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Maryland grower goes out on top, with wine in his future

Slideshow: Starting Layton’s Chance Winery was William Layton’s ticket to return to farming.

William Layton is getting some solid corn yields this season: 185-188 bushels an acre on his dryland, and 220-230 bushels on his irrigated ground.

Not bad, but it’s a little bittersweet. This is the last year William is growing corn and soybeans on his nearly 2,000-acre farm just outside Vienna, Md.

“It’s nice to go out on a high note,” he says.

He’s not quitting farming, but he’ll be renting out most of acres to another farmer starting next year so he can focus on something much smaller but, hopefully, more profitable: winemaking.

Unexpected homecoming

William grew up on his parent’s farm and would’ve been the third generation of his family to farm, but it wasn’t something he embraced.

“I didn’t like it at all. It was not something I wanted to do,” he says.

He went to the University of Maryland and got a degree in business. It’s also where he met his future wife, Jennifer. They moved to Kansas City, then Los Angeles as William worked his way up to warehouse supervisor for Toyota Parts. But after four years being away from the farm, the itch to come home got real.

He told his parents in 2000 that he wanted to come back to farm. It wasn’t a quick move, though. He and Jennifer needed time to think about their move while his father, Joe, needed time to think about how to include William in the family business.

In 2003, the couple moved back to Maryland, and William started farming alongside his father. They were Mid-Atlantic Master Farmers in 2013.

“It was just the biggest surprise to them. They did not expect me to come back,” he says.

Changing for the future

His father hadn’t upgrading anything on the farm, as he was actively planning to retire and get out of the business. William says that changes were needed on the farm, and a different mindset and future.

The couple thought of ways they could add something else to the farm, whether it be animals, agritourism, fruits or vegetables. On a vacation one year, he and Jennifer visited some wineries. Then the idea of a winery came up, but Jennifer quips that it was a joke. Neither one was a wine lover.

“Growing the farm was not something that dad and I were successful at,” he says. “It takes a certain skillset to go out and get more land, and that’s not something we’re good at.”

So in 2005 they decided that a winery was the way to go. In 2007 they planted their first grapes, in 2009 they built the winery, and in 2010 they officially opened Layton’s Chance Vineyard and Winery.

They grow all their own grapes except Concord, which they get from New York state. Chambourcin, vidal, cabernet franc, Norton and traminette are all grown on the farm.

But William and Jennifer had a big learning curve.

“One, we started drinking more wine,” he says.

Family meetings would be served with a glass of red or white, just to get a feel for what it tastes like. They started taking trips, four times a year, to wineries across the region, including to Virginia, Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes in New York. They attended training classes from wine organizations and Cooperative Extensions, and they took beginning grape grower classes.

But the biggest thing they did was learn from other growers.

“There is so much to it and so much to learn. We spent a lot of time visiting local vineyards and tried to spend some time working in those vineyards,” William says. They also worked with a state viticulturist to figure out where to put their vines.

While most of Delmarva is known for its sandy, well-drained soils, just south of U.S. Route 50, where Layton’s Chance Vineyard is located, is a heavier clay-like soil.

“Traditionally, growers are taught to put grapes in some of the poorest soils on the farm. They tell you if you put corn on there, you don’t want to put grapes in there,” he says. Well, they put the vines in the most fertile ground on the farm.

"What's more important than nutrients is being well-drained, when it comes to grape growing,” he says.

While corn and soybeans are all about production, vineyard grapes are more about quality than quantity. In this fertile soil, though, he got good quality and lots of grapes.

“It’s probably the biggest mindset view I had to go through with putting in the vineyard. With corn it’s about producing as much a crop you can,” he says. “With grapes it’s about managing crop loads and focusing more on quality.”

This season’s a good example. The abundant rains the farm saw in August and through the beginning of September were great for his corn and soybeans. For his grapes, not so much.

“With the grapes they don’t like so much water. August, we had a lot of rain and we had a lot of rain here through the beginning of September. So that’s been a struggle but not as bad as two years ago,” he says.

Completing the transition 

William expected that his father would be resistant to change, but he’s found him to be a lot more progressive than he thought.

“His thing was, ‘I’m not learning something new. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and you’re going to learn something new.’”

Now that Joe’s getting older, though, managing two different businesses has gotten too much for William.  

"The farm has done well but stayed the same. The winery has grown, and my time is required more on the farm as he does less,” he says. “It's also required me more here as the winery has grown. The last two years I have just worked god-awful hours trying to keep up with both and I can't keep doing that.

“Over 10 years now the quality of our wines have really increased. We really have figured a lot a lot of things out.”

He and Jennifer grow 14 acres of vines with space to put in another 24 acres if necessary. They produce 15,000 gallons, or 12,000 cases of wine, a year.

They employ less people now than they did in the beginning with only 2 acres, so they’ve learned to become more efficient.

“I think a lot of it is knowing your vines,” William says. “There are different vines that need different amounts of care. You don't have to spray all of them the same amount. There are some acres you can spray less, some you have to spray more. There are some where you have to pull all the leaves from in front of the fruit and some you don't have to, or don't want to.”

In 2011, Jennifer left her full-time job to come back to the farm, where she works as the business manager. They produce 20 different wines, and everything gets bottled and processed at the winery.

William and his father have completed the farm transition, a process that started with William working under Joe, then Joe transferring the farm to William and working under him. Now, William has taken over for what he hopes is a long time, albeit with a different vision.

“I’m very fortunate. There are a lot of people than can never convince their father to transfer the farm over to them. He’s a very thoughtful person,” he says. “I’m fortunate that he had that mindset.”

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