GROVE CITY, Ohio (WCMH) – A father-daughter team combined efforts in Jackson County to restore a family legacy of growing fruit.
At the height of the Roaring 20s, a Jackson County farmer decided to plant some apple trees. What started as a few became nearly 200.
“I grew up on that farm,” said Charles Brown, 69, of Grove City. “The work was extremely difficult.”
Brown explained there was a lot of lifting and a lot of hand labor. The harvest involved 60,000 cantaloupes and 30,000 to 35,000 bushels of apples.
Brown’s daughter moved back to central Ohio during the summer of 2020 with her three children.
“Nothing was going on. I mean, there wasn’t anything to do,” said Erin Brown-Lewis. “That’s when I started working on him to start doing this vineyard.”
Brown-Lewis moved home from Georgia to be closer to the family after a divorce. The idea was to keep her children near family.
“I took a trip to Napa Valley three years ago and I came back and I told dad that Napa looks like our farm,” said Brown-Lewis. “It looks like southern Ohio to me.”
In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Jackson County, they broke ground during the spring of 2021 on two acres on a western hillside. The sound of wheels of Amish Buggies could be heard trailing horses’ hooves on the pavement while the family dug into the hillside.
“With the apples, I always felt if you pruned them right, sprayed them right, you wouldn’t have to worry about them for seven or 14 days,” Brown said.
Surely, Brown explained, raising grapes could not be that much more difficult than growing apples.
“I thought it would be easier to raise the grapes than the apples,” he said.
The family planted Vidal grapes which produced white wine, a Noiret which make red wine, and some Jupiter grapes, which are for eating. In total, they have 200 vines spanning the two acres.
“It’s a big outlay of a financial commitment and then time and labor, too,” said Ohio Grape Industries Executive Director Christy Eckstein. “Even though you’re not getting grapes, you’re still out in the vineyard daily.”
According to OGI, it costs anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per acre to plant grapes. That price does not include the land. What makes that expense a bitter drink to swallow is that it takes anywhere from three to five years before the vine produces a harvest.
“Grapes are known to be, along with tobacco, one of the most labor-intensive crops,” Eckstein said. “It’s 24-7, 365 days a year.”
The family quickly learned grapes are not like other crops.
“The grapes are more like a newborn baby: You have to be checking on them constantly,” Brown said.
The family travels to the vineyard constantly for priming, pruning, weeding, and fighting off disease and animals. The vineyard is more than a beautiful oasis; the grapevines require actual sweat equity.
They found early success merely 15 months into the project.
“They are completely covered in clusters of grapes,” Brown-Lewis said.
“Even other growers say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,'” Brown added.
Most farmers would be delighted with early success. Instead, the family took to the rolling hills with the purpose of eliminating the fruit. The task seemed easy enough, except, the vines were relentless.
“We did try to strip most of the grapes off this year because they don’t like for them to produce until the vines are mature; we just couldn’t do it there was so many,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re going to see how it goes, but I think Erin is going to be making some wine this fall.”
This vineyard has never been about starting a business. Instead, the family wanted to work on producing a crop together and growing closer.
“Every memory we have in this vineyard has been wonderful,” Brown-Lewis said. “We talk, we tell stories, we work together, and I love it. There is something really special about being there and working with our family.
For Erin’s dad, the idea was good and turned into something he never expected.
“I have enjoyed it so much and the vineyard is different, maybe it’s more of a hobby to me than the apple orchard was,” he said. “There is a spiritual sense that you get in the vineyard that I never got in the apple orchard. I can’t really explain it, but there’s something really peaceful.”
Their plans are to make home wines and continue enjoying the time they have with each other on the family farm. That farm spans five generations and has a story of raising fruits. Even though the apple trees were removed in 1993, the family farm is growing again. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a new family business lurking around the hill for the family.
“A lot of our wineries are successful because they have that story,” Eckstein said when talking about Ohio’s successful wineries. “They are first-second generation agribusinesses that are all very diverse. None are exactly alike.”
For Brown, he sees a future for the family and other farmers in the community.
“This could be the beginning of another renaissance for Jackson County, but this time with grape growing,” he said.
As for Brown-Lewis, she’s focused on the legacy.
“I think the story of our farm is a really great one,” she said. “The fact that it goes back so many generations and it’s still in our family and it’s being farmed.”