First Posted: 1/15/2009
September is traditionally the beginning of the grape harvest. And, according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, the small army of growers who raise grapes from the state's shore to the Smokies can expect an exceptional season due to favorable weather and a rising demand for the fruit.
North Carolina has 37 wineries across the state and ranks 12th in the nation in both wine and grape production. In 2003, vineyards produced 2,800 tons of bunch grapes and muscadines, which are native to North Carolina.
Dan Weathington, who works in agribusiness development with the state Agriculture Department, sees more than just purple when he looks at a vineyard: He sees green, as in legal tender.
Weathington says the state is in the early stages of trying to educate farmers about the profitability of growing grapes. He says with tobacco waning, farmers can pluck a good living off the vine.
“What with all the wineries popping up in the state, we already have a built-in market for grapes,” Weathington said. “Right now, most of the state's wineries have to buy their grapes from out of state. Farmers could sell these folks the grapes they need, as well as grapes to wineries in other states. And there's also a big market for juice.”
Weathington says Robeson County is the perfect place to grow grapes, as it possesses a great climate and has the rich, loamy soil in which grapes thrive.
But even though it has the potential to be a true cash crop, Weathington says prospective grape growers shouldn't expect to become quick-change artists.
“It takes patience to raise grapes,” Weathington said. “It usually takes five years after planting to get your first harvest. So we're not telling farmers to go out and start using all their land to raise grapes, but to set aside a little land and start slow.”