Valley Bounty: Grapes

The grape vines at Apex Orchards in Shelburne had a rough start in 2019. “It was a tough winter,” Tim Smith, owner of the orchard, explained during a recent conversation. “In some cases, they were killed right down to the ground.” Smith was never able to identify a cause for this extensive damage. Large temperature swings during the cold months are the typical cause, but last winter’s temperatures were relatively stable. Mysteriously, the grapes were the only crop on the farm that sustained significant winter injuries.

Farming is a trade filled with inexplicable twists of nature. “You just pick up, move on, and do what you think you can to cure the situation,” Smith said. “In this situation, we just cut out all that dead wood and hoped they would regrow.” Fortunately for Smith, his grape vines did regrow throughout the summer. In mid-August, the crew at Apex Orchards began the grape harvest that should last through Columbus Day.

Smith grows varieties of table grapes that were bred for Northern regions. He explained that most of the grapes you find in the grocery store year-round are grown in California or Mexico. Those varieties lack cold tolerance and could potentially be wiped out by a single frost. Beyond their cold tolerance, Smith finds that his northern grape varieties have a more complex flavor: “the Vanessa grape has a spicier flavor to it, as does the Marquis.”

Planting the grapes at Apex Orchards was part of a fundamental shift that took place on the farm when Smith took over from his parents decades ago. When Smith was growing up, Apex almost exclusively grew Mcintosh apples for wholesale. But the unpredictability of the wholesale market was a major challenge to the business. “We had a number of bad years where even with a full crop we were barely able to break even,” Smith said. “My parents could see the writing on the wall that the farm wasn’t going to be here unless we made some changes.”

When Smith stepped into a leadership role on the farm in the mid-90s, he had his family’s support to change the business’s focus to farmers’ markets and direct to customer retail. To broaden their offerings for customers, Smith began planting a wide variety of fruits. First came peaches, then nectarines and pears, and eventually plums, apricots, and, of course, grapes. Today, two thirds of the orchard’s produce is sold at their farm store and farmers’ markets. Smith is glad they made the shift. “Of course, we have bad years just like any other farm. But at least we have control over the situation.”

Grapes are a remarkable plant. Even when their vines are destroyed, as happened at Apex Orchards last winter, their roots can live on to rejuvenate the plant the next season. In fact, Smith explained, grape plants have been known to live for well over 100 years. At 15 years old, the grape plants at Apex Orchards are relatively young. With any luck, they will thrive for many more decades as the orchard continues to change under the leadership of farmers to come.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)