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Cotton-to-wine grape transition pays off

“Cotton was my first love until I found wine grapes,” says Neal Newsom of Plains, Texas.

High Plains farmers Neal and Janice Newsom traded a life of traditional Texas row crop agriculture for wine grape production.

Neal Newsom grew up a cotton kid. His father and grandfather raised cotton in East Texas and later developed and operated cotton gins in West Texas. When Newsom attended Texas Tech University, chemistry professor Roy Mitchell, a pioneering Texas winemaker, piqued Newsom’s interest in wine grape production.

“Cotton growers are taught to think big at birth; the more rows on the planter and the more acreage you farm is better,” Newsom said. “It’s the reverse for a grape grower.”

The Newsoms diversified their 2,400-acre Upland cotton, milo, and watermelon operation in 1986, with five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes purchased from a California nursery.

“We farmed cotton and grapes for 20 years and planted a few more acres of grapes each year,” Neal Newsom said. “We finally got big enough to become commercially viable in just grapes.”

Today a neighbor farms most of the Newsoms’ row crop ground. The Newsoms, including Neal’s mother Laverne, own and operate the 95-acre Newsom Vineyard. Wine grape yields average 2 to 3 tons per acre; about 250 tons total annually. Harvest runs from late August and to early October. The grapes are grown conventionally.

Grapes have made the Newsoms more financially solvent.

“When I was a big row crop farmer and a smaller-sized grape grower, it seemed like most years I was taking grape money to prop up the cotton farm,” Newsom said. “After 20 years I decided that wasn’t the thing to do.”

“Cotton farming allowed me to buy a lot of land to get where I am. Grapes have always generated more income than row crops. I set the grape price instead of being told what I can take for my cotton crop. That’s a huge difference.”

Newsom sells the grapes to 10 Texas wineries plus a few bins to an Oklahoma winery. Texas-grown wine grapes sell for $1,500 to $2,000/ton depending on the quality and variety, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).

Texas is the nation’s seventh largest wine grape grower with about 280 commercial vineyards on more than 3,100 acres. Texas is the fifth largest wine-producing state with 177 wineries producing about 2.4 million gallons of wine annually.

The High Plains Appellation is one of Texas’ best microclimates and terroirs for grapes, the TDA says. Shallow, sandy soils over caliche, warm daytime and cool nighttime temperatures, plus low rainfall and humidity create the good grape-growing environment. Texas has eight official wine grape-growing regions.

Newsom Vineyards is located at 3,700 feet in elevation and just 15 miles east of the New Mexico state line. About 1,000 plants are planted per acre in 11-foot spacing between rows and 4 feet between the vines.

“Cabernet Sauvignon has always been our kingpin grape,” Newsom said. “It’s probably the hardest variety we grow and it’s difficult to get consistent yields. It’s the grape the wineries want.”

Newsom receives about a 25 percent premium for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Yields average 2.5 tons/acre.

Other varieties grown include Merlot, Sangiovese, Orange Muscat, Tempranillo, Malbec, Pinot Grigio, and Cabernet Franc grapes.

The grapes require 18 to 20 inches of water annually. West Texas rainfall varies from 4 to 25 inches annually. Additional water is pumped as needed from a well drilled to the Ogallala Aquifer.

Newsom utilizes a simple, non-moveable, two-wire vertical shoot positioning trellis system. The vines remain erect naturally due to smaller canopies that result from low vigor soil. The calcareous-type soil includes 1 foot of sandy loam over 1 foot of red clay over caliche.

Newsom shared his cotton-to-grape journey during a TDA-sponsored High Plains Planting Tour for journalists in the late spring.

Newsom strives to reduce labor costs. He developed a mechanical transplanter in 1988, and first mechanically harvested grapes in 1993.

“We mechanically harvested in 23 hours what had previously taken 60 people more than five days to accomplish,” Newsom said.

A mechanical hedger pre-prunes canopies in the spring.

Grapes are harvested at night when the temperatures (and grapes) are cooler. Neal runs the harvester while Janice directs the loading of refrigerated trucks for individual wineries.

Most of the vines are self-rooted. Most commercial rootstocks developed for the California and European wine grape industries do not grow well on the High Plains, Newsom says.

“Research underway at various agricultural research centers around the country could provide commercial rootstock in the next five years designed for nematode control and high pH,” Newsom said. “We need vines that harden off early in the fall to prevent winter kill following the first freeze, plus vines that remain dormant through the winter despite warmer temperatures in January.”

The main canopy pest pressure is powdery mildew which causes stunted berries, scarring, and poor flavors in wine. Newsom uses sulfur all-season long for mildew control. Dithane is applied in the early season. Pristine and Flint provide summer-time control. Three sprays are applied during drier summers and five sprays under wetter conditions.

Pierce’s disease, vectored by the glassy-winged sharpshooter insect, was found on the High Plains several years ago, according to Edward Hellman, viticulture professor and Extension specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension and Texas Tech University. Pierce’s disease kills grapevines, and there are no effective treatments.

“Some vines have tested positive for Xylella fastidiosa, the causal organism of Pierce's disease on the High Plains,” Hellman said. “To date we can't confirm that vines have been killed by PD or that it is being spread. An intensive trapping program in 2008 yielded a handful of glassy-winged sharpshooters.”

Newsom plants elbon rye in the fall between rows as a cover crop to reduce soil erosion and cool the soil in the spring to delay bud break. The rye is sprayed with Roundup after the last freeze date to stop the competition for moisture and later plowed under to mix the organic matter into the soil.

Today the push in Texas is to rapidly increase wine grape acreage. Most Texas grapes are grown for the Tier 1 market, premium wine selling for more than $20/bottle. Newsom believes 10,000 to 12,000 acres are needed to fulfill that demand.

“We need more growers,” said Newsom, immediate past-president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. “We need to significantly increase grape acreage – double or triple it – to meet the demand of wineries.”

The Newsom family has no regrets about leaving cotton production for grapes.

“Our grapes are like our kids; we brag on them nonstop,” Newsom said.


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