ANNAPOLIS – With Southern Maryland’s historical economic dependence on tobacco waning because of reduced interest and state buyout programs, state agriculture officials are promoting a handful of replacement crops and hoping at least one grows popular.
Wine grapes are near the top of that short list.
“It’s possible that Southern Maryland could become like California,” said Robert L. Swann, governmental relations director for the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, which represents Calvert, St. Mary’s and Charles counties. “But it would take many years to get there.”
Because Maryland’s 10 wineries import a third of their grapes, officials expect state demand for the viney fruit packed with alcoholic potential to be spirited.
But getting tobacco farmers – most of whom have cultivated nothing but the cash crop for generations – to the point where they can sell wine grapes may prove difficult.
Which is where the Southern Maryland Test Vineyard enters.
Using $19,000 in tobacco settlement funds from the Tri-County Council, the state Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service hope to have the experimental vineyard running in Upper Marlboro by spring.
“This is a way to offer people an alternative as they get out of tobacco,” said Valerie Gonlin, administrator of the Agribusiness Development Program for the Department of Agriculture.
The vineyard will be installed on the grounds of the Upper Marlboro Research and Education Center.
“It’s always been known as the tobacco farm,” said Dave Myers, an extension agent in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. He noted that tobacco research will continue there in a limited role as long as tobacco is grown in Southern Maryland.
At the vineyard, researchers will test 16 different grapes to determine the best one for Southern Maryland’s distinctive soil. Seminars will be held to introduce longtime tobacco farmers the finer points of grape growing, harvesting, tasting, and building trellises.
“The seminars aren’t aimed at brand new farmers, but they are welcome to attend,” Gonlin said.
Officials also plan to help create cooperatives of harvesting crews and link new growers with Maryland wineries who will purchase their crop. Myers even envisions a Southern Maryland winery set up and owned by the region’s vineyards.
“It would be nice to have a Southern Maryland vintage,” he said, explaining such a setup would likely increase profits for the vineyards.
A glass of Patuxent River red? Maybe, but not anytime soon.
“Grape growing is a long-term investment, about seven years, and it’s very expensive,” said Myers.
Startup costs are high. For the first few years, growers can expect to shell out $7,000 per acre, Myers said, as the vines develop. Growers won’t break even until the fifth year, and won’t profit until the seventh.
Unlike cured tobacco, grapes are quickly perishable.
Judging when to begin harvesting wine grapes is a delicate combination of art and science. A day too early or too late and winemakers may pass on the crop.
And the actual picking, while not anymore labor intensive than harvesting tobacco, must be done in a day or two, instead of a month as in tobacco harvests.
A farmer’s families and neighbors usually harvest the crop. The short window for picking wine grapes means outside laborers must be brought in, something Southern Maryland is lacking right now.
“The labor shortage will be a barrier,” Myers said.
After the seventh year, growers should have smooth sailing, officials said.
“Grapes are very long lived once they’re established,” Myers said.
Once profitable, grape growing nearly equals the lucrative tobacco.
Growers can expect $2,500 per acre per year over cost, Myers said, with most vineyards expected to be between 10 and 50 acres.
Another way of looking at it, said Jim Russell, communications committee chairman for the Maryland Grape Growers Association, said Maryland wine grapes garner $650-1500 per ton, with an acre producing between three and six tons per year.
There are ways to solve the crop’s other shortcomings. A cooperative of migrant labor crews that would move from vineyard to vineyard through the harvest season could alleviate the labor shortage, Myers said.
The high startup costs? Tobacco farmers who take the state’s buyout and receive payments from the National Tobacco Grower Settlement Trust will be able to foot the $7,000 over three years per acre bill that would normally exclude all but the wealthiest farmers, officials said.
Compared with the setup, finding a buyer should be a breeze.
Maryland’s 10 wineries, eight of which have their own vineyards, can only produce one-third of the grapes they need. The second third comes from Maryland vineyards, and the remainder comes from out of state, Russell said.
The Maryland Grape Growers Association, which Russell said represents most state vineyards, boasts 190 members. Membership has grown 30 percent in the past three years. Vineyard acreage in the state has grown from 300 to 400 acres in that time.
But even with the growth, the state’s vineyards – none of which are in Southern Maryland – cannot come close to meeting wineries’ demand.
State agriculture officials – who increasingly have promoted Maryland’s wine industry – are touting Southern Maryland as a possible solution.