Once upon a time, Iowa farmers grew grapes that were prized for their quality and shipped to neighboring states. Today, those vineyards have disappeared, and most of the fresh grapes sold or processed in Iowa come from California and Chile.
But the story doesn't have to end here. A report issued by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University shows that grapes could be a promising value-added crop for Iowa farmers looking for specialty markets or agri-tourism opportunities.
The Leopold Center report coincides with formation of the Iowa Wine and Grape Advisory Council by Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge, and announcement of a new Iowa Food Policy Council by Governor Tom Vilsack. The 30-page paper explores the sources of grapes, wine and juices available in Iowa grocery stores, and suggests ways to help redevelop the industry from a local food systems perspective.
"It's important to take an historical and current look at the system that supplies grapes for Iowa when you consider the potential to rebuild the state's grape industry," said Rich Pirog, the Leopold Center's education coordinator, author of the report. "Iowa has a history of grape production that dates to before the Civil War in the Council Bluffs area. Later, this area supported an active grape growers association representing owners of 400 acres of vineyards."
Pirog found that Iowa was sixth in grape production in the United States in 1919. By 1929, Iowa's production of grapes peaked with a yield of 15.8 million pounds. During that period, Iowa grapes had a reputation for good quality and were shipped to Colorado, Nebraska and South Dakota. Iowa-grown grapes brought association members 30 percent more revenue per ton than the national average, Pirog noted.
However, interest in grape production sagged in the 1930s and 1940s with the focus on corn and soybean production. Widespread use of the corn herbicide 2,4-D resulted in chemical drift, which damaged vineyards throughout the Midwest. Many vineyards were not replaced and grape production dropped to only 56,000 pounds in 1997.
Interest in agricultural diversification and locally-grown produce are prompting state officials to take another look at Iowa's grape industry. Pirog estimated that Iowa would need an additional 330 acres of vineyards to supply five percent of the wine and table grapes, and one percent of the grape juice consumed in the state. Two of the state's largest wineries have indicated they also want to process more locally-grown grapes, rather than using imported varieties.
"Many of Iowa's neighboring states have developed grape and wine promotion programs to renew their grape industries," Pirog added. "In Missouri, for example, a program has helped increase the market share of wine produced and sold within the state, and built on the state's tourism industry."
For a copy of the report, contact the Center at 515-294-3711, or download it from the Center's web site at http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/grapes2000.html