Growth mind­set

The prov­ince wants to help more peo­ple grow grapes, but is it ex­clud­ing small-scale farm­ers?



all over At­lantic Canada are cel­e­brat­ing last sea­son’s har­vest. Grapes hung on the vine longer than usual dur­ing our warm fall, boost­ing sugar and mel­low­ing acid­ity. With lit­tle rain, their flavours and aro­mas con­cen­trated, with less spoilage from moulds and mildews.

Af­ter such a sea­son, we should ex­pect peo­ple to be ex­cited about grow­ing grapes in our re­gion. Af­ter all, farm­ing is the gen­e­sis of a good bot­tle of wine and to sweeten the deal the Nova Sco­tia Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture now of­fers a sub­sidy to farm­ers for putting more grapes in the ground. Con­ver­sa­tions with ex­pe­ri­enced grape grow­ers re­veal, how­ever, some dis­con­nect in this story. A closer look at num­bers in the con­text of Nova Sco­tia wine shows that we may not be do­ing our best to hon­our the ter­roir and those who work with it most closely.

First, farm­ers are paid by the tonne. The lack of rain in 2017 that con­cen­trated our grapes also meant plants pro­duced less off­spring. Yield was re­duced. Dis­ease was down, so not much was lost but over­all, in­come-wise, 2017 was an av­er­age year for grow­ers. With a few ex­cep­tions, winer­ies do not pay a premium for higher-qual­ity grapes.

The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Vine­yard De­vel­op­ment and Ex­pan­sion Pro­gram of­fers up to $6,550 to cover the costs of each new acre of grapes planted, to a to­tal in­vest­ment by the prov­ince of $1 mil­lion which ex­pires in 2019, and an ad­di­tional $12 mil­lion an­nounced in early 2016 for in­vest­ment in spe­cialty equip­ment and train­ing, and to ex­pand our in­dus­try’s ca­pac­ity for ex­port. But be­fore you quit your job, buy an acre of land and start pound­ing posts into the ground, you’ll need to do a lit­tle math.

Also, you’ll need more than an acre to qual­ify for the gov­ern­ment sup­port, which re­quires you to have at least five acres of grapes al­ready, or show your plan to plant five by 2019. Build­ing a vine­yard of that size is ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially once you fac­tor in all the equip­ment to es­tab­lish and main­tain it. Once you have five acres, you might as well have 20, which is the “sweet spot” for ma­chin­ery, ac­cord­ing to one grower.

A 2014 Nova Sco­tia Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture study, Nova Sco­tia Wine Grape Cost of Pro­duc­tion and Cash Flow Anal­y­sis (which you can find on the ex­pan­sion pro­gram’s web­page) ex­plic­itly states that a five-acre vine­yard is not fi­nan­cially fea­si­ble un­less you have the sup­port of an ex­pe­ri­enced grower who will run your vine­yard in ex­change for the har­vest. It also ex­plic­itly states that a 10-acre vine­yard only makes fi­nan­cial sense if you have a half-mil­lion or so in cap­i­tal. Ac­cord­ing to the

Small is not just nos­tal­gic. Small is valu­able.

num­bers, scale is ev­ery­thing.

Some spread­sheet work shows, how­ever, that the bleak fi­nan­cial out­look for a smallscale grower may be ex­ag­ger­ated, par­tic­u­larly if sweat eq­uity is taken into ac­count and if you al­ready own land. You won’t make money, but you may not be fac­ing the stag­ger­ing debt the study sug­gests.

It is clear that the Vine­yard De­vel­op­ment and Ex­pan­sion Pro­gram is de­signed to help sub­si­dize the mas­sive in­vest­ments of winer­ies and large grow­ers al­ready look­ing to ex­pand, and a few new grow­ers with cap­i­tal to start big. (A search of gov­ern­ment data­bases shows the vast ma­jor­ity of the ex­pan­sion pro­gram’s grants in 2015-16 were awarded to the prov­ince’s largest pro­duc­ers.) These busi­nesses are im­por­tant—they en­cour­age gov­ern­ment to in­vest in agri­cul­ture and they em­ploy lo­cal peo­ple and help cre­ate des­ti­na­tions for vis­i­tors to our re­gion.

It is un­clear, though, why the gov­ern­ment pro­gram cuts out small grow­ers. Small is the model upon which our in­dus­try is built. Small is where many of today’s large pro­duc­ers be­gan. There are rea­sons things started small. Small al­lows a grower to tend, ob­serve and ex­per­i­ment with grapes sus­tain­ably. In an in­dus­try that is still just start­ing, we still need peo­ple to be pay­ing close at­ten­tion to plants and soil in small pock­ets of land over time. Small is not just nos­tal­gic. Small is valu­able.

One of the goals of the ex­pan­sion pro­gram is to meet the grow­ing de­mand for Nova Sco­tia wine by more than dou­bling the prov­ince’s acreage of grapes from roughly 800 acres when the pro­gram was an­nounced to 1,000 acres by 2020. Ac­cord­ing to the Nova Sco­tia Liquor Cor­po­ra­tion’s an­nual re­port, sales of Nova Sco­tia wine are in­creas­ing by a lit­tle less than five per­cent an­nu­ally. If this trend con­tin­ues, by 2025, when all the new grapes are har­vested, Nova Sco­tians will be buy­ing 50 per­cent more lo­cal wine than they were in 2015, but we’ll have dou­ble the amount of wine. This makes some grow­ers ner­vous the mar­ket could be flooded by grapes planted too quickly with not enough at­ten­tion to mar­ket data.

Grow­ing grapes is hard work. Like any kind of farm­ing, it won’t make you rich un­til you do it on a large scale. It is, how­ever, ex­tremely re­ward­ing, of­fer­ing con­nec­tion to food and life, to self and cir­ca­dian rhythms and to the earth. The grow­ers I spoke with for this piece did so off the record. This is un­der­stand­able, given the small com­mu­nity in which they work, but it is un­set­tling that they feel in­sta­bil­ity in the in­dus­try, and lack of con­sid­er­a­tion for their needs and ex­pe­ri­ence. If we value our wine, we need to do a lit­tle bet­ter by those at ground zero.


You’ll need more than an acre to qual­ify for the Vine­yard De­vel­op­ment and Ex­pan­sion pro­gram.


NSLC says sales of NS wine in­crease by al­most 5 per­cent an­nu­ally.

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