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Cultivating the Future Grape Growers of Texas

Mason ISD launched a high school viticulture program to help create the next crop of Texas’s grape growers.

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By the numbers, more Texans may live in urban areas than rural ones, but we remain one of the largest farming and ranching states in the country. One agricultural industry that’s seeing big growth here is growing grapes. The Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association (TWGGA) revealed that in 2013, the Texas Wine industry had a $1.8 billion impact on the state, an 88 percent growth since 2005. With the rapid increase in farmers looking to more drought-tolerant crops such as grapes, it begs the question: where will the educated workforce come from to help grow the industry?

As it turns out, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, and Grayson College already offer classes on viticulture and oenology. And as of this year, the Mason Independent School District has successfully launched a high school viticulture program at Mason High Schoolthe first of its kind in the state. This small community west of Fredericksburg is known for its geographic beauty, its small town charm, and, in more recent years, for its unique soils and water table well suited for growing grapes.

The first high school-level agricultural science class began this fall with about twenty students ranging from ninth to twelfth grade. The program owes much of its creation to local grape grower, Dan McLaughlin* of Robert Clay Vineyards. McLaughlin brought his family to the 51-acre vineyard in Mason in 2012 following a Tech career that was wearing them thin. Though he still does a bit of consulting in the tech industry, his main passion has become his vineyard, and he’s pretty intent on teaching others about doing the same.

Seeing a future need for a younger workforce in the wine industry, McLaughlin spearheaded an initiative to bring hands-on vineyard education into the classroom. Currently many school districts offer coursework for agricultural sciences, particularly in more rural area. But none have focused on vineyards.

“The grape growing industry has really taken shape in Texas and the only way it’s going to proliferate is if students are exposed to what it’s all about at a young age,” says McLaughlin whose freshman son, Blake, was one of the first to sign up for the class and made sure a few of his friends joined him.

After approaching Mason’s high school counselor and school board, they came up with a proposal for approval from the Texas Education Association (TEA). As luck would have it, the concept was approved. Dr. Justin Scheiner at Texas A&M University’s Horticulture department has worked on the curriculum for the first course and is completing a more comprehensive curriculum for the TEA to provide for other schools to adopt the class.

(Just to quell any concerns out there, the class content is about the science of growing grape vines, it does not include winemaking or any alcohol-related activities. In fact, a portion of the class discusses growing many different kinds of fruit for commercial use in food products and more.)

“Ideally this is something we could offer to students across the state,” says McLaughlin. “It only helps the industry if more and more young people are learning about it.

Mason High School enlisted Lance Rasch, whose prior experience in agriculture education includes thirteen years as a County Agrilife Extension agent in Runnels, Concho, and Coleman Counties, to lead the class. Though Rasch had no experience with grape vines, he was confident in his ability to use the region’s vast pool of resources to guide him along.

“I love the challenge of learning something new and I told our students on the first day of class that I’d be learning along with them,” says Rasch whose background in soil sciences and horticulture has helped inform his growing knowledge of viticulture. “So far we’ve had a good balance of classroom work and field work. Our goal as agriculture educators is ‘learning to do and doing to learn.'”

In the classroom, students have learned about the history of grape growing in America and Texas, as well as the science behind developing healthy vines based on elements such as soil, irrigation, temperatures, and other climatic conditions.

“I didn’t realize there was so much information to collect and analyze before you could even get started,” said junior, Kody Criswell. “It’s all pretty intense.”

“I sort of thought we’d just plant a seed and watch it grow. But it’s a lot more than that,” said sophomore, Cason Dudney. “It can take at least three years before you get a crop that’s worth using. That’s a lot of time and work.”

McLaughlin

‘s freshman son, Blake, was one of the first to sign up for the classand was sure to get a few of his friends to sign up as well. Having been around vineyard life for a couple of years, he was interested to see how a class like this could help him get more involved with his dad’s work.

“We’ve learned a lot more than I have just trying to help my dad do things,” says the young McLaughlin. “Learning about soils and all of the measurements you need to take to really know the most about your vineyard, it’s all new to me. But now, I feel like I can ask my dad questions and talk to him about things I wasn’t able to beforeplus, I really like having class outside.”

Students have also been able to take advantage of applying the physical aspects of the job. At the beginning of the semester, they helped hand-harvest grapes at McLaughlin’s vineyard, learning the importance of measuring pH and acidity levels in the fruit along with the brix level, or sugar content in the grapes. When these elements meet a specific balance, it’s a grape grower’s indication that it’s time to pick the grapes.

“Hand-harvesting was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” says Dudney who spent a few afternoon hours in the hot September sun picking grape clusters and carrying heavy bins to a collection truck. “It’s a lot of work.”

The class has also studied grape varieties from around the world and why certain ones are better suited for certain areas. Throughout the year, they have had career days with Texas wine professionals, such as Dr. Ed Hellman of Texas Tech University’s Plant and Soil Science Department, vineyard consultant Fritz Westover, and Lost Draw Vineyard manager Lydia Wessner to dig deeper into what a career in viticulture could look like. And just last week, they took a field trip to Fredericksburg for TWGGA’s annual Grape Camp, a two-day viticulture symposium where grape growers from around the state meet up to catch up on the latest industry information.

For the rest of the semester, the students will use a donated piece of land just down from the high school to learn how to plan a vineyard from the layout on a piece of land to the trellis design for the vines. Texas A&M is donating vines and local vineyards are helping with materials to allow students to plant in the spring.

“I never realized how much goes into a project like this, but I can see how it’s something that can contribute to what I might want to do in the future,” says Junior, Ryan Dudney who currently plans to study kinesiology in college. “Now that I know about this, I like the idea that it’s something else I could try to do.”

In the growing viticulture economy in Texas, implementation of this innovative coursework is a big step in the direction of promoting agriculture and putting Texas grapes on the global wine map.

Once a small test vineyard is planted, McLaughlin has talked about how students can then put learn the business behind vineyard management. But he also hopes other schools will adopt the program to create friendly competition among each other with pruning and harvest competitions and more.

“We want them to see what it’s like for a vineyard to go through its first few years,” said McLaughlin. “But then they’ll get to see what to do with the grapes once the vines are producing them. How to sell either just the grapes, or how to make jellies or jams and sell them as one of their own products. There’s really a lot of opportunity. But first, we need to get some roots in the ground. Then we can watch it grow.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Dan McLaughlin’s name. We regret the error. 

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