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Pruning for better yield

By Staff | Mar 11, 2016

MIKE WHITE, Iowa State University viticulturalist, explains how to prepare a snarl of grape vines for summer grape production through pruning. White conducted the pruning workshop March 3 in White Oak in Story County. Owners John Barber and Barb Hokel purchased the vineyard a year ago after it had been left unattended for four years. White said training the vines for efficient production again will be time-consuming, but not impossible.

WHITE OAK – He loves being outdoors. He feels connected to the earth. So growing grapes made sense.

That was John Barber’s reasoning for leaving a lucrative construction engineering job in 2009 to become a grape farmer.

Barber and his wife, Barb Hokel, have grown their vineyards to five total acres in several locations around Iowa, which includes revitalizing a defunct two-acre vineyard in White Oak. They plan to prepare the plot during 2016 and plant it in 2017.

In the meantime, they have another vineyard in White Oak that needs lots of TLC.

This plot went unattended for four years, Barber said. He and Hokel bought it in March 2015 and have been trying to retrain it for maximum grape production.

JOHN BARBER, left, co-owner of Ottawa Vineyards LLC., and Josh Ellenberg, the wine maker, pose for a photo inside their winery. Barber has been growing grapes since 2009 and has vineyards in three locations around Story County. In March 2015, he and Barb Hokel leased the former White Oak Winery facility and renamed it The Cellar.

They asked Mike White, Iowa State University’s viticulturalist, to help with a pruning workshop March 3. The event was open to others to refresh or improve their skills in pruning their own vines.

“Each spring,” White said, “vineyards need help with pruning. So we set up a field day and invite others to learn or refresh their skills.”

The March 3 workshop attracted about 10 grape growers, but only White and Barber wanted to tackle the chore of pruning the wild snarl of vines that have been unattended for several years.

White showed how to count growth nodes and keep them within each plant’s 8-foot spacing on the trellis. These mature vines can handle 50 nodes, he said, for the 2016 growing season. Each node has the potential to produce two clusters.

To the uninitiated, White’s pruning looked drastic. But he explained that many growers don’t get the fruit they could have because they don’t prune enough. In essence, pruning is seeking a balance between plant material and fruit.

He pointed out pruning pitfalls to avoid so that each cluster will have its own sun exposure, not shadowed by others above it. He cautioned to train fruiting canes to come up to and along the fruiting wire, rather than go above the wire and bend back to it.

He suggested cutting off all but one sucker growing from the base of the vine.

“Anything can happen to this vine,” White said. “It’s nice to have another growth coming, just in case.”

When they took possession of the vineyard in White Oak, Barber and Hokel also leased the former winery facilities, renaming it The Cellar.

They completed their first year of winemaking with Josh Ellenberg, a rookie winemaker, who said he reads everything he can about the process.

“This is a fun business,” Barber said. “And I see the Iowa industry where California was in the 1980s. It’s still in its infancy and looking to mature.”

He said Iowa’s wine industry is in slow growth mode, but it suits him.

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