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Va. farmer switches from tobacco to vineyards

Staff report • May 11, 2007 at 9:12 AM

CHATHAM-Virginia Farm Bureau Federation board member Joe Williams is a tobacco and beef cattle producer who's operated his Pittsylvania County farm for more than 30 years. His family has been in the tobacco industry for more than three generations.

Williams' children plan to continue working the farm after he retires, but they are diversifying the operation and have, along with their father, started Homeplace Vineyards.

"This is our second harvest on the farm for wine grapes," said Williams, who also chairs the VFBF Wine Grape Advisory Committee. "I knew that if my three children were going to stay on the farm we needed to diversify, and they wanted to grow grapes."

Williams' tobacco crop had diminished over the years from 45 acres to 25. "The demand for tobacco had decreased so much over the years that we had to make this decision," he said. "We all wanted something to pass on to the children."

Last year Homeplace Vineyards harvested 5 tons of grapes from the first 3 acres planted. "It wasn't the best year for grapes in our area," Williams added, "but we were happy with that first harvest."

This year the vineyard has grown to 7 acres. It's one of four wine grape operations in Pittsylvania. The Williamses will grow three varieties this year: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin and Traminette, under contract for Chateau Morrisette Winery in Floyd County.

In Pittsylvania, many tobacco growers have diversified since the federal tobacco quota buyout program was enacted.

"Growers have tried just about everything in the county to diversify," Williams added. "They have grown broccoli, cucumbers and other vegetables. It's hard to compete with other areas of the state that are primarily in vegetable production. Our season is short, and most stores want to be able to depend on the supply." There also has been an expansion of the beef cattle industry in the traditional tobacco areas.

Virginia's wine-and-grape industry has grown significantly the past 20 years. The Old Dominion is ranked 10th nationally for commercial grape production. The commonwealth is home to more than 260 vineyards.

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