Union Grove Farm purchases land in Maple View; vineyard steps up efforts to produce seedless muscadines | Business

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“You only have one chance to buy land. “

Greg Bohlen heard these words several times while growing up on a farm in Illinois. It was less advice than recognition of the value of land and the fact that the more you own, the more likely you are to benefit from it.

Decades later, Bohlen, who is CEO of Union Grove Farm in Chapel Hill, continues to apply those words to his business plan. His farm recently announced the acquisition of 279 acres from Maple View Farm, bringing the total area under Union Grove Farm to nearly 900.

In early September, Maple View Farm announced that after 25 years it was stopping milk production.

Union Grove Farm will partner with the owners of Maple View Ice Cream and Country Store, which will continue to supply its local ice cream and farm products. In a blog post on Union Grove Farm’s website, the company said it was “committed to retaining the surrounding land acquired for farming in order to maintain and enhance the spectacular sunset views. sunshine from the popular front porch of the country store ‘.

In 2001, Bohlen bought 10 acres of farmland in Chapel Hill. Union Grove Farm was formed and fruit trees were planted with a plan to operate as a pick-your-own produce business. For the first three years, Bohlen and his farm struggled with almost 100% mortality until they got better rootstocks. But it was clear that the orchard was a losing battle.

“It quickly occurred to me that the soil types and structures were not suitable for planting fruit and that everything that existed here was there primarily to kill fruit trees,” Bohlen said. “So, I have largely given up on this effort.”

Bohlen then devoted his time to investigating the truffles, even making a deal with an operator in California to build a truffle farm at Union Grove Farm. Unfortunately, the funding for this business collapsed.

“I started looking for other things,” he said. “A friend of mine sent me a fine-skinned, seedless Muscadine grape, which is mostly sold by catalog. I ordered 500 vines which sounds like a lot, but overall it’s only about two acres.

Even though the business plan had undergone some adjustments, one thing that had not changed was to act on this opportunity to purchase land. Union Grove Farm continued to grow through acquisitions. By 2016, the farm had grown to hundreds of acres.

(Union Grove Farm also has a wedding and event venue, and a French-style farmhouse that can be rented.)

The 500 vines planted were doing well, but Bohlen had questions about the details of growing the grapes. He contacted the company he bought the vines from to ask if he could speak with the company’s horticulturalist. It turns out the company horticulturalist was a man named Jeff Bloodworth and lived in Hillsborough.

“I called Jeff Bloodworth and asked him to come out and see what I was doing,” Bohlen said. “He did it and told me the thousands of things I was doing wrong. So I said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then you know I have to spend a lot more time with you, because I think I would like to do more.’ “

Initially, Bohlen believed Union Grove Farm would grow a standard table grape, not wine grapes. He hired Martin Crompton to help with the vineyard. Crompton disliked using chemicals and fertilizers that farming often involves. The two began to explore if there was a way to grow grapes in a truly environmentally friendly and healthy way, not only for the people who eat grapes, but also for the people who grow them.

Bohlen’s pursuit of an environmentally friendly method of growing grapes should come as no surprise. He was on the board of Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based vegan and vegan meat maker that the company says is healthier and better for the environment.

He was invited to speak on behalf of Beyond Meat at a regenerative conference in San Francisco. It was an eye-opening experience. “I had never even heard of the word regenerative when I was asked to speak at the conference,” Bohlen said. Agriculture was just one of the things they had on the conference list for regenerative practices. I was probably the Luddite at the conference, because A.) I didn’t understand regeneration; and B.) I had no desire to be regenerative in any way. But then I spent a few days listening and realized that what they were saying made a lot of sense.

Essentially, regenerative agriculture allows you to sustainably grow – without herbicides or insecticides – a healthy crop with little or no trace of any of the chemicals commonly used in agriculture.

Bohlen, at first, was unsure whether the regenerative cultivation method could be applied to grapes. But the more he learned about the process, the more it made sense to him.

“Maybe there was something that could be done to dramatically change the quality of what we were doing and the eco-friendly way of doing what needed to be done to build a big farm,” Bohlen said. .

Meanwhile, Bohlen was working with Bloodworth, who used Union Grove Farm to test their grape varieties. For a few years, Bloodworth planted 1,500 varieties of new grapes to try to cross everything and improve everything.

“It all sort of happened at the same time,” Bohlen said. “And that’s why we decided to become a regenerative muscadine farm. “

The quest to build a better grape had begun. Muscadine grapes are known to be high in antioxidants and other health benefits. There is even a study underway at Wake Forest Baptist Health on the effects of antioxidants found in muscadines on various human cancers.

Aside from the health benefits and sweetness, most muscadines have two characteristics that keep them from becoming a more popular table grape: thick skin and seeds. Union Grove Farm was determined to create a seedless, thin-skinned muscadine that could be mass-produced using the regenerative farming method.

Bohlen felt his team were up to the task. In addition to collecting a lot of land, Union Grove Farm has concocted an impressive amount of brains. The staff include Bloodworth, who is a grape breeder and grower; Martin Compton, regenerative winegrower; Todd Harrington, Soil Food Web Biologist; Dane Jensen, shepherd and regenerative farmer; Dr Laura Kavanaugh, of Duke University, specializing in genomics; and Meredith Sabye, who is a communications shepherd.

“Through a lot of dogged effort we were able to get that same Thompson Seedless (grape) gene into muscadine,” Bloodworth said in a video on the farm’s website. “We can almost breed them normally. We can almost create anything we want.

This was the breakthrough for Union Grove in growing table grapes that customers would want to eat. Union Grove Farm’s initial harvest of grapes is sold in stores, including the Weaver Street Market. Ultimately, the plan is to produce millions of pounds of table grapes and get them to market.

“We’re on our way to becoming the largest winery east of the Mississippi,” Bohlen said. “It’s not a small business, and it’s not cheap. We take great care in ensuring that everything we do is also done with the ability to generate a profit. I would be lying if I said we are doing this just because we are selfless. There is a substantial profit motive that determines what we do and how we do it. As with any other border opportunity, there is a substantial risk and therefore the key metrics we always use when building businesses are that with each successive round of capital that we invest in the business there must be a reduction. of the risk associated with that capital, and the same is true of everything we do here on the farm.

It’s a lot of time, money, effort, and land put into a log-sized fruit, but Bohlen and his team at Union Grove Farm think it’s worth it and are determined to make it happen. in his quest through regenerative farming methods.


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