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I’m thinking of starting a vineyard and I have the land. Now, how do I start?

Owning your very own commercial vineyard is generally an idea, a dream or an adventure that is often surrounded with mystique and romance, as seen on TV or in the movies. Many times this dream stems from a love of the land and a desire to grow things. Many times the idea carries with it the image of stability, like the European vineyards that are in the family for several generations — a place your children and grandchildren can always come back to. For many, the thought of starting a vineyard begins with a walk in the clouds and visions of family fun and commitment.

That, in part, is what attracted us all to this industry and you live that dream every night in the spring when you are in the vineyard setting vines in place, and in the winter when you are pruning the vines. For sure, you’re thinking about it when you’re rounding up 20 family members or friends to help pick the crop at 7 a.m. that first Saturday of August or on Labor Day — all to ensure you can get your crop to the winery by noon that same day. Whatever the reason for wanting to start your commercial vineyard, there are several steps to take as you begin.

1. Check your bank account to make sure that you have the $6,000-$8,000 per acre to invest in the planting and care for the first three years of growth when you will not be able to harvest even any of the crop.

2. Make sure you can borrow or buy the right equipment to farm the vineyard, including tillage equipment, spray equipment, mowing and weed control equipment.

3. Look at the NWGGA website for reference materials about starting a vineyard. These will help acquaint you with some of the considerations to make.

4. Contact wineries in your area to make sure they are seeking additional grapes and what type of grapes they would want you to grow and in what numbers. After all, establishing a market for your crop is the most important part of starting a commercial vineyard or specialty crop enterprise. If you’re not growing what other people are willing to buy and in a quantity and condition that they are willing to accept, then you will be wasting your time, money and efforts. You need to make sure that you have a market for your product before you go commercial.

5. Contact Dr. Paul Read, Professor, Agronomy & Horticulture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 377J PLSH Lincoln NE 68583-0724 USA, 402-472-5136, pread1@unl.edu

6. Attend University of Nebraska workshops designed to help growers become better growers. Generally, the university holds summer field days, a fall workshop around the first of November and a statewide conference the first weekend of March in Kearney where there is a half-day workshop just for beginners.

7. There is a Growers Council section of the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association. The chair person is Cathleen Oslzly of Lincoln. Contact her to see if the Growers Council has additional information available for new growers. coslzly@gmail.com

Can you grow wine grapes in Nebraska?

Yes. The growing season in Nebraska is long enough for a grape crop to mature. The wine grapes grown in Nebraska are primarily French/American hybrids. They are cold hardy cultivars that are derived by crossing European vitis vinifera and American wild grapes.

What kind of soils can grapes grow in?

Grapes can thrive in a variety of soil types and conditions. However, the soil must be well drained and there cannot be a restrictive layer in the subsoil. Organic matter from 1 percent to 3 percent is desirable.

What soil pH do grapes like?

Grapes tolerate soil pH levels from 5.0 to 8.0. The ideal range is 5.5 to 6.5.

Do I need to irrigate grapes?

You definitely need to irrigate grapes for one and possibly two years to get them established. Eastern Nebraska has adequate rainfall to grow grapes and you shouldn’t need to irrigate beyond the second year. Western Nebraska has less rainfall and grapes will need to be irrigated throughout the growing season.

Do grapes have many pests?

Yes, several! Problems may include fungal diseases, insects, birds and mammals. Eastern Nebraska can be very humid in the summer; this is conducive to disease development. To prevent fungal diseases, you need to have a fungicide spray program. Depending on the conditions, expect to spray every 10 to 14 days. Western Nebraska is relatively arid and grapes don’t need to be treated with fungicides. Birds, insects and mammals are a threat throughout the state.

Can you eat wine grapes?

Yes, they are delicious. However, almost all wine grapes have seeds.

How many vines can you plant in one acre?

This will vary according to spacing. For example: 10 feet row spacing and 8 feet plant spacing will allow for 545 vines per acre; 12 feet row spacing and 8 feet plant spacing will allow for 454 vines per acre.

How much wine can be produced from an acre of grapes?

Yields can vary greatly depending on growing conditions. With that said, as a rule of thumb, it takes about 15 pounds of grapes to make one gallon of wine. With good growing conditions, you can expect to get 15 pounds of grapes from a single plant. One gallon equals five 750 ml wine bottles. With 545 plants per acre, that acre yields 4.05 tons of grapes and 2,725 bottles of wine.

I already have the grapes. Where can I sell them?

You can find a list of Nebraska wineries at this website.

After I plant vines, how long do I have to wait before I have a crop to harvest?

Growing grapes is a long-term endeavor. There are no “instant results.” You need to be patient. It will be at least three to four years before you harvest your first crop. It will be five to seven years before your vineyard reaches its full production potential.

Do grapes need to be fertilized?

That depends on the results from the soil test of the vineyard. You definitely need to have a soil fertility test done on the site you have chosen for your vineyard. Do this before you plant any vines. There is a list of soil test labs in this website. Visit our industry resources page and you will find a section that lists soil test labs.

I want to get started. Where can I find information on vineyard establishment and site selection?

Right here. We have the industry resources you need.

How do I decide which cultivars to plant?

That depends on your plans. Do you want to sell your grapes to a winery or do you want to make your own wine? If you want to sell your grapes, ask around to see if there is a winery in need of additional grapes. If so, they will let you know what cultivars they want. If you want to grow grapes for your own use, talk to folks who currently have a vineyard. They can tell you the characteristics of the different cultivars. There can be significant differences between cultivars in how you manage them. Each cultivar is unique. There can be significant differences in disease resistance, growth habit and other viticultural characteristics. You will also want to know the wine quality characteristics of the various cultivars. An experienced winemaker can help you with that. You may also want to consider joining an amateur winemakers club like the Amateur Winemakers Club of Nebraska. You can find more information at www.newineclub.org.

Are there any sources where I can get information on grape cultivars?

Check our industry resources section.

Where can I buy grape vines?

Check our industry resources section.

Where can I get viticulture supplies and equipment?

Check our industry resources section.

Where can I get information on viticulture workshops?

Check out our news and events page. The calendar is constantly being updated with upcoming viticulture education events.

Are grapes sensitive to herbicides?

Yes. Grapes are extremely sensitive to certain herbicides — in particular growth regulators, although there are others. The two products that are the biggest threat are 2, 4-D and dicamba. Dicamba is the active ingredient in Banvel. Vapors from these products can literally drift several miles from the site where they are applied. The damage caused by these products can destroy a crop or even kill the vines — in which case, the destroyed plants would need to be replaced and it would take a minimum of three years before the replacement plants yield a crop. For more crop safety information, check our industry resources section.

Is there any one site that has all of the necessary resources for vineyard management?

Look no further. In our industry resources section, there is an extensive list of resources that every viticulturist can use.  There, you will find information about vineyard establishment, trellis systems, canopy management, grape diseases, grape insects, vineyard weed management, harvest guidelines and much more. There is also a list of several university viticulture websites, as well as suggestions for viticulture books and trade publications.

 

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