October 16, 2017

Winegrowing in Kansas: Vineyard Help Needed!

This is the first blog from our new columnist Cindy Reynolds. With husband Dennis, Cindy is co-owner of  Reynolds FamilySomerset Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Kansas.

The view of our 20 acres of wine grapes is lush, green and beautiful after a spring of abundant rain and sunshine. Every grapegrower we know is thanking the wine gods because of our recent experiences with less than ideal weather. But this year’s advantageous growing conditions lead to another set of concerns: how to maintain our overly-vigorous vines.

Summer’s humidity will require lots of pruning, shoot-thinning and regular spray applications to avoid issues with fungus. So while much of our attention will be on controlling vine vigor and fighting disease, the real challenge, however, is finding staff to assist with the long list of vineyard duties, both now, and for the anticipated excellent harvest at the end of summer.

In fact, finding, training and supervising vineyard help is keeping many of us up at night according to my impromptu survey of Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Assocation (KGGWA) members. Nearly everyone mentioned the need to depend on family and friends – but with mixed results. Many have spent several growing seasons rehabilitating vines that had been “pruned” by inadequately trained help entrusted with a set of pruners.

Kristen Graue of Middle Creek Vineyard said finding vineyard help is one of their top concerns. “We use extended family, friends, our kids’ friends, and friends of friends.  It helps to have a big family!” said Kristen.

Several vineyards reported that they recruit teachers during the summer months as a source of dependable, adult help. “Vineyard help is a constant issue with no real answer I can see relative to full time vs. part time,” said Don Warring, owner of Nighthawk Vineyard & Winery– “Shared labor would be great but comes at the same time each year for all of us so it’s very hard to do. Same with sharing equipment cooperatively,” he added.

Somerset Ridge vineyard at harvest time last year

George Hoff, owner of Stone Pillar Vineyard and Winery, stated, “At my size automation wouldn’t be cost effective. Machines can’t sort out things like the recent hail damage.  Machines can have issues if there is not a trained operator and they even break as I’ve experienced in a lifetime of farming.”

Wendell Berry, in his book Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food captures our farming dilemma eloquently: ““Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: “Love. They must do it for love.” Farmers farm for the love of farming.”

So love is our fallback position, but maybe the future is looking a little brighter. Scott Kohl, directs the Viticulture and Enology Program at Highland Community College and is also part of the management team for VESTA (Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance). “The news is generally good for the future because our numbers are going up,” said Kohl. “In the last few years we were thrilled to get four or five enrollees but now we are getting 8-9 students for each of four viticulture sessions we teach each year,” he explained. “These folks have advanced degrees in other areas so they just want to get the viticulture knowledge to start their own businesses.”

While this is good news, the average age of a Highland or Vesta student is 44.6 years old and since they are focused on opening their own business, they aren’t open to employment at one of our state’s existing grape-growing operations.

So our young industry is still working to find a solution to the challenge of lack of trained vineyard help and lack of resources to invest in automation.  However, looking on the bright side, this is a small price to pay for what looks to be an excellent grape-growing year in our state.

Let me know what you think! Would you expand your vineyard acreage if you had access to more help?

Please send any comments to [email protected] (our comments section below the article has a technical issue and won’t post. We’ll sort it out soon!)

About Mark Ganchiff

Mark Ganchiff is the publisher of Midwest Wine Press, the leading source of news on the growing wine industry in the central United States. Mark has been a wine judge at the 2012 and 2014 INDY International Wine Competition, the 2014 Cold Climate Wine Competition, the 2013 Mid-American Wine Competition, the 2012 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition and the 2013 Michigan Wine Competition. He also enjoys speaking at wine events including the Cold Climate Wine Conference, the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association Annual Meeting, the Midwest Grape and Wine Conference and the Wisconsin Fruit and Vegetable Conference. Mark’s articles about regional wine have appeared in Vineyard & Winery Management, WineMaker and several regional magazines.
Mark is a Level One Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He lives in Louisville, but also has a residence in Chicago.