FARGO — A group of winery owners has cut ties with North Dakota State University, saying the school that was given state funds to breed grapes that can survive North Dakota’s harsh winters is not meeting the needs of the industry.
Now, a state education leader is trying to find a way to repair that broken relationship.
The Winery Association of North Dakota, or WAND, walked away from NDSU and asked the university to not use the organization’s name to promote its research or apply for grants. NDSU hasn’t shared information requested by WAND, meaning wineries have been unable to give input on what they need, WAND President and Bear Creek Winery owner Rod Ballinger said.
“It's been pretty slow trying to get these (grapes) evaluated, like there's not an importance," he said. "Why have a program if you can't test the wine out? That's why I think we are frustrated."
NDSU disputed claims of not working with the wine industry and not sharing information.
The North Dakota Legislature created the Grape and Wine Program Committee in 2009 in hopes of exploring ways to grow cold-hardy grapes for the wine industry in North Dakota.
Legislators voted to allocate $250,000 from the general fund to the committee, which then chose NDSU to use that funding to research cold-hardy grapes for North Dakota wineries.
Ballinger, whose winery is south of Fargo, chaired the committee in charge of advising research, but the committee dissolved after the bill expired in 2013.
At least two grape varieties — one red and one white — were supposed to be named by 2017, Ballinger said. However, that hasn’t happened.
The process of finding a cold-hardy grape can take 10 to 12 years, NDSU Vice President of Agricultural Affairs Greg Lardy said.
“We’re getting there with some of that, but it does take time,” he said. “It's not an easy process for our faculty to navigate, but it's in place because we want to make sure that we're releasing the very best varieties that we can at the end of the day.”
WAND tried multiple times to pursue data from NDSU’s research into cold-hardy grapes, such as harvest data, breeding information about parent plants, wine tasting data and the location of test trials, Ballinger said.
Without that information, wineries can't give NDSU input on what they need in cold-hardy grapes, he said.
"In order to have a sound research ... project or program like that, you need to be in close communication with the stakeholders, which is the wineries," Ballinger said.
Discussions with NDSU have been exhausted and wineries no longer have teeth in the venture, he said. WAND voted to not attend a meeting held by NDSU in May regarding grape research.
The separation was disappointing, Lardy said.
"One of the things we pride ourselves on at NDSU agriculture is engagement with constituents, and we want to continue that engagement," he said.
Lardy acknowledged communications between WAND and NDSU could improve, but he disputed that it hasn’t shared information with the wine industry. He said information about the topics Ballinger mentioned was presented at the May meeting.
A second organization, the North Dakota Grape and Wine Association that is focused on education and promotion, attended the meeting and still maintains its connection with the university.
"In general, the (North Dakota) Agricultural Experiment Station does not typically provide data or other details on experimental breeding lines on any of the crops it develops," Lardy said.
Ballinger said he believes research on grapes at NDSU has slowed, if not stalled. He reached out to the State Board of Higher Education about WAND’s concerns regarding NDSU because, he said, that was the next step.
University President Dean Bresciani questioned during an SBHE research and governance committee meeting in late September whether the board should intervene. He said agricultural research priorities should fall to the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education.
“We're somewhat having a conversation about something that one could argue statutorily, it's not the responsibility of the State Board of Higher Education,” Bresciani said, adding wine production, while exciting, is not a high priority for North Dakota agriculture.
Ballinger disagreed with Bresciani's assessment.
"NDSU, under policy, works for the State Board of Higher Education, so we went to them as their chain of communication," he said.
Lardy said wine research operations at NDSU are "almost entirely" funded by grants. He said the Legislature gave the $250,000 to the North Dakota Agriculture Experiment Station with the direction that it go to the Grape and Wine Program Committee.
A 2009 email provided by NDSU to The Forum from the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget said the funds were transferred to the Main Research Center budget instead of creating a new state agency to handle the money. It was then transferred to the North Dakota Grape Growers Association, which served as the fiscal agent for the committee, the letter said.
Ballinger disputed Lardy’s version of how the committee received the $250,000. He pointed to language in legislation supporting the committee, which stated the money would come from the general fund and go directly to the committee.
Rep. Dan Ruby, a Republican from Minot who voted for the legislation in 2009, said the bill is clear and doesn't mention anything about funds going to the Ag Experiment Station before the committee.
“It’s clearly written to go to the committee,” he said.
North Dakota Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring backed NDSU, saying researchers are on the way to find cold-hardy grapes that can be commercially released. Research through a public institution takes longer than in the private sector since there are more layers of accountability due to public funding, he said.
Compared to grain releases, which can take 15 years to approve, the grape research is moving relatively fast, he said.
“I think the situation has been misinterpreted (by WAND),” Goehring said.
Dr. John Warford, a dentist and cattle rancher from Bismarck, will work in his capacity as an SBHE member to come to repair the severed relationship. He noted canola, corn and unmanned aircraft were at one time fledgling industries in North Dakota.
"President Bresciani stated that the wine industry is really, really small, and I would agree," Warford said. "But I look at opportunities for innovation, and this is an opportunity for innovation."
There are 17 wineries in North Dakota, about double the amount that was licensed in 2009. The industry has created a value-added product that helps tourism in North Dakota, Ballinger said.
The problem is complex, Warford said, but he believes common ground can be found and built upon.
"If anybody's looking for a Hail Mary pass on this or a slam dunk, it's not going to happen," he said. “It’s going to be an incremental change.”
Lardy said he is still willing to meet with Ballinger. He offered an open invitation to any grape grower or wine producer in the state.
“NDSU is committed to collegial and productive collaborations with all wine industry stakeholders,” he said.
An NDSU graduate, Ballinger said he would like to see a positive resolution.
In the meantime, vineyards in North Dakota are conducting their own research to fine cold-hardy grapes, he said. Many of the wineries have their own vineyards, he said. They also can tap cold-hardy grapes from other states, like Minnesota.
Ruby suggested NDSU give the wineries the data they requested, saying it belongs to the industry.
“It’s just that simple," he said. "Giving them that information is all they are asking for.”
Without the wineries' involvement, Ruby said the research at NDSU could “dry up on the vine.”
"We probably should ask for the money back if they (NDSU) have nothing to show for it," he said when asked if the Legislature would get involved.
If NDSU is not going to share information with the wineries and get input from them, the money spent on the project is a waste of taxpayer money, Ballinger said.
"What's the purpose of raising grapes and doing all this if you don't have the wineries on board to market the wine someday?" Ballinger asked.