Wineries in a New Vision Rural Economy

Farm Wineries in America are a force for social change! Is this absurd or true? I argue it is true.  I have talked to many audiences over the last 10 years about this subject, and it seems to strike a chord every time I present it. This is just a thumbnail sketch of my arguments, but it will get the main points out for your perusal.

The basic argument is that our society needs to integrate the rural economy, based on agriculture, the urban economy, trade, manufacturing and services, into a pattern that promotes harmony between rural and urban spaces. More specifically I say that economies in rural spaces should be lifestyles. What do I mean by this?

Let us look at the structures of rural and urban economies of the past, present and possible future. Farms produce foodstuffs (fruit and vegetables, grain, meat, milk, eggs, etc.) and industrial feedstocks (cotton, wool, wood, oilseeds, grain by-products, animal hides, etc.) that are turned into value-added manufactured products sold to consumers. Presently, this value-added process is being increasingly concentrated in urban areas and operates along economies of scale, and also moves globally to the cheapest labor.

In pre-corporate agriculture, farmers produced and sold most foodstuffs locally or regionally and most feedstocks were processed regionally, and then either used locally or traded internationally. In today’s global corporate agriculture, local use of both foodstuffs and feedstocks is minimal, and most farms ship almost all of both foodstuffs and feedstocks to large central processors, located around the globe, who then distribute to consumers around the globe.

What are the effects of this change in farming? Most noticeably, the size of the rural workforce has shrunk dramatically and small farms and most residents in rural communities cannot make a living on agriculture alone, and must commute to cities to earn wages.  Children, the future of rural life, leave local communities, not out of choice, but because they see no economic future in farming communities. Real income for most rural residents (except for large corporate farms) has shrunk every year for the last half-century, as the relative value for each unit of raw agricultural output to its value-added products has shrunk and the value-added benefits of local processing have moved to cheap labor markets around the globe. Yes, we have cheap food, but it is at a cost of social disruption to both rural and urban infrastructure and to nutritional health. And what has financed cheap food? First, rural communities have had the money sucked out by loss of value-added processing. Second, cheap food was financed by total reliance on cheap fossil fuels for production and processing and exploitation of cheap global labor forces that had no unions or social safety nets to help them out. Now energy is not cheap, and we are all hostage to its future price, and agriculture is no exception, and cheap labor exploitation is an increasing source of unrest around the world. This hostage situation has mostly remained obscured by corporate manipulations of political and media information, but repression breeds revolution, and a big and violent revolution may be coming. It would be better to eliminate the need for repression by having a more rational food economy.

This destruction of local agricultural commerce and processing is not just a rural problem. Food security is now hostage to global energy pricing and global distribution of both foodstuffs and feedstocks. If the global food delivery system broke down for as little as four days, there would be no more food on any store shelves in the US and no place to get it locally. Local food today supplies less than 1% of local consumption. So when no food is delivered globally to your store, you can look forward to competing with 100 local people for enough food to feed less than one person. And you think people get irritated when they have to wait hours in line for gas!! Wait until you tell them they have to wait a hundred days to eat!!

So how do small farm wineries come to the rescue of rural economies and help food security? What kind of idiot thinks small wineries are a force for social stability? The key is not that they do this by themselves, but that they are a prime example of promoting local economies, both rural and the rural-urban interface, which results in income growth of local communities, not shrinkage.

How does this happen? Small farm wineries take a raw product, grapes, and turn it into a fully value-added product, wine, all in one location, and sell much of it to tourists locally, generating new monetary input to the local economy. They do not exploit cheap foreign labor, but provide local jobs, both to the local workforce and to immigrant vineyard labor. Immigrant labor is usually provided more of the social safety net and job stability in small vineyards and wineries than they get from large corporate commodity farms or from chain restaurants and chain hotels and large construction companies.

More importantly, small farm wineries tend to generate clusters of other value-added businesses, from bed and breakfast and hotel operations, to local processing of foodstuffs that are then sold both to tourists brought in by the wineries and to catalog and internet customers, to restaurants that feed the winery customers, to other local businesses that supply services and manufactured products for wineries and other tourist businesses, etc., etc.

Maybe most importantly, the wineries and other local value-added and tourist businesses provide a social diversity and pleasant image that leads to children thinking about staying in local communities and outside residents thinking about moving there and creating new businesses and services, notably internet-based services that do not require physical economies of scale and centralization.

Predictions can come true. A National Farm Organization leader once said in the 1960’s (sic), “If we do not organize ourselves to maintain local control of farm product supply, to influence demand and thus the prices of these products, we will soon become divided and controlled by large corporations that will monopolize supply.  We will be forced to take the price they give us and our rural communities will wither and die.” He was denounced as a radical, a communist, and a violent agitator by both the media and most of his fellow farmers, as most prophets are. A few years later, consolidaton of grain supply companies occurred, farm prices started a downward spiral, and corporate centralization and corporate domination of agriculture began to rapidly occur.

However, I will predict that a return to small agriculture is possible in the US, with wineries as an important component, and the current locavore movement is just the edge of the wedge to a return to local economies with a fulfilling local lifestyle and social fabric. Or, despite my optimism, the world may go to hell in a handbasket, but at least I will have good local wine to drink as the world burns.

Wine Picks:

2009 Viognier Rappahannock Cellars (moderate plus price, very good, tasted 2010)

Winemaker Notes: Taut acidity and clean aromas of apricot and spice characterize this refreshing white wine. 44% barrel fermented and aged in neutral French oak barrels. The balance was fermented in stainless steel and blended to highlight bright, clean fruit and subtle texture and spice. No residual sugar.

2009 Viognier Chrysalis Vineyards (slightly high price, excellent, tasted 2010)

Winemaker Notes: This extraordinary Northern Rhone varietal offers wonderful citrus, tropical and pear aromas, while retaining the classic dry quality of Viognier – eclipsing our award winning 2001 vintage. Unrivaled balance and intensity! Our “flagship” white wine.  Fermented sur lie and aged to perfection in French oak barrels and presented in our distinctive antique Burgundy bottles, this Viognier represents the epitome of Chrysalis Vineyards’ commitment to excellence in every aspect of the grape growing and winemaking process.

Dr. Menke is the Associate Professor of Enology; Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Colorado State University.

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