Union Grove Grapes

Muscadine grape vines at Union Grove Farm in Chapel Hill.

 

“You only get one chance to buy land.”

Greg Bohlen heard those words many times as child growing up on a farm in Illinois. It was less about advice than it was recognition of the value of land and how the more of it you own, the greater the opportunity there is to benefit from it. 

Decades later, Bohlen, who is CEO of Union Grove Farm in Chapel Hill, continues to apply those words to his business plan. His farm recently announced the acquisition of 279 acres of Maple View Farm, bringing the total acreage under Union Grove Farm to almost 900. 

In early September, Maple View Farm announced that after 25 years, it was ceasing milk production. 

Union Grove Farm will be partnering with the owners of Maple View Ice Cream and Country Store, which will continue to provide its ice cream and local farm products. In a blog post on the Union Grove Farm website, the company said it’s “committed to keeping the acquired, surrounding land dedicated to agriculture to maintain and enhance the spectacular views of the sunset from the country store’s popular front porch.”

In 2001, Bohlen purchased 10 acres of farmland in Chapel Hill. Union Grove Farm was formed and fruit trees were planted with a plan to operate as a pick-your-own produce business. For the first three years, Bohlen and his farm battled a nearly 100 percent mortality until it got better root stock. But it was clear the orchard was a losing battle.

“It became rapidly apparent to me that soil types and structures were not conducive to planting fruit and everything that existed around here existed primarily to kill fruit trees,” Bohlen said. “So, I largely abandoned that effort.”

Bohlen then devoted his time to investigating truffles, even coming to an agreement with an operator in California to build a truffle operation at Union Grove Farm. Unfortunately, funding for that venture collapsed.

“I started looking for other things,” he said. “A friend of mine forwarded me a muscadine grape that was thin-skinned and seedless, and basically being sold through a catalogue. I ordered 500 vines, which sounds like a lot, but in the scheme of things, it’s only about two acres.”

Even though the business plan had gone through a few adjustments, one thing thing that hadn’t changed was acting on that chance to buy land. Union Grove Farm continued to grow through acquisition. By 2016, the farm had grown to hundreds of acres.

(Union Grove Farm also has an wedding and event venue, and a French-style farmhouse that can be rented.)

The 500 grape vines that were planted were doing well, but Bohlen had questions about the details of growing grapes. He contacted the company from which he purchased the vines to ask if he could talk with the company’s horticulturalist. Turns out, the company’s horticulturalist was a man named Jeff Bloodworth, and he lived in Hillsborough.

“I called Jeff Bloodworth and asked him to come out and see what I was doing,” Bohlen said. “He did and told me the basically thousands of things I was doing wrong. So I said, ‘Well if that’s the case, then you know I need to spend a lot more time with you, because I think I’d like to do more.’”

Initially, Bohlen thought Union Grove Farm would grow a standard table grape, not wine grapes. He hired Martin Crompton to help with the vineyard. Crompton didn’t like to use chemicals and fertilizers that farming often involves. The two of them began exploring whether there was a way to grow grapes in a way that was truly eco-friendly and healthy not only for the people eating the grapes, but also for the people growing them.

Bohlen’s pursuit of an eco-friendly method for farming grapes should come as no surprise. He was serving on the board of directors for Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based maker of plant-based, vegan meat that the company said is healthier and better for the environment.

He was asked to speak on behalf of Beyond Meat at a regenerative conference in San Francisco. It was an eye-opening experience. “I had never even heard of the word regenerative at the time I was asked to speak at the conference,” Bohlen said.” Agriculture was just one of the things they had on the conference list for Regenerative practices. I was probably the luddite at the conference, because A.) I didn’t understand regenerative; and B.) I had no desire to be regenerative in any fashion. But then I spent a couple of days just listening and I realized what they were saying made a lot of sense.”

Essentially, regenerative farming allows you to grow in a sustainable fashion — without herbicides or insecticides — a crop that is healthy and contains no or low traces of any of the chemicals that are commonly used in agriculture.

Bohlen, at first, wasn’t sure if the regenerative farming method could be applied to grapes. But the more he learned about the process, the more sense it made to him. 

“Maybe there was something that could be done to substantially change the quality of what we were doing and the environmentally conscious way to to do what needed to be done to build a great farm,” Bohlen said.

During this time, Bohlen had been working with Bloodworth, who used Union Grove Farm as a way to test his varietals. For a couple of years, Bloodworth planted 1,500 varieties of new grapes to try to crossbreed and improve everything.

“Everything just kind of happened at once,” Bohlen said. “And hence we decided to become a regenerative muscadine farm.”

The quest to build a better grape had begun. Muscadine grapes are known for being high in antioxidants and other health benefits. There is even a study underway at Wake Forest Baptist Health on the effects of the antioxidants found in muscadines on various human cancers. 

Health benefits and sweet taste aside, most muscadines have two characteristics that work against it becoming a more popular table grape: thick skin and seeds. Union Grove Farm was determined to create a seedless, thin-skinned muscadine that could be mass produced using the regenerative farming method.

Bohlen felt his team was up to the task. Along with collecting a lot of land, Union Grove Farm has cobbled together an impressive amount of brain power. On staff are Martin Compton, regenerative viticulturist; Todd Harrington, soil food web biologist; Dane Jensen, shepherd and regenerative farmer; Dr. Laura Kavanaugh, from Duke University specializing in genomics; and Meredith Sabye, who is communications shepherd. 

“Through a lot of hard-headed effort we were able to get that same gene from Thompson Seedless (grapes) into the muscadine,” Bloodworth said in a video on the farm’s website. “We can almost breed them normally. We can almost create anything we want.”

That was the breakthrough for Union Grove to growing table grapes that customers would want to eat. The initial harvest for Union Grove Farm’s grapes are being sold in stores, including Weaver Street Market. Ultimately, the plan is to have millions of pounds of its table grapes produced and on the market.

“We’re on a track and a path to be the largest vineyard east of the Mississippi,” Bohlen said. “It’s not a small endeavor, and it isn’t a cheap. We’re very conscious of making sure that everything we do is done with the ability to generate a profit as well. I’d be lying if I said that we’re doing this just because we’re altruistic. There’s a substantial profit motive that’s driving what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Just like every other frontier opportunity, there’s substantial risk and so the key metrics we always use when we’re building companies is that with each successive round of capital that we put into the company, there has to be a risk reduction associated with that capital, and the same is true for everything we’re doing here on the farm.”

That’s a lot of time, money, effort, and land devoted to a marble-size fruit, but Bohlen and his crew at Union Grove Farm believe it’s worth it, and is determined to succeed in its quest through regenerative agriculture methods.