Tasked with improving fields on gravel and clay, while facing the probability of harsh winters and dry summers successful farming in Minnesota’s Kanabec County is a testament to the generations of families who worked tirelessly to amend the soil, set deep roots and persisted against the odds set yearly by mother nature.
Steve, Kathy, Luke and Jamie Watrin are the county’s farm family of the year. They own and operate Ann River Winery on the outskirts of Mora, Minnesota and know about deep roots.
Touring their ten acres of tidy rows of vines, laden with seven varieties of American grapes with friends recently, Steve shared with us the great gamble his family took to carve out their verdant vineyard.
Leap of Faith
Aside from a few vines growing in backyard gardens, back in 2005 there was no information about large scale grape growing in East Central Minnesota, but Steve had been making wine for decades and he had 50 credits of chemistry under his belt.
The response then to the Watrin’s plans to build a winery? “you’ve got to be partially nuts,” said Steve. But he says it was also good to know ag. What Steve didn’t know about agriculture and grape cultivation he and Luke learned during education sessions at Minnesota Grape Growers Association U of M, Michigan State,Cornell University and a study of Mongolian grape
production. Since then they have become experts at tending their crop in the sub-zero winters of Central Minnesota.
Crop Rotation and Critter Attacks
Using a skidsteer with an auger attachment the family dug holes 12 inches wide and 38 inches deep to get the roots to go deep and planted five hundred individual bare root stock replacing traditional corn and soybeans crops. Steve figures it cost 25 thousand dollars per acre to put the perennial crop in the ground, followed by three years of non-production.
In the ensuing years they have added vines and successfully battled hungry birds, fruit flies and raccoons. They have also amended the soil with a variety of micronutrients and a special ingredient to produce the perfect grapes.
That ingredient is 10 gallons of molasses per acre.
Fruits of Labor
Enjoying a glass of wine with members of the Kanabec County DFL in the Winery’s Tasting room Steve and Kathy told us they were looking forward to a good harvest of this year’s grape crop at the end of September. Between now and when the first grape is handpicked Steve says the game is, “vine health and worry about yield as it comes.”
Due to a string of winter days of dipping to 38 degrees below zero this year’s crop is expected to produce 40 tons of grapes. They picked 63 tons the fall of 2017
The harvest will be crushed and made into a variety of white and red wines with such names as Lazy River, LaDez and The Blushing Sunset. Excess grapes will be sold.
Farming in Kanabec County
Agriculture and family farms continue to have an important role in the economy of Minnesota’s Kanabec County. According to recent figures 27,479 harvested acres of corn, wheat, soybeans produced and cattle raised on family owned farms represent 67 percent of total market value of agricultural products sold here.*
A tiny sliver of the county’s ag production pie is held by nursery, floriculture, orchards and in more recent years, grapes.
As the sunset on our DFL gathering at Ann River Winery it was a pleasure to lift a glass of Ann River Red, a sweet medium tannin and body wine that finishes with a blend of fruit, vanilla and a touch of oak, homegrown and tended to perfection by the Watrin Family of Kanabec County.
To all of our farmers who take a gamble against the odds--may the sun shine bright, the rains fall gently as you work the earth and reap the rewards of a bountiful harvest. Skoal!
*Data by City-Data.com