Harvest season is underway for local non-traditional ag producers. Wine and mead makers in southeast Iowa have reported smaller numbers in some crops this year and higher in others due to weather conditions.
Kurt Garretson is a mazer at East Grove Farms in Salem. The farm produces mead, an alchoholic beverage created with fruit, water and honey. In a typical year, the farm produces about 10,000 gallons of mead, or enough to fill 125 bathtubs.
He said the farm primarily produces elderberries, aronia berries and grapes but small orchards with apricot, peach, plum and persimmon trees are also spread across about 15 acres of land. His family began planting in 2011 and fortunately, it does not need to replant every year because the bushes and trees are self-sustaining. Replanting is only done when necessary.
About 60 miles northwest of Salem in Keota, Mike Vincent, owner of Wooden Wheel Vineyards, grows four varieties of grapes: two red – Petite Pearl and Marquette – and two white – Brianna and La Crescent. The vineyard is home to about 5,000 plants spread across seven acres of land. Like Garretson, Vincent only replants when necessary, but does all planting by hand.
For grapes, the roots must grow straight and not curl. Otherwise, they will not get the proper nutrients needed from the soil. To plant, Vincent takes a 12-inch auger and drills a hole. Then, he spreads the roots flat onto the ground. In three to five years, the grapes will be ready to be picked.
With berries, a two- to three-year turn around can be expected. Garretson said this can take longer because it all depends on soil conditions, what they are fed and how much water they receive. The entire fields are not picked every year. Only the ripe fruits are picked.
“This year we had a weird year so half of my grapes were (bad) and the other half were pretty good. So, I only ended up picking about half the grapes,” he said. “The winter didn’t bother me any. It was the five weeks of rain and the five weeks of no rain that caused a problem.”
Vincent said the rain did not hit as hard in Keota and reported having an above average yield. Garretson said the rain not only affected his crops but his pollinators, too. This resulted in less production on fruit trees. To increase pollination, he has a honey supplier in Danville put bees on his farm.
If pollinators have an unsuccessful year or not enough fruit is grown, Garretson will outsource and purchase, or trade, with other growers in order to meet the need for the production process.
“Usually, something doesn’t go well because of the weather, but because I have a wide variety of things, running out has never been a huge problem. Even in the worst of years my elderberries have always put on some fruit,” he said.
While pollinators are on the brain in Salem, Vincent said he looks out for pests. Grapes on the vineyard are netted to prevent birds from getting to them. The netting comes on rolls and is easy to put on. Untangling it from the branches to remove before the harvest is the difficult part, he said.
Despite the weather difficulties, one product Garretson said did well this year were berries because they prefer “wet feet,” or wet roots, to grow properly.
“My elderberries that were on hills did not do well, but my elderberries that were in lowlands, where the hills drain into, did real well,” Garretson said.
Likewise, Vincent said grapes do not prefer wet feet and need a way for the water to run off.
“It helps to be at a 2 to 4 percent slope for vineyards because you want to have good drainage,” he said.
Both producers said the plants chosen are cold weather resistant. At East Grove Farms, the aronia berries and elderberries are dormant and the grapes are purchased from Minnesota. This ensures they are used to the cold conditions and will grow properly.
At Wooden Wheel Vineyards, they prefer hybrids, a cross between two grapes. The plants are chosen depending on disease resistance, heartiness and flavor.
By hand or by machine?
The harvest season for East Grove Farms begins in mid-July and continues throughout fall, once fruit trees are ready to be picked. The process is all done by hand, because it is the most cost effective way for the farm.
“You can’t pick elderberries with a machine and I don’t have enough aronia berries to make it worth my time to rent the machine,” he said.
In Keota, Vincent said the harvest season is done by machine. This year for the Brianna grapes alone, one acre produced about nine tons, making the machine a cost effective option.
“Our rows are about 550 feet each and (the machine) can do a row in 15 minutes. If we were harvesting it by hand, it would take approximately 16-20 man hours to harvest the same product,” he said.
Once pressed, each ton produces about 150-160 gallons of juice. One gallon of juice makes about five bottles of wine. Annually, the vineyard produces about 22,000 bottles of wine.