The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Wine Grape Farmer

Wine Grape Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

August 24, 2008

Megan Seibel, 34, is the Manager of Mountain View Vineyard, which is situated on a 250-acre family farm in Botetourt County, Virginia that produces 20 acres of commercial wine grapes and beef cattle. The farm was established 45 years ago by Seibel’s husband’s parents.
 
How did you get into wine grape farming? 
 
My husband was raised on Mountain View Farm, which transitioned from beef to dairy and back to beef cattle. I became involved with production agriculture upon marriage and it has been a learning curve ever since.
 
We established the vineyard in an attempt to diversify the farm and increase the chances of maintaining its viability for future generations in an area that is becoming encompassed by urban sprawl. Our first varieties were planted in 2000 after determining that we had an ideal site for a vineyard in a mountainside hay field.
 
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
 
For the most part, our farming practices have changed to become more embracing of the nuances associated with specialty crop production. The products available to farmers on the chemical market have changed dramatically, and require knowledge and diligence in application to provide a safe and superior product that meets a buyer’s high standards. We have become more efficient with our time and use of equipment, making adaptations and modifications as necessary.
 
I think embracing continued education about our crop and the industry it serves is essential to successful practice. It has been exciting as I have been embraced as a contributing woman to our operation. 
 
How will wine grape farming evolve in the next five years?
 
Nationally, interest in, and appreciation for, regionally produced wine grapes and the resulting wine has increased. The climate and topography in Virginia varies dramatically across the state and various appellations have been delineated for producing quality grapes.
 
The industry has grown exponentially over the past 20 years in Virginia, and growing practices and the science behind growing vines and fruit that have specific chemical and structural qualities desired by winemakers and consumers will continue to evolve – I believe more so in the next five years than in the last 10.
 
What is your greatest challenge as a wine grape farmer?
 
Personally, my greatest challenge as a farmer in general is increasing the knowledge level locally about our operation and contribution to the community and state. Wine grapes are a crop that is extremely weather dependent, and last year’s late frost followed by severe drought really took its toll. Likewise, the plants are susceptible to multiple diseases and pests that can ruin not only a crop, but contracts as well. Remaining abreast of the latest practices and changes in growing techniques and management is both exciting and challenging.
 
How does a wine grape farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
 
As fruit growers, we are dependent on the wineries that purchase our fruit for retail wine production. There have been recent changes in distribution laws that have greatly affected contract relationships around our state, but contracts also change rapidly due to supply and demand of a certain variety or the reputation of a grower.
 
We have worked very hard to establish quality practices on our farm, and are in the fortunate position of being solicited for our fruit. I often have to turn away two or three interested wineries annually, but we still deal with changes in tonnage going to different buyers. The acreage planted the past two years has been varieties specifically requested by our contracted buyers, based on anticipated fruit needs three years from now when those vines come into production.
 
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
 
Conservation is a concern to many in our community. Using safe and efficient practices in our operation benefits everyone. We take measures to prevent contamination to wells and streams from runoff and livestock. We plant pasture and hay with no-till drills. We plant grape vines by hand and maintain ground cover between rows to limit erosion. And of course, we use the safest effective herbicides, pesticides and fungicides available to limit risk to humans, plants and animals.
 
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
 
Technically, we don’t have a specific product available to the retail market, but we do sell grapes to a local winery. Most of our fruit travels a few hours after being harvested to its final destination. One winery that purchases our fruit labels the bottles with our name if the grapes produce wine that is premium quality for retail standards. Depending on quantity and availability, that wine gets sold trough local retailers in our region. 
 
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
 
Most people in our community are pretty surprised to hear that there is a vineyard in their backyard. It is relatively visible from the road, but most seem not to have noticed. We get a lot of support for maintaining the farm and trying to preserve some heritage, but there are only a handful of fully operating farms left immediately around us. It is becoming more of a novelty, which is a shame in some ways, but also has its advantages as people become further removed from direct agriculture and are curious about production, local products, food safety, and local economy. With juggling other jobs and children as well, the biggest surprise for most is just the magnitude of what we are trying to do and how we chose the vineyard industry.