As Iowa farmers prepare to harvest what could be a record corn crop, Iowa vineyards are facing a possible glut of grapes. The bumper crop has some growers looking at different ways to conduct the harvest. Tassel Ridge Winery near Leighton has deployed a brand new “KorVan” harvestor that straddles the vines and mechanically shakes loose the ripe grapes. Tassel Ridge owner Bob Wersen says he has 57 acres of vines and harvesting by hand wasn’t economical.
“This will reduce the total cost of harvest dramatically from about 4,000 man hours down to someplace in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 and the important thing, though, is quality because we can get these grape varieties in when they’re at their peak rather than waiting,” he says. At the Summerset Winery near Indianola, about a 100 wine enthusiasts paid $25 a piece so they could help pick the grapes by hand.
Summerset Winery owner Ron Mark has about 13 acres of vines. “We started several years ago with a lot of people — just friends and family — wanting to be part of it, and it got to be so big that we finally had to say, ‘We’ve got to slow this down,’ so we put a price on it — and it got bigger,” Mark says.
In 1999, there were two wineries in Iowa. Today, there are 62. Mike White of Iowa State University, a viticulture specialist, says the 2009 grape harvest in Iowa could set a record. “It takes several years to kind of figure out how to grow these grapes right,” White says. “So we’re getting better growers, better acreage, and the supply’s coming on.” Iowa was the nation’s sixth-largest grape producing state at the turn of the 20th century, but a combination of factors — like Prohibition and a growing demand for corn and soybeans — caused the industry to decline.
A blizzard in 1940 wiped out nearly all the vines in the state, then the widespread use of the herbicide 2, 4-D wiped out most of the rest by 1954.