For generations, tobacco has been “king of crops” in Kentucky but farmers are now growing grapes to recover from income lost from tobacco.
According to the Kentucky Vineyard Society there are 450 vineyards and 30 wineries in Kentucky. That’s up from 12 wineries just a few years ago.
We take you to Metcalfe County, where farmers are exploring their options on crops. Metcalfe County is home to a blueberry farm, pumpkin farm and now a vineyard.
The unlikely combination of the farmer and the vineyard will make you wonder, just how hard is it to start your own?
“People are slow to change. There has to be one person that’s willing to dive in,” said Brandon Bell, Metcalfe County Ag Extension Agent.
Bell said, to keep agriculture in Kentucky farmers will have to step outside the box. He’s talking about someone like Bill Lytle, a retired Air Force pilot with no experience in farming until now.
“It’s a lot of work. I enjoy doing it. It makes great conversation. At two acres I’m at the break-even point rather than making money,” Lytle said. He started his vineyard just by planting 1,200 vines.
“ ... Right now on the table grapes. I have enough neighbors that come by and want them that I don’t have to do much advertising because production is not as high as I was hoping it would be,” Lytle said. That’s because even though Bill’s farm is in a good spot, “ ... one of the things you look at here is, it’s on a south slope. You want to have the grapes on a slope,” Lytle said.
“This soil in this area varies a lot. That’s the problem I have here. There’ s a lot of stoney clay and some soil that’s just about perfect,” Lytle said.
Any farmer is at the mercy of Mother Nature, who ultimately decides the outcome of a crop. It’s a high price to pay when you wait three-to-four years for the financial return of growing grapes.
“ ... But this year, the extra rain we had in July watered out the flavor, so the flavor wasn’t as good this year,” Lytle said but there’s always next year for farmers.
“Since its not grape growing season, the vines are pretty much overgrown but when it’s main pruning time, which is January or February, he’ll cut them back ... and that’s where the grapes will start to grow
“When people drive by and see this place they’re curious and it causes them to drop by and check it out,” Bell said.
As the grapes take their place once again on the vines, Lytle is reminded why he’s spending so much time in his own vineyard.
“The main reason to have a vineyard is to be able to sell to wine makers or make wine yourself,” Lytle said.
As agri-tourism gains popularity in Kentucky, “I have seen the demand for grapes pick up as I’ve traveled the state,” Bell said.
Lytle fears his vineyard won’t get the attention some of the others do in more populated places.
“There’s a bit of disadvantage out where I am, because it’s quite a distance from other wineries and large scale outlets,” Lytle said and the larger scale wineries aren’t located in dry counties.
But Lytle still has high hopes for Southern Kentucky, as he looks to the future and his family to carry on the new tradition.
“I think in ten to 15 years it will be a very good location with I 66, 68 because of connection to Lexington to Bowling Green,” Lytle said.
The Kentucky Vineyard Society said farmers have the potential to make up to $4,000-an-acre on a vineyard.
For more information on Kentucky vineyards, visit the Kentucky Vineyard Society’s website at www.kyvineyardsociety.org.