After spring freezes and other events of the 2021 growing season created winners and losers depending on location and the severity of Mother Nature’s wrath, this year’s crop looks to be more uniform and on the positive side for both Michigan and Wisconsin growers.
Tyson Lemon, regional vice president of sales and customer delivery for GreenStone Farm Credit Services, says, “As long as we have a nice fall, we should have not only a good size harvest, but a good quality crop.”
Lemon is located in southwest Michigan’s Berrien County, where there are multiple clusters of wineries and wine trails drawing visitors from border states. “Chicago and northwest Indiana is where the bulk of the business comes. And, even with the higher gas prices, summer travel has been very good and tasting rooms seem to be doing well,” he says.
For juice grapes, an uptick in demand helped Welch’s co-operative trim down inventory and help rebound prices that had been somewhat depressed prior. “Most juice grower I think are pretty happy with the grape juice prices,” he says.
Brian Totzke’s family has been growing juice grapes since 1958 at Heritage Family Farms, but that doesn’t make it a certainty going forward. Totzke, a fourth-generation farmer with siblings Brett and Brooke, says securing labor continues to his biggest challenge beyond weather.
His family is raising about 900 acres of concord and niagara grapes in southwest Michigan and custom harvests about another 400 acres for area growers supplying Welch’s co-operative. They are the largest juice grape grower and harvester in the state.
A fairly mild winter spared cold weather injury that has plagued the crop in the past, and with a frost-killing-free spring, Totzke says he’s expecting an above average crop he’ll spend about a month harvesting starting in mid-September. “We had some trouble getting the pruning done because we're extremely short on labor,” he says. “And we are not alone because it was kind of everybody's problem.”
Labor has been an increasing issue the last five years, with this year being the worst, he says. “At certain times of the year, certain things need to be done – it’s time sensitive. The bulk of it we’ve been able to cover, but some work we would normally get done didn't get done, or not in a timely manner.”
Those labor obstacles could create bumps in the road for the future, as some of the renewal work was not completed. “It’s like putting a roof on the house because you got a couple of leaks and you're doing the best you can, but it didn’t quite get finished. So now you've created other issues in the house because you still haven't stopped that last leak,” he says.
He continues to work with H2A contractors to create a steady workforce, which is about 40 during the peak, running two shifts, 24-7. “But everything takes time and money,” he says. “When you start adding up different programs and what it's going to cost to the business and the bottom line, we start to analyze if we want to continue to pursue this crop,” Totzke says. “Is the return still better than the alternative, or do we want to just start phasing out. Thankfully, prices are up a little bit so that's going to help offset some of these additional costs we’re swallowing.”
This year he also planted 4,400 acres of corn, 1,600 acres of soybeans and about 500 acres of wheat.
“At this point, I think we're going to keep charging forward, because grapes have been a good part of our business, but we'll see,” he says.
Grape yield predictions are good, quite common after a late spring frost dinged yield the year before. “Because of the 2021 killing spring frost, the crops didn’t have to work as hard last year with a light crop,” he says. “So, they were able to be more rested going into the dormancy last fall.”
While pest pressure was not significant, the grape berry moth is still the number one targeted pest.
Some of the hot days and cool nights in August were welcomed to help with the ripening process and the grape’s sugar level or brix. Growers get paid based on tons, but also on brix. “The optimum would be like a 16-brix sugar per ton, but once tonnage increases to like 10- or 11-ton-per acre, it gets really hard to attain that 16 brix.”
Lemon Creek Fruit Farm and Lemon Creek Winery are separate but yet contingent on another, located next to each other in Berrien Springs. Jeff Lemon and business partner, Tim Lemon, are sixth generation farmers of the Lemon family that settled in Berrien County in 1834 and established the farm in 1855. They took over in 1974 and steadily and somewhat rapidly expanded the fruit farm, which in addition to wine grapes includes a few acres of juice and table grapes, four acres of sweet cherries and 10 acres each of apples and peaches.
About 170 acres are devoted to 25 different varieties of wine grapes, which are split 60% viniferia to 40% cold-hardy French hybrids.
These hybrids have opened more growing areas for wine grapes that don’t benefit from the lake effect.
Looking at the growing season, Jeff Lemon says growers made it through both winter and early spring in good shape. “It was dry in the spring for a little while, but we got key, timely rains in the summer to give the crop the energy it needed,” he says. “We’re really in great shape, but we haven’t harvested yet.”
While supply seems to be plentiful, demand is wanning a bit, as a lot of new wineries are popping up, but “they are little and not using grapes by the semi load,” he says. “There’s quite a glut of wine grapes this year. We've had several good crops in a row and there's been a lot of new acres planted over the last three, four years, that have come into bearing now.”
That’s in stark contrast to just a few years ago when wineries not growing their own grapes had a hard time sourcing them.
Lemon Creek Winery utilizes between 25 and 35% of the farm’s wine grape production. “But of those 25 varieties, there's probably 12 that we utilize 100%,” he says. He currently sells to 15 different wineries across Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
As before in large-crop years, Jeff Lemon will be looking for a home for his grapes, while also utilizing as much as possible in the winery. “We will probably let some grapes hang on longer and do a little more ice wine,” he says.
According to the Small Fruit and Hops Inventory conducted by United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Michigan wine grape acreage increased. Riesling continues to be the most planted wine grape in Michigan, and there are currently 670 Riesling acres in the state. Other grapes with notable acreage include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc.
Currently there are 10,900 acres of grapes grown in the Michigan, with 3,375 acres in wine grapes, and 175 wineries in the state.
There’s been growth in traditional Michigan varieties like Riesling and Chardonnay, but also growth in some other interesting grape varietals, including Lemberger, which is central European grape that is grown in parts of Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia and Serbia – grapes that do well in that part of the world also do really well in Michigan.
Craig Carpenter grows eight varieties of wine grapes on 12 acres (11,000 vines) just 20 miles southeast of Madison, Wisconsin. He also has about 200 table grape plants and is the president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association.
He says Wisconsin grapes are doing very well and, “my crop looks phenomenal,” he adds, while noting there’s still potential for bees and wasps to open the fruit, exposing the sugar and attracting fruit flies. “If that happens, it’s chaos.”
Wisconsin has been very fortunate this year with quenching rains when they were needed, but not too much rain to make it detrimental.
Carpenter has three red and three white varieties. White wine grape harvest started the second week of September, while some of the reds will not be ready for another two to three weeks.
In addition to being a farmer, he’s also a mechanical engineer, and a huge proponent of harvest mechanization. “We're a little bit away from that in Wisconsin, but we're certainly on the crux of it,” he says.
The harvest is a couple weeks later than last year. “We had all our whites harvested by now (early September), but we haven't even started this year. It’s bittersweet, because nicer, drier weather in September gives the fruit time to ripen and brix up and the pH down, which is what the winemakers like.”