Texas Grape Growers among Top Three in the Nation
story by Jaime Tankersley
The National Organization of Professional Black Natural Resources Conservation Service Employees (NOPBNRCSE) held their 2013 Outreach and Agricultural Education Expo in Atlanta, Georgia, December 6th-8th.
During the expo, three agriculture producers from across the nation were selected for the Lloyd Wright Small Farmer Award. The award is named after NOPBNRCSE founder, Mr. Lloyd E. Wright, and is an honor bestowed upon producers that share a passion for improving awareness and development in the field of agriculture.
First place went to Kentucky farmer, William E. Boulden, Jr., second place was awarded to Texas grape growers, Alphonse and Martha Dotson, and third place went to Percy and Emma Brown of Mississippi.
The Dotson’s nomination highlighted the extensive conservation efforts and soil improving techniques utilized on their Voca, Texas vineyard. Their story is not archetypal, but that could be what makes their grapes a little sweeter and their wine award-winning.
After an illustrious career with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, Alphonse Dotson found himself retiring as a fairly young man. But after 15 years of raising a family in Acapulco, Mexico, Dotson decided to return to his home state of Texas, and try his hand at raising grapes.
He began consulting with experts in the grape growing field, reviewing real estate prices, and educating himself on all aspects of the business.
After a thorough search, Dotson found and purchased his ideal property. Dotson approached his local NRCS office for advice and tools to manage his natural resources. NRCS created topography maps that showed the land’s contour and field elevations, and took soil samples from around his property. Dotson wanted to know every inch of his land, and with a newly founded working relationship, the NRCS provided the technical assistance he needed to begin his grape growing endeavor.
Even though the property did not yet have a home for his family, it was able to host the plants. Over the Cinco de Mayo holiday weekend in 1997, the Dotson family and local residents helped plant over 6,800 grapes on 11 acres. Certenberg Vineyard was born.
The conservation based partnership between Dotson and the NRCS opened the door for continued efforts to improve water quantity and range conditions on a portion of the property not allocated to grapes.
NRCS and Dotson worked together to build a conservation plan. The goals in that plan included removing invasive mesquite on the rangeland adjacent to the vineyard. Using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), cost-share was made available for the needed land management practices. Native grass returned and forage production increased, allowing Dotson to run a small herd of beef cattle next to his vineyard.
Dotson kept a watchful eye on his young grape plants. Mother Nature took her toll; an irrigation system was needed in order to keep the young plants on a successful production track. Using the topography maps obtained from NRCS as blueprints, he installed a drip irrigation system that would protect his young plants from drought.
Dotson didn’t stop at producing premium grapes; he worked with a local winery to create an award winning wine! The content of the first bottle was the establishment of Dotson-Cervantes Winery and it showcases all of Dotson’s hard work to educate himself about farming and conservation.
“I have never met anyone more like a sponge.” says NRCS district conservationist John Newman. “He has been exceedingly eager for ideas and they fall on receptive ears. He didn’t just sign a piece of paper and become a conservation partner, he called directors, asked questions and would try just about anything to see if it worked.”
Alphonse and Martha Dotson are conservationist, and the “fruits of their labor” are a testament to the positive impact just one family can have on their land.