of September, taking all the crop at once. We put it in 1,600-pound boxes and take them to the winery.”
From the beginning, the Barbers have contracted with Duplin Winery of Rose Hill, N.C.
“We were Duplin's first growers west of Cape Fear River,” says George. “It was thought the land here wasn't a good soil type for grapes, but it has worked out.”
They have an off farm business called Cape Fear Ag Services. “We do GPS soil sampling and mapping and crop insurance,” says Sonya.
What would the Barbers suggest if a friend said he or she was considering planting a vineyard?
“I would encourage anyone thinking about getting into wine grapes to be sure there is a secure market for them,” says Sonya. “And it is an expensive crop to get into, so you want to have a good relationship with a lending institution. You need to be prepared for intensive management, especially the first three years while you are training the vines.”
You may be able to harvest some grapes after two years but it usually takes three. The Barber vineyard is just now reaching full productivity, and the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council warns that it can take six or seven years before a winery can make a profit.
Wine grapes don't require large tractors and other equipment, but that is not as much an advantage as it would seem. “The equipment you use to produce wine grapes is very specialized, and it is expensive,” she says. “But we are glad the equipment is available. Otherwise the labor input would be too intensive.”
To make wine grapes work, you must choose a site wisely. To be good for muscadine production, says Connie Fisk, North Carolina Extension Associate specializing in muscadines, a site must have:
Internal soil drainage. “Water should not stand on the site after a normal rain,” says Fisk.
Good air flow. “Plant on an elevated site at least 50 feet away from woods or other obstructions that would block air movement,” says Fisk. “This is especially important in the Piedmont where cold damage is a concern.”
Favorable field shape. “You want to have adequate row length for equipment efficiency and reduced end-structure investment,” she says. North-South row orientation is preferred.
Soil pH and fertility in the recommended range. “Lime is usually necessary to raise the pH to 6.5,” says Fisk. “A soil test should be your first step. Contact your Cooperative Extension office for additional information.”
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WINE GRAPES have helped George and Sonya Barber of Clarkton, N.C., make a small farm profitable.
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THE BARBERS live in the middle of their 18-acre vineyard.
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GEORGE BARBER checks the drip line of the irrigation system he uses to water his vines.
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A DEPENDABLE supply of water, like this pond on Barber's farm, is essential for producing a good grape crop.