- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

SNOW HILL, Md. (AP) — Eastern Shore enthusiasts say grapes might be the next big moneymaker for the region’s troubled farmland.

In 2002, grapes thrived even as such traditional cash crops as soybeans and corn shriveled from drought.

“It is a high-yield crop and can provide revenue higher than soybeans,” said Brynne Hayes, a Salisbury resident who promotes grape growing and wine-making.

Miss Hayes has received a $10,000 grant to launch the Peninsula Wine Institute, which she says will be an agriculture cooperative for grape growers and enthusiasts, creating interest in grape production and wineries in Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties.

Members of the region’s estimated 40 grape growers joined the co-op at the first Autumn Wine Festival in Salisbury earlier this month.

“There are home wine makers growing their own grapes and some have a winery — just fiddling around,” Miss Hayes told the Salisbury Daily Times. “About 15 of them expressed a strong interest in making it a second job.”

Family farms in the region are on a rapid decline, giving way to agricultural conglomerates. Worcester County, for example, lost 34 percent of its farms in a decade, from 631 in 1987 to 415 in 1997, according to the most recent data available from the Agriculture Department.

“A number of people who have farms want to look at grape growing, and this area could be like California, where urbanization is able to compete with agriculture,” said Jerry Redden of Worcester’s Economic Development Center. “This is a grape-growing area. We have three things: the right soil, moisture and dryoff [from coastal breezes]. I want to help create good-paying jobs on the farm.”

A one-acre vineyard can produce an average of 3 tons of grapes, which equals $1,200 a ton or $3,600 an acre, Miss Hayes said. At that rate, Worcester could get almost $403 million from its 111,835 acres of farmland and move ahead of Wicomico County, the state leader in annual agriculture production.

With vineyards spread over the nearly 71,000 acres of county farmland where corn and soybeans grow, Wicomico County farmers could earn $225.6 million, a 27 percent increase over the $186.3 million generated in annual agriculture production.

Brent Kenney, president of the Maryland Young Farmers, said grapes could be an attractive proposition for Wicomico farmers, who saw corn for grain production plummet from about 5.6 million bushels in 2000 to about 2.9 million in 2002. Soybean yields dropped from about 2.1 million bushels to 1 million during the same period.

“The grain industry remains strong as long as poultry is strong, but people are looking at vegetables, fruits and nurseries,” said Mr. Kenney, a director on the Wicomico County Farm Bureau.

“We’ve heard of vineyards around. More people are talking about it, and anytime there’s a new market on the Eastern Shore, you’ve got to take an interest because it’s life in agriculture on the Shore.”

Young farmers also want affordable startup costs, he said.

“Input costs are expensive with grain,” Mr. Kenney said. “The average new combine can cost $300,000. There is a trend for the bigger, more efficient farms, and that creates competition for smaller farmers. With mergers, they’re being squeezed out.”

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