Despite unfriendly Kansas climate, soil, local farmer’s grape vineyard still strong
Taylor Atkins Greg Shipe never really gets a sigh of relief.
For the owner of a 150-acre farm and winery just west of the Eudora city limits, there is always something with the potential to harm his business. Storms. Weeds. Market regulations. Right now, it's the lack of rain that is furrowing his brow.
"We've had a little over 9 inches so far," said Shipe, who came by the farm from his maternal Davenport side. "We're usually at 14 inches, and we're getting into the drier season. If we go into a drought, we're in trouble."
Grapes, as Shipe said, are not always a year-to-year crop. A drought or another act of God can set the farm back a few years, and Shipe's farm has already taken a few hits this year. The severe storms that moved through the area in May damaged a portion of his Steuben grape crop, along with causing structural damage on the property.
"The machine shed door was pulled off and tore through the vines and poles," he said. "That's a strong wind because that door is 13 and a half feet tall and 14 feet wide."
The Steuben crop, which ripens to be a bluish-black grape, also was harmed by winter weather. The crop is still being repaired.
"Sometimes the best thing to do is keep planting new ones," Shipe said. "When you pick a variety to grow in Kansas, it doesn't have a history. You take a lot of chances."
Although more than 5,000 types of grapes exist, Shipe said the Kansas climate limits him significantly on which new types to try. He has about 17 different kinds growing at his farm now.
The Kansas climate lends itself to another enemy of Shipe's crops -- grass. As with strong storms or freezing temperatures, weeds and grass can cause irreparable harm to grape crops.
"Grass sucks the moisture out of the soil," Shipe said. "A lot of what I do every day is just pulling out the grass and weeds."
Shipe is not alone in his endeavor to grow grapes on Kansas soil despite the weeds and weather. He said 13 wineries call Northeast Kansas home. In the early 1900s, however, wine was a much more popular market in the state.
"In 1901, 5,668 acres of grapes were grown in Kansas," he said. "Now, I think there is 200 maybe. Prohibition really cleared us out."
To help the future of Kansas grape growers, Shipe participates in field studies with agriculture specialists at Kansas State University in Manhattan. Portions of Shipe's crop are used to test different anti-weed chemicals.
Shipe said it was Research Station at K-State that originally got him interested in grape crops.
"We saw grapes growing, and my wife thought they were pretty," he said. "We've been growing them since then."
With a winery since 1990, Shipe is about to enter into his 12th full harvest, a period that begins in August for his farm and lasts into October, depending on the crop.
"We'll pick through September and sometimes into October, which is nice that we don't have to pick all varieties at once," he said. "One crop can be up to 1,800 pounds and that's all hand-picked."
With such large harvests, Shipe said he enlists the help of local wine-lovers to help pick the grapes. People interested in helping can find more information on the Davenport Winery Web site at www.davenportwinery.com.
Although the grapes are hand-picked, Shipe said machines are used to de-stem and crush the grapes. Then, the grapes are left to ferment and, of course, make wine. Shipe's winery sells 35 different kinds of wine, depending on what is in stock. Bottles range from $8 to $15.
"Everybody has different tastes," he said. "So, there are a lot of most popular wines. We sell out, and we're dangerously low now."
After the harvest, Shipe does not get an off-season. His winery is always open for business. He and his wife also own other small farms in the area and rent houses on each of their properties. The Davenport Winery also participates in the annual Kaw Valley Farm Tour, which runs in early October to increase awareness of agriculture in the area.
On top of those duties, Shipe's crops, which include apples and soybeans along with grapes, need tending to year-round.
"We work all year. There is no time off," he said. "We have winter problems and storm problems. It's pretty frustrating. All I can do is know enough to grow good grapes and make good wine. That's why we got in this business."