Grapes and Wine: Adding Value to Nebraska's Economy

By Christine Hunt

"When a winery gets established in a small rural community, it attracts people. It becomes a destination," said Paul Read, professor of horticulture and viticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When people visit Nebraska wineries, like Whiskey Run Creek in Brownville or Five Trails in Paxton, they patronize the winery and support winery jobs. They also buy fuel at the gas station, drop in at the antique shop around the corner, eat dinner at the restaurant and stay at the Bed and Breakfast. They infuse money into the town's economy, he said.

Read's research, teaching and extension programs are closely tied to the developing grape and wine industry in Nebraska, which has 26 wineries and more than 150 vineyards. The greatest profit in growing grapes is selling their value-added products, such as juice, jams, jellies and gourmet vinegars. Wine, the most important value-added product of grapes, has the greatest profit margin, said Read.

Creating a Sustainable Industry
Read's research is focused on finding grapes that will successfully grow in Nebraska, which can be challenging since conditions can vary widely throughout the state, he said. Typically, Western Nebraska has a shorter growing season and colder winter temperatures. Some grapes that flourish in Southeast Nebraska will not survive in Western Nebraska. Other variables often include soil conditions, humidity and rainfall amounts, he said.

In order to assist growers, Read has tested more than 75 cultivars, or types of grapes, for almost 15 years in his research vineyards located across the state.

In addition, Read has focused part of his research on reducing the inputs of chemicals. He tests for grapes that can grow with minimal inputs of fungicides and insecticides, which are chemicals that are used to control diseases or pests. Fewer chemicals protect the soil and air while saving the growers' money. "If we can do it with fewer inputs, we become more sustainable," said Read.

Read explained that in some cases, the grape plant itself can contribute to sustainability by stabilizing the soil. For instance, wind erosion of the soil is a problem in Western Nebraska. Winds blow the soil off the land and into the streams and rivers, with the soil often ending up in the Gulf of Mexico, he said. If soil continues to be lost, growers will lose their productive land and profits, he said.

Grape vines are perennial crops with extensive root systems. These root systems allow them to exploit large volumes of soil for both nutrients and moisture, explained Read. The root system also anchors the soil, holding it down and protecting it from the wind, which is another contribution to sustainability, he said.

According to Read, the simple definition of sustainability is "can you continue to produce profitably enough to stay in business over a period of years?" If vineyards and wineries are not able to produce a quality product that the buying public wants to buy, it doesn't matter whether the vineyards have reduced inputs, he said. "The true test of sustainability is 'can this industry continue?' 'Are they going to be able to continue to produce profitably?' 'Are they environmentally responsible?' 'Have they been good stewards of the land?'" said Read.

Research Guides Business
Read's research is helpful for individuals considering either expanding a vineyard or starting a vineyard. His research helps each individual choose the appropriate grape for the conditions and how to prepare the land before planting, as well as other considerations, he said.

Much of Read's research takes many years before it is considered complete. One particular grape was in the ground at one of Read's research vineyards from 1999 until 2009. The grape was in the ground for 10 years of tests before it was actually introduced to the public.

He reports on a grape's pros and cons and other observations while growing it over a 10- year period. "There's no perfect grape. There are some that have more advantages than others," said Read.

Read is currently working on a project comparing grapes grown in many different parts of the country: Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and others, he said. An important part of Read's work is the sharing of study results at international conferences so other researchers may benefit from his work.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln funds Read's salary and part of the salaries of his field technologist and lab technician. The rest of the funding has come from the State of Nebraska, the Grape and Wine Board and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, said Read.

Last spring, through a grant from the Grape and Wine Board, Read and his technician visited more than 40 Nebraska growers and wineries in a two-week period, said Read. "That was really positive. You'd be amazed at what some of the people said. 'We thank you so much for coming.' 'Boy, that's been helpful.' You just feel good about what you are doing," said Read. Since funds are scarce, Read doesn't often get that opportunity, he said.

Award-Winning, Quality Product
"Our industry is growing steadily, our wines are winning awards in international competitions," said Read. In the last two years, four different wines have been selected as the best white wine in competitions with wines from Europe, Australia, and California. "It's pretty good company we're traveling in. The quality is there. The growth is possible," said Read.

Read added, "Beyond the added value of transforming juice into wine, is the impact on the economy. This is what's really important."


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