Meet Vineyard Owner Michael Vincent

Occupation: Owner of Wooden Wheel Vineyards, Keota, Iowa. "Our name was chosen because we like the symbolism that a wheel represents. The wheel could be a ship's wheel or a covered wagon wheel or a farm wagon wheel, all important to the frontier life my family enjoyed in settling this area," says Michael Vincent.

Property: 7 acres of vineyards, plus a winery and event center

Equipment: Dixie Chopper mower; John Deere Gator utility vehicle; International 884 tractor; Deutz-Allis 1920 lawn tractor; attachments including disc, rototiller and broadcast seeder; and specialized vineyard equipment, such as an AgriOzein spray system

Priorities: Reliable and durable equipment that can ensure operation and landscaping tasks can be done quickly and result in a professional, attractive look for visitors.

Video: View a video of Michael Vincent spraying his vineyard:

Michael Vincent is the fifth generation to grow up on his family's homestead in Keota, Iowa, but the farm crisis in the 1980s sent him off the farm for work. After 20 years owning a successful insurance agency, Vincent and his wife, Connie, are happy to be back on the farm. They now own and operate Wooden Wheel Vineyards, a 7-acre wine operation and event center.

"We started our agency in 1993 and had great growth. We had 9 offices and 18 agents and we were doing insurance 24 hours a day," he says, referring to the workload of his property and casualty insurance business. In 2010, their son, Jared, approached them about buying the business.

"We thought that maybe this was a good opportunity for us. We didn't want to sit around and not do anything, so we looked at the 125 acres and thought about what we could do with a small land base, but still generate adequate cashflow," Vincent says. He says they provided insurance to a local winery and knew the potential of the market. After researching it further, the Vincents decided to pursue a vineyard as their next business venture.

Vincent's vineyard is in corn and soybean country and they still rent about 100 acres to an area farmer. A combination of older and newer equipment helped them transition corn and soybean acres to fields of grape vines and, ultimately, to wine sold directly to consumers.

Recommending Equipment

Penn State Cooperative Extension and Lake Erie Regional Grape Program have compiled an equipment checklist for vineyards. Check the list to see what you can sell to your vineyard customers.

Recommended large equipment:

• Tractor: 4 wheel drive, PTO power, spray-safe cab with filter system

• Grape hoe

• Post pounder

• 3-point auger

• Spinning Jenny

• Mower/brush chopper

• Herbicide sprayer

• Fungicide/insecticide sprayer

• Vine hedger

The university experts also list this equipment as not necessary, but useful for vineyard owners:

• ATV or UTV

• Cultivator/seed drill

• Soil spader

"We're slowly taking back acres. We started with 5 acres and added 2 more this spring. We also renovated our old barn that was constructed in 1860 and converted it to a 3,500 square-foot event center," Vincent says. They converted a nearby corn crib into the winery and connected the two buildings. "We now have 8,000 square feet total. The operation keeps us very busy and we host lots of events. We offer a value-added product, because we grow the crop and manufacture the wine. From the field to the end user, we do it all here."

Grapes are the highest value fruit crop in the U.S. and the country's sixth largest crop, according to the National Grape and Wine Initiative.

Making the Transition

The first stage of transitioning the land from row crops to a vineyard involved establishing a bluegrass base. "Bluegrass is the ideal cover crop and when it's hot in the summer, it will go dormant," he says.

Vincent relied on his International 884 tractor, which was built in the late 1980s, and an old 10-foot International disc. "When I farmed in the 1970s, the disc was old then, but it works great for working up 2 or 3 acres at a time," he says. He used a broadcast seeder attachment to plant the bluegrass.

After the grass was established, the next step was to plant the vines. "We created rows with our Deutz-Allis 1920 lawn tractor with a rototiller attachment. We call it 'laying out a grid.' You only plant the vines once, so you want them to be straight."

Vincent used a motorized post hole digger to dig about 3,000 holes for bamboo stakes that support the vines. In all, he's now planted about 4,000 grape vines. He uses 10-foot rows and 8-foot plant spacing for 545 vines per acre. The grape vines are trained to grow on 12.5 gauge high tensile wire.

Farmers wait just one season to realize revenue, but Vincent says vineyard owners have to be more patient. "We had to invest $4,000-$5,000 per acre and it takes 3 years before you get any crop and you don't harvest a full crop until after 5 years," he says. For Vincent, the investment is worth it. "Compared to other farmers in the area, the average farm size is around 2,000 acres, which can generate from $600,000-$800,000 in revenue. We operate on 7 acres of grapes and, with our value-added product, we can produce more than $200,000 in revenue."

Maintaining the Operation

Maintaining his maturing vineyard is now a combination of hand labor and newer equipment. The vineyard is pruned by hand every April and he hauls away the branches with a John Deere Gator he bought in 2011 from Farmer's Supply Sales. The dealership has locations in Kalona and West Liberty, Iowa. The Gator has a heated cab, making the pruning job more comfortable when spring temperatures are still cold.

In 2010, Vincent bought a Dixie Chopper mower from H.D. Cline Co. of Iowa City, Iowa. The dealership also has locations in West Liberty and Tipton, Iowa, and carries equipment from Case IH, Cub Cadet and Woods. Speed and reliability are key factors for Vincent when mowing the vineyard, winery and event center acreage.

"When we're mowing 10 acres a week, every week, we can't take a lot of time. We host lots of weddings, 15 are scheduled for this summer, and things have to look very good. We can't afford to have a mower break down," he says.

Vincent uses other specialized vineyard equipment, including a spraying system he bought directly from AgriOzein of Lindsay, Neb., which mounts in the bed of his Gator. The system uses ozone-treated water and eliminates the need for fungicides and pesticides.

Wine Production: A Growing Industry

IBISWorld released this information last fall regarding the state of the wine industry: "While many industries have been hit hard by the recession, wine production has achieved solid growth, with revenue and demand on the rise. A younger generation of wine consumers, the 'millennials,' has boosted demand for wine, especially for bottles in the lower price range." The firm lists the industry's annual growth rate for 2008-2013 at 3%.

To uncover opportunities for new customers, view this interactive map from The New York Times that shows wineries in each state,

H.D. Cline Co., Iowa City, Iowa, serves local vineyard owners like Michael Vincent of Wooden Wheel Vineyards. Brent Phelps, sales manager and one of the owners, says the number of vineyards has been growing slowly, but steadily in his area. "Eight years ago we didn't have any local vineyards and now we're seeing them in the Cedar Rapids area and west of Iowa City. They are becoming more and more popular and in the next 10 years, I think 4 or 5 more will pop up," he says.

Customers come out each August to help pick grapes as part of an event that includes breakfast, lunch and wine tasting in the vineyard's event center.

Phelps says his dealership has been successful selling to small ag operators like Vincent because they carry a variety of product lines for their operations and properties. They also are ready to keep older equipment running. "We have several outlets for parts and are able to do wider searches for older tractors," he says.

"Ozone technology has been used since the 1950s. We spray the water on the vines and it breaks down the bacteria, with a 97% kill rate. It's worth it because I'm not riding around in chemicals and it's better for the wine," Vincent says. He sprays several times in early spring, traveling between the rows and spraying vines on either side. He can spray his 7 acres in about 3 hours.

Vincent relies on hand labor to pick the grapes and he has found a unique way to turn the job into a customer event. "We start picking grapes the last weekend in August and pick for about 4 or 5 weeks. We like hand harvesting because it preserves the quality for the wine. We invite 30-40 people to pick a select variety and give them breakfast, lunch, a T-shirt and wine. I don't know that we save any money, but we have a lot of fun."

He determines which vines to pick by randomly checking vines and then checking grapes from different clusters on the vines, measuring sugar and PH levels.

The customers put the grapes into 5-gallon buckets and then Vincent dumps the buckets into 1- or 2-ton fiberglass bins. He uses an old Yale forklift to move the bins to the winery. "The forklift is invaluable. We were able to buy it cheaply at a consignment auction. We pick up the bin with the forklift and set it about 6 feet in the air above the de-stemmer and crusher," Vincent says. The white wines are pressed and then go into tanks or barrels for fermenting. The red wines go back into the bins for further fermenting. They finish bottling all of their white wines by the end of December and their red wines by early the next March.

Seeking Dealer Support

Top 10 Wine
Producing States*

1. California

2. New York

3. Washington

4. Oregon

5. Kentucky

6. Florida

7. New Jersey

8. North Carolina

9. Missouri

10. Ohio

*According to the National Grape & Wine Initiative

Vincent does most of the repairs for his International Tractor, buying parts from H.D. Cline. However, he does seek out dealer recommendations. "Knowledge is the most important thing. Our operation is so unique and they need to learn to relate to what we do. Having both the knowledge of the piece of equipment and what we're doing is so important," Vincent says.

Parts availability was a factor in his decision to choose a Gator UTV over a Polaris. "We went with the Gator because we're closer to the John Deere dealer, so we can get service faster when we need it," he says.

Vincent says he would welcome visits from equipment dealers, similar to the on-site visits from his fertilizer suppliers. "I really value those relationships when they spend time with me. In my situation, having a dealer stop out and learn what I do would be extremely helpful because what I do is so different," he says.

Vincent says his next dealer visits will be to discuss trade-ins and new purchases. "Now that we've run the mower for 3 or 4 years, we know exactly what our demands are. We need a rugged mower that can work on hillsides and stand up to use. And, at some point, we'll need to add another UTV," he says.

Networking with Other Growers

Vincent relied on his business management experience to launch the vineyard and winery and now to help it grow. "Management is my background and I wanted to work in an industry to be both self-employed and use those skills. I have that basic knowledge of things like cashflow and ROI and the tools you need to be successful." He supplemented his business experience with vineyard information and training programs offered through several universities.

Vincent says their commitment has made their business a success - and the network of other owners makes it even more rewarding. "It's a fun industry. There are lots of opportunities to learn and it's a product we love to work with," Vincent says. "The insurance business is extremely competitive. In the wine industry, we all work together to make better wines and create more opportunities."