by Gina Kelly
Imagine, if you will, almost 7,000 football fields laid out next to each other. Do you have that pictured in your head? Now imagine that much land covered in grapes. Or, imagine the entire city limits of Brownfield covered by grapes from one side to the other. By the year 2018, there will be that many producing grape acres in Terry County. 3,000 to be exact. There are currently approximately 1,800 producing acres with 1,200 more in the ground or going into the ground soon.
According to grower Andy Timmons, that is just about enough for now. “The wineries are going to have to catch up before too many more acres go in. For sure, if someone is thinking of putting in grapes, do your homework and make sure you have a solid selling point, a solid market for your acres before you put in a single plant.”
Grapes, unlike the customary crops grown in this area are very unforgiving. Where your cotton can sit in a warehouse, or your milo can sit in piles on the ground, when grapes are ready, they are ready and they need somewhere to be processed. They do not wait.
Grapes in Terry County are currently in pretty good shape. The recent rains, while very much a blessing, have also caused added expense. “We are having to thin fruit out a little bit. Our vines are making too much fruit,” stated Timmons. “Too much fruit lessens the quality. ”He used this example, if you have a small glass of water and you put a drop of food coloring in it, it becomes saturated to a dark color. But, if you have a taller glass of water and put a drop in it, it is much less saturated. The grape vines are the same. The more fruit, the less saturated each grape becomes with color and flavor.
Timmons stated they are pulling as much as 25% of the fruit in his vineyard right now. This is a very labor intensive project because it must be done selectively by crews that know what they are doing. The right fruit must be pruned in order for the vine to continue doing what it is supposed to do.
Crews are also busy with “shoot positioning” right now. Shoot positioning means that vines are raised up with a wire stretched down the row to hold the vines in place in order for the sun to reach the entire plant. Again, very labor intensive. Trained crews also do the shoot positioning. And trained crews are in a bit of a shortage right now. “It would be great if we had classes in this area that would train workers to work grapes. We need the workers,” stated Timmons.
Coincidentally, TEA has now approved viticulure courses in high schools in Texas. This could be a way to train workers in the future. The plan is to train the students in every area of grape growing, but not in the wine making end of things. Shoot positioning is not only labor intensive, but as one would guess, an added although necessary expense. Cost of labor for this is in about the .60 per plant range. Timmons stated that in other areas, the cost is less because there are more workers trained for this task.
All of this becomes necessary because of the more than adequate rainfall we have seen this year. “I have not had my water on in this field since September of last year. That is a savings, for sure.” Timmons will likely not turn his wells back on until harvest, if needed even then. Any farmer can tell you, no matter the crop, not having to water saves thousands and thousands of dollars.
As a cotton farmer, Timmons has loved the rain, as a grape grower, while appreciated, it has certainly given the growers more to think about. “Disease is something we really have to watch for in wet weather. By the time you see black spots on the fruit, it is too late. ”He pointed out that in the Hill Country area, there are several places that have lost much of this year’s crop to disease already due to the amounts of rainfall. Timmons explained that while the fruit is at its current stage, it is more acid. As it matures it will develop its sweetness and that is when the disease takes hold. Growers have to really stay diligent in monitoring their crops.
One thing Timmons pointed out is that more is not always better. “Our wineries want us to set a target tonnage and not exceed that too much. That is why we are thinning and pruning out some of the fruit. The buyers know that too much fruit lessens the quality of what is on the vine.” This is a hard lesson for a cotton farmer always looking at increasing his yields. In the vineyard of red grapes, where Timmons was working, he expects 4 – 6 tons an acre. In his mature, producing vine-yard, Timmons expects to spend around $3,500 per acre to get to harvest. This sounds astronomical, however if yields turn out as projected, harvest could bring $9 – 10,000 per acre. Of course, this is not to be seen as straight up income to the producer. The already mentioned $3,500 per acre must be taken out, as well as bank note payments and equipment payments, etc.
In a good year, as this one looks to be, it is not a bad living, in spite of all the costs and overhead. As far as Timmons’ grape efforts, “I feel like we are about 50% of where we will be one day. We are learning more and more every year and doing a better job with each year’s crop.” Timmons closed with this statement, “We are looking at the possibility of a record-setting year for grapes in Terry County. If Terry County sets a record, then Texas will set a record. We are definitely becoming a true front-runner in the grape game.
Article Courtesy of the Brownfield News