191 acres devoted to vineyards in 8 Md. Eastern Shore counties, 48 acres in two Del. counties
While grape farming is not a large part of the agricultural market in the Delmarva counties in Delaware and Maryland, vineyards are one of the farm segments growing in the two states.
The driving force is greater demand by local wineries for locally-grown grapes.
“Delaware has a small number of established vineyards, predominantly in Kent and Sussex County,” said Stacey Hofmann, chief of community relations at the Delaware Department of Agriculture. “As of the 2017 Ag Census, Delaware has five vineyards actively in production that harvested 48 acres of grapes.
“The vineyards produce the grapes predominantly for wine, sold on-site direct to consumers in-person and online, retail establishments, restaurants, and other markets, including the Mid-Atlantic region.”
Grape vineyards cover a total of 190.75 acres in eight of the nine Delmarva counties on the Eastern Shore in Maryland. According to the Maryland Wineries Association, ground used for grape production includes 12.5 acres in Caroline County, 32 acres in Cecil County, 13.5 acres in Dorchester County, 15 acres in Kent County, 87 acres in Queen Anne’s County, 12.25 acres in Talbot County, 14.5 acres in Wicomico County, and 4 acres in Worcester County.
“Based upon typical annual yields, there would have been about 375-400 tons harvested in 2020,” said Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. “The average 2019 price per ton for hybrid grapes was $1,370, and $2,095 per ton for vinifera grapes.” Atticks said that almost all grapes are used directly by growers in their own wineries or sold to other Maryland wineries. Few grapes are sold to out-of-state buyers.
Crow Vineyard & Winery is part of the Crow Farm in Kennedyville, Md. In 2020, grapes were harvested on 12.5 acres of the 365 acre family farm that produces a variety of agricultural products.
The harvest last year included 30 tons of eight varieties of grapes.
“We use all our grapes for our own wine production,” said Judy Crow, owner Crow Vineyard & Winery and Crow Farm. “We make wine for a few other local wineries, and sometimes they purchase our grapes for their wine production.”
Harvest Ridge Winery includes a vineyard along the border of Delaware and Maryland. “We planted 18 acres of grapes in 2020,” said Daniel Watras, vineyard manager at Harvest Ridge Winery. “Our grape harvest in 2020 was 20.8 tons. We use all of our grapes for wine production.”
Production was less than average in 2020, according to Watras. “COVID made it hard to get materials on time,” he said.
“In May we had a late frost hit us pretty hard. Soon after, that we got hit with herbicide drift which affected our fruit set significantly,” he said. “We also had an exceptionally wet year from July through November which made it hard to control late season pests, such as downy mildew and spotted wing drosophila.
“The downy hung around until October which we had never had in previous years. 2020 was a challenging year all around. The fruit we did manage to get was quality fruit.”
Both Delaware and Maryland leaders agreed with Watras that weather and the COVID-19 Pandemic impacted grape harvests last year. “There were challenging weather conditions in 2020 that reduced yields,” said Atticks. “We have all been impacted by the COVID pandemic in one way or another,” said Hoffman. “The wineries were affected because of the restaurants being closed and a decrease in agritourism due to restrictions; however, people could still purchase their favorite wines directly or at retail locations. As we begin to open back up and restrictions change, we anticipate seeing tourism increase, which will help Delaware vineyards.”
In Maryland, “COVID-19 impacted grape growers in that finding labor, and ensuring that existing labor could operate safely in the pandemic, was a serious consideration for everyone,” said Atticks.
“For those grape growers who also have wineries, the emergency order shutdowns forced all them to adjust their operations to more curbside pickups, deliveries, online sales, and shipping,” Attcks said. “Wineries moved to outdoor only operations, offering bottle sales and flights to socially distanced patrons. Anecdotally, across the industry, this led to increase per customer sales. And customers have shown a loyalty to their state wineries, trying to support local products as much as possible.”
Despite the weather concerns that almost all farmers deal with as well as, hopefully, the temporary impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, grape farming is one segment of the agricultural industry poised for growth in the coming years.
“We are adding an additional 4.5 acres of grapes in April and replanting 2 acres of a variety that has not produced well for us in the past with a proven variety for us,” said Watras. “We are hoping to produce 33.5 tons of grapes this year. I am sure we will run into the same challenges as we did with COVID, as we did last year. Hopefully things will catch up. We can only hope the weather cooperates with us this year, but it has been increasingly unpredictable.”
“The demand from state wineries for quality Maryland-grown grapes outpaces supply,” said Atticks. “Additionally, in 2018 the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation to require that all Class 4 wineries own (or have under their control) at least 20 acres of grapes or other fruit. If a winery is not able to meet that threshold, they were then required to ensure that at least 51% of the ingredients used in production were Maryland grown ingredients. This law goes into effect in 2023; as a result, this has created increased demand for Maryland grown fruit.”
With that growth comes certain difficulties. One of the issues affecting many farmers is the difficulty in securing and retaining workers.
“We are making some purchases to make our vineyard more mechanically efficient as reliable labor is becoming increasingly hard to find,” said Watras.
Beyond the labor market, Atticks said that “…disease and pests are external forces that impact grape growers every year. The Spotted Lanternfly, found extensively in Pennsylvania vineyards, is of great concern to all grape growers for the incredible damage it can do to vineyards. It has been sighted in some of the northernmost counties, including Cecil. A quarantine was issued by the Maryland Department of Agriculture in 2019 to prevent the spread of the pest via plant, construction and packing materials.”
Sustainability is important throughout the Delmarva. “Vineyard production keeps valuable agriculture land in agriculture, and the wide range of agricultural practices that can be employed in grape production means that they can be a less intensive alternative to other crops,” said Atticks. “The Maryland Grape Growers Association has encouraged…identifying opportunities for implementing new and evolving sustainable practices. All state grape growers are very conscious of our position within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
(The Delmarva Jordbruk Chronicles is a news column that details agriculture in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. “Jordbruk” is Swedish for “Agriculture.” Please contact Richard McDonough at email@example.com. © 2021 Richard McDonough.)