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Indiana Farmer Downsizes Dairy, Switches to Grapes

Indiana Farmer Downsizes Dairy, Switches to Grapes
Indiana grape growing can be a risky business without ready market.

By Amanda Gee

Although a self-professed dairyman at heart, a San Jacinto, Ind., farmer has been growing grapes for about 12 years now. Richard Wahlman turned to growing specialty crops such as grapes and tobacco when his dairy kept growing and he decided he didn't want to keep growing with it.

He started looking for other agricultural ventures in the mid-1990s and settled on grapes after attending the Indiana Horticultural Congress.

"I knew nothing about how to grow grapes, but I'm an old farmer and I've always grown stuff," Wahlman said. "I farmed for years, so I wasn't afraid of hard work; I wasn't afraid to try something new."

Inspect the crop: Jennings County farmer Richard Wahlman looks over some of his Corot Noir vines on Sept. 22 to make sure they're ready for harvest the following week.

He and his wife Susan, along with other family members, planted Cayuga White grape vines and a couple other varieties on two acres of ground near Graham Creek in Jennings County.

Wahlman said his family is fortunate in that they farm on productive ground. Even so, the first crop didn't perform well, causing Wahlman to tear the vines out.

Bruce Bordelon, Purdue Extension viticulture specialist and member of the Purdue Wine Grape Team, said the grape growing business takes a lot of work and risk. For a relatively new grower on five acres or fewer, it can be challenging to make a profit. 

"It's risky to be a grape grower only," Bordelon said. "One of the problems with growing a crop like grapes is if you sell it directly to a consumer, then you can make a profit. But there's not much of a market for that, so growers usually sell to a processor or winery."

Wahlman didn't give up on his new venture He tried other varieties. He sold his dairy cows and started a job at the county clerk's office. And after a few more years and the addition of Traminette, Chambourcin and Corot Noir vines, Wahlman began to have too many grapes for his small wholesale market of neighbors and Amish communities.

"Milk, tobacco, you've got a ready market for it. I had too many grapes and didn't have a market, so I went back to Hort Congress and talked to people," Wahlman said. "Mark Easley saw potential and said he'd take my grapes."

Easley, owner of Easley Winery in downtown Indianapolis, set up a 10-year contract with Wahlman to buy his wine grapes.

There are now two years left in the contract and Wahlman still faces risks with the crop. With no crop insurance available for his grapes, his risk may be higher, but he now has a ready market and more time for family.

Gee is a senior in Purdue University Ag Communications

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