The Garden City Telegram

The fruits of his labor

Brad Nading/Telegram A bunch of grapes grow on a vine Tuesday at Darrell Strawn's homestead south of Cimarron. Strawn is working to create a vineyard in southwest Kansas, and hopes to have plants producing grapes for wine by this time next year.
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Gray County farmer sets aside portion of land to grow grapes.


CIMARRON — Darrell Strawn must feel a little like Ray Kinsella.

No, the Cimarron farmer isn't leveling a portion of his crop to make way for a baseball field like Kinsella did in the fictional story "Field of Dreams." But like the Iowa corn farmer in the movie, he has succumbed to an urge to create something somewhat unique on his Gray County farm, and it's catching the attention of both locals and passersby.

He began planting grapevines on his farm five miles south of Cimarron in the spring of 2011, in part because of an unfulfilled dream of his father's, but also because of Strawn's own interest in vineyards.

" ... This is a family house we built in 1970, and my dad always wanted to have an orchard. But it's like how farming goes, every spring when you should be planting an orchard, it's like, 'Well, maybe not. Maybe next year,'" Strawn said.

His father, Ira Strawn, died in March 2010 before they ever got around to putting an orchard in. But it was this, along with his late mother Marjorie's unfulfilled desire to improve their home's interior, that spurred Strawn into action.

"What I'm trying to do is catch up on all the things that they didn't get quite finished up with. Daddy wanted an orchard, so we're starting with the vineyard and working toward the orchard," he said.

Strawn began by planting a small vineyard located in a half-acre patch of land that runs in front of his home, right along Highway 23.

"This was kind of an experimental type of deal. Well, first of all, it was up close to the house, so I could watch it every day, and this was just kind of a vacant field and always had been — just some grass and stuff that was left over. I think I got one bale of hay off of it, one time in 10 years, so I thought, 'This isn't very productive,'" he said.

He began with 300 grape plants.

"The first half of these, when you get to this type here that have more foliage, these are your wine type and these are more for table grapes," Strawn said, comparing the different types of grapes. "With grapes, you'll get a good crop the fourth year, and so next year, I should have my first full crop."

The vineyard contains Niagara and Catabra, which are table grapes, Cambourcin grapes, which are used for red wine, and Marquis grapes, which are used for white wine.

Although the drought has had a negative impact on his other crops, such as corn, he has discovered that grapes are a much tougher crop.

"Grapes are hardy. I mean, they are tough," Strawn said.

He chose varieties of grapes that can withstand not only freezes of up to 20 degrees below zero, but that also can withstand extreme heat.

"The main thing is, I didn't want to put all of the effort and the money involved with it, if they'd just freeze out in the winter time, so that's why I picked varieties that were adaptable to here," he said. "Grapes need two things. They need well-drained soils — well, this sandy soil is real well drained — and they need lots of sunshine. So it's perfect, absolutely perfect."

Last spring, Strawn added an additional 1,200 plants in a two-acre area of land southwest of his home. There are eight varieties of wine grapes in that section, Chardonel, Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, Vincent, Steuben, Traminette, Vignoles and Vidal Blanc.

Ultimately, he hopes to have five acres of grapes, from which to produce his own wine label.

"We'll probably do two whites, two reds and a rose," he said.

He said that in discovering that certain grapes grow best in low humidity and a lot of sunshine, he also stumbled upon the perfect name for his label: Tierra del Sol.

"It means the land of sun," he said and laughed. "It kind of just came to me when it was about 117 degrees one day."

He said that his son, Brandon Strawn, Culver City, Calif., came up with the label's design, which is a picture of an orange Kansas sunset, overlooking a field.

The next step, Strawn said, is to build a winery, where he will not only produce the wine, but also provide wine tastings. He said that his first vineyard already has evoked curiosity in passersby.

"I've had people from Texas stop in. People drive by, and they'll turn around," Strawn said.

In the meantime, Strawn is in the middle of harvesting milo, a crop he said is much improved from last year. He also still farms wheat, but decided to forego corn because of the water required. Because grapes require water, as well, another aspect of Strawn's plan is to dig a well that will reach depths of about 500 feet, which he said will provide a long-term supply of water for all of his crops.

When asked if he and his fellow farmers and buddies give him a hard time, Strawn laughed and said, "Oh yeah, oh yeah. That's why I started wearing sandals — just to spite them."

Strawn said that it's all in fun and that, to him, the lighthearted ribbing is worth it because he's now getting something out of a piece of land that once produced nothing.

"I say it's creative imagination," he said and laughed, adding that he also plans to one day put his own golf-putting green on the property.

It's still too early to predict, but maybe Strawn's vineyard will draw visitors the same way Kinsella's baseball field did in the movie.

"This is the funnest thing I've ever done ... besides skydiving," Strawn said and laughed.