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Growing grapes: Duppongs prepare to harvest grapes in Haymarsh Valley Vineyards

Press Photo by Linda Sailer Grapes ripen on the vines on Sept. 7 in Haymarsh Valley Vineyards owned by Ken and Mary Ann Duppong.


Ken and Mary Ann Duppong are keeping a close eye on their vineyards, waiting for the optimum time to harvest their grape crop.

The Duppongs operate Haymarsh Valley Vineyards northwest of Glen Ullin. The vineyard was one of the stops during a chartered bus tour on Sept. 7, hosted by the North Dakota Grape and Wine Association.

The Duppongs spoke to the group about the grapes as a specialty crop and the impending harvest.

"It's to educate people about grapes and to show which varieties work best -- it's more of an educational thing," Mary Ann said.

Last year, Duppongs harvested grapes from 300 vines. This year, they could harvest more than 10,000 pounds of fruit from than 1,200 vines. For that reason, they are lining up crews of harvesting volunteers.

The Duppongs moved to their farmstead in 1985. Their farming production includes wheat, cattle, corn, sunflower and hay. Their family includes one son and five daughters.

Mary Ann tells how their daughter, Lisa, was completing her master's degree in Iowa State University when the wine industry was taking off.

She told her mom, "You know those grapes could work in North Dakota."

Always wanting to raise a few grape vines, the Duppongs started with a test plot of 48 vines -- six varieties each -- in 2003.

"We started this as an alternative crop when the grain and beef prices were lousy," Mary Ann said.

Encouraged by their success, the Duppongs continued to plant grape varieties. At last count, they have nearly 2,200 vines and 42 varieties growing in four vineyards.

In addition to the grapes, the Duppongs started an orchard with apples, pears and plums. Over the past three years, they added more fruit varieties, including Canadian dwarf cherries, Juneberries, strawberries, raspberries, black currants, sand cherries and honeyberries. Their goal is to start a "you pick" program as the fruit trees reach their maturity.

The production of fruit is more than an economical venture for the Duppongs. Mary Ann sees it as an AgriTourism opportunity -- giving the public a farm experience.

"It's a way of ministry," she said. "We love working with young people, teaching them to work the land. We are so dependent on the weather. God is in control of all of it. It's a way to connect to nature."

The Duppongs are realistic. They know they will never make a lot of money producing the fruit.

"It's about growing things and sharing, knowing how to become self-sufficient and appreciating hard work," she said.

The grape production has been a learn-while-doing venture.

"Nobody was growing grapes around here when we started," Ken said. "It was learning to get them to survive. We had some pretty dry years. Almost all survived due to a lot of watering -- that was a challenge. There's been challenges all the way down the road."

"It takes a while to get grapes established in North Dakota," Mary Ann added. "A lot of them take four to five years to yield."

A constant challenge has been the birds, which feast on the fruit when given the chance.

"We tried bird scares like screeching birds of prey. That worked a few days until they figured it out," Ken said.

"We like robins, but not as much anymore," Mary Ann added. "They are one of the worst birds for eating the fruit."

Nets aren't practical either, as it would take too much time to uncover the vines.

The Duppongs invested in cannons that fire rounds every 7 minutes. That seems to help scare away the birds.

"The blackbirds haven't been such a problem," Mary Ann said. "They are content in the sunflower fields. It's the robins and flickers and even pheasant and grouse who will jump up and get the fruit."

The Duppongs said one of the most pleasant surprises of grape production has been the weather in western North Dakota -- known to be on the dry side.

"The dry climate is usually pretty good for grapes," Ken said. "There's less of a tendency for diseases. But this year, it has been wet. We were pleasantly surprised how well the varieties are producing."

This summer, the Duppongs have been challenged by the vigor of the vines that are spreading out in every direction. That's been credited to there being too much nitrogen in the soil.

"All summer long, we work to contain the massive growth," Mary Ann said. "It's a labor-intensive plant, but it's so much fun to grow."

Ken uses a pre-emergence spray to control the weeds through the rows, but weeding is needed between the vines.

Also by trial and error, the Duppongs know the best location to place the vineyards in regard to the wind. Ken planted a row of trees to provide a wind break at one vineyard, but until they mature, he has substituted a row of bales.

This year, the Duppongs experienced a late spring and a cool summer, which slowed down the maturing process. They hope to harvest toward the end of September and into early October. It will depend upon the sunshine and heat. Certain varieties ripen sooner than others to extend the harvesting season.

"We really don't want rain now," she said. "We want the vines to harden off to prepare for the winter. If we have a hard frost, we'll pick early," she said.

The Duppongs sell their grapes to a wine producer in Miles City, Mont. They also sell grapes to those interested in making jam or wine.

They make wine for their personal use, but have no plans of opening a winery because of the time and labor involved.

"It's for someone younger who wants the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon," Mary Ann said.

Ken serves on the board of the newly formed North Dakota Grape and Wine Advisory Committee. The 2013 Legislature created the committee to advise the North Dakota Department of Agriculture on the distribution of $80,000 appropriated for industry research and promotion.

Serving with Ken is Mark Vining from Agassiz Shores Orchard and Vineyard in Wheatland. He was among those on the tour.

Vining started his vineyard in 2009 with a planting party of volunteers and 800 plants. He continued to have planting parties for next three years and counts 1,300 vines. He also has more than 1,000 fruit trees and bushes.

Because his vines are young, grape production is low.

"I'm experimenting with verjust -- it's a very old French vinegar used in rustic French cooking," he said. "Next year will be the first year I'll have harvesting party."

Vining was impressed with the Duppong's production.

"They're not only a production vineyard, but they also are an experimental vineyard," he said.

Vining said 2013 was a good year for growing grapes, but last year was not.

"Each vineyard is designed and managed differently, depending on the soil and nutrients and grapes you are growing. The best wine is made in the vineyard, not at the winery. If the grapes are grown right, picked on the right time with the right brix and pH, the wine maker doesn't have to manipulate the wine."

A visual inspection of the grape's readiness is deceptive. The grapes appear to be plump, juicy and purple, but criteria is determined by the brix (Bx) and pH factors. The Bx tests for sugar content and the pH for acidity. Wine grapes are considered to be ripe when Brix times pH squared equals 260 for reds or 200 for whites.

Vining said North Dakota State University is working to develop grape varieties that will ripen in North Dakota's climate.

"Our growing season is so short -- that's the biggest challenge we have," he said.

Harlene Hatterman-Valenti, professor and assistant head of the NDSU plant sciences department, said variety trials were initiated in 2004. The trials were initiated once legislation was passed to allow commercial wineries on farms.

"We have a number of variety trials at most research extension centers," she said. "We are trying to develop hardier wine grapes, red and white, for North Dakota growers. We have a shorter growing season than many neighboring states, and we're trying to figure out how to make the varieties successful in North Dakota."

NDSU also is doing studies on grape production. One example is the different types of trellis systems and their effect on ripening and cold hardiness.

Anyone interested in growing grapes should contact the North Dakota Grape and wine Association at The association provides education, advocacy for producers and support among its members.

As the Duppongs' grape harvest nears, Mary Ann said anyone interested in helping may contact them by email at Expect to put in a day's work, with meals provided and fellowship afterwards, Mary Ann said.

"It's helping one another," Mary Ann said. "We find that people who get into it doesn't take away from your success. It's building greater success."