Drought-filled growing season highlights challenges for Missouri winemakers

Cliff Van Till wonders how the grapes will turn out this year at his Ray County winery.

He has one of 28,000 jobs supported by a Missouri wine industry that has an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, according to Missouri Wine & Grape Board data. Van Till and others in the industry count on a successful harvest for their livelihood.

Cliff Van Till | Courtesy of Van Till Family Farm Winery

But Missouri is currently in a prolonged drought that has stretched through almost an entire year, according to the U.S Drought Monitor.

“Mostly right now we need Mother Nature’s help,” said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine & Grape Board.

The state’s winemaking areas have suffered from some of the worst drought conditions. Much of the Loess Hills American Viticultural Area, located in northwest Missouri and western Iowa, has faced “extreme” or “exceptional” drought — the two worst levels of drought — throughout the summer.

Van Till owns the Van Till Family Farm Winery about 40 miles northeast of Kansas City, in the Loess Hill Area. He says the drought has increased his costs because he had to irrigate his crops to compensate for the lack of rainwater.

“I’m kind of curious to see what the grapes are going to look like,” Van Till said. “Typically when there’s a minimal amount of water, the flavors get concentrated and bute. So we’ll just wait and see. We did have to irrigate them this year.”

Since 2012, the Missouri Wine & Grape Board has been advising farmers to invest in adding irrigation systems. The 2012 growing season saw a shorter drought than the dry spell growers have faced this year.

The high cost of irrigation systems is one of the obstacles smaller and upstart wineries and vineyards face in getting into the business, Anderson said.

The Missouri Wine & Grape Board believes programs to help farmers are the solution. Anderson said low-interest loan programs can help small businesses purchase expensive equipment or complete projects that would help their operations.

Anderson also hopes the new Farm Bill  that Congress is working on will offer additional programs to help wineries and vineyards.

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