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Lined up in rows with military precision, the three acres of T posts support the wires, that support the vines, that support the grapes that Larry Yaden does not let grow — at least not yet anyway.
For the last two years, Yaden has methodically pulled the budding green grapes from the vines, tossing them to the ground.
But next year, it will be a different story. He’ll let the white seyval grapes and the red chamboursin grapes grow and ripen, ready to pluck from the vines and ship to a winery.
“I’ve already talked to Old Crow Inn in Danville, and they need (the seyval grapes) to blend in to make other kinds of wine,” Yaden said.
He is still looking for a market for the chamboursin grapes.
In a county, and even a state, that is not well known for vineyards, why grow grapes?
“After my wife died, I wanted to stay busy, so I thought hay wouldn’t do nothing, and tobacco is gone, so I came up with grapes,” Yaden said.
After a lot of research, Yaden planted the two fields of grapevines at his home on Dry Ridge Road. There are 34 rows of grapes, with each row 400 feet long.
Irrigation lines run the length of each row, about two feet off the ground. Two rows of wire stretch the length of each row as well, offering the growing vines a place to climb. Three vines are planted between each six-foot T post, and at both ends of each row stands another post, five inches in diameter, that is connected to the end T post by a smaller, horizontal post. Those posts are for weight relief, Yaden said. Without them, the entire row would be in danger of collapsing once the vines are hanging full of grapes.
So far, Yaden has about $10,000 invested in the project he started in 2009. And he knows he won’t see his first payday until 2012.
Yaden, 74, grew up in Casey County but moved away and raised his family. He retired in 1998 from the Lexington Herald-Leader, working 38 years for the newspaper, where he started as a Linotype operator.
“ Fred Burkhard actually got me started in Linotype,” Yaden said of the late editor and owner of The Casey County News.
His first job was at a newspaper in Barbourville, and then at the Cynthiana Democrat.
“ At that time, you needed four years of training on the job before you could get into a union, so after that, I got on at the Herald-Leader,” he said.
Yaden and his wife, Wanda, had three children — Carol Sue Peevler, who lives in Richmond, Sherry Howard of Lexington, and son Randall, a former Navy helicopter pilot, who lives in LaGrange. There are also eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and two more on the way, Yaden said.
When the Yadens retired and moved back to Casey County, Yaden said they spent a lot of time traveling, particulary to Florida. It was after one of those trips when Wanda became ill. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died in 2008.
With a quiet house and too much time on his hands, Yaden said the idea to grow grapes began to form.
“At the time I got into this, there were 52 wineries in Kentucky. I wouldn’t have thought there were that many,” he said.
Yaden went to a seminar sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, which was held at Lover’s Leap Winery, and then talked with personnel at Old Crow Inn before he made the final commitment.
“I wasn’t going to do this just for fun,” he said.
Yaden’s property had a small tobacco base, and he was eligible to receive some money from the tobacco settlement funds. He said the $3,000 he received helped him start the vineyard, and he ordered 1,500 vines from New York.
Since then, he’s talked to representatives of several wineries across the state, as has his son, who is helping his father market the grapes.
Yaden knew going into the project that it would be three years before the vines would yield grapes suitable enough to harvest.
But, before he gets there, there’s a whole lot that has to take place.
Lots of care
With his companions on his heels — Scooby, a 3-year-old English/American bulldog, and Squealer, a mutt who just showed up at the house one day — Yaden walks the rows of his vineyards daily.
The vines are in the midst of the May-November growing season, and Yaden always has a skein of thin nylon cord on hand, ready to tie up the fast-growing vines.
“They’ll grow a foot a week,” he said. “You’ve got to train them.”
Yaden mows the 400-foot rows every week, and sprays the vineyards every 14 days.
“If you don’t keep the grass down, it takes the nutrients from the grapes,” he explained.
When he sprays, Yaden dons a huge hat with a full brim that also protects his neck, and he also wears a mask. He carefully maneuvers the tractor between the rows, pulling the sprayer that releases a mist that settles over the vines. Yaden said he uses four different types of spray, which are for both mold and insects.
“Japanese beetles can be bad, but mold is the worst,” he said. “You’re spraying not to get it.”
And if a fungus does settle on the grapevines, Yaden said the grower just might as well forget about harvesting a crop.
Yaden also hand-pulls the small clusters of budding green grapes from the vines, as he does not want them to mature. And it can be a time-consuming job.
“That’s why I need the grandkids down here,” he said with a laugh. “This is just work!”
In the two years that he has tended his vineyards, Yaden said he’s learned a lot by research and talking with others, but also from just plain old experience.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” he said. “There’s nothing like trial and error.”
Countdown to harvest
With his first harvest about 14 months away (August or September 2012), Yaden said that will be when the “rubber meets the road” and he’ll find out if this project has been worth the effort.
While some vineyard owners have machines that pick their grapes, Yaden said he plans to harvest by hand.
“I want people that’s fast enough to get them off,” he said. “They can’t stay in the sun more than 15 minutes after they’re picked.”
Yaden said while the pickers are plucking the grapes from the vines, he will be picking up the filled boxes and load them onto a trailer for transport.
As far as a price for his product, Yaden said right now, he doesn’t know.
“The price depends on what year it is and what type (of grape) you have,” he explained. “UK sets the price at so much per ton. An acre of (seyval) grapes is supposed to produce 2,500 pounds per acre, according to the books.”
Yaden said if the venture with seyval and chamboursin, the wine grapes, proves successful, he would like to plant another field across the road with concord grapes. That type of grape is used to make jams, jellies and juice, and is edible off the vine, unlike wine grapes.
Yaden said if he does plant the concord grapevines, he will not use the T posts.
“The purpose of the T’s is to give you another pound per vine of grapes, but it makes it a lot harder when you spray,” he said.
Meanwhile, Yaden will continue his cycle of pulling the little green grapes from the vines, tieing them up, mowing and spraying through November. After that, the vines will be dormant for a few months.
Next year, Yaden said he will invest in a machine that tests the pH and sugar content of the grapes, which will let him know when it’s time to harvest them.
“When the sugar content gets higher, the pH goes down,” he said. “They want them at a certain number and that’s when you pick. The winery tells you what number to go with.”
Yaden said birds will also be a problem next year as the grapes ripen.
“I’ll have to get net and stretch across the rows,” he said.
While birds may be able to peck away at the grapes, Yaden cautions against popping a ripe wine grape into your mouth.
“I tell people, don’t eat the grapes. This spray I use could kill you, so I may even put up a sign,” he said.
Definitely trial and error.