Published March 31. 2012 4:00AM
Russell Holmberg is aiming for a big year in his vineyard. It's not because the 29-year-old, fourth-generation member of the Holmberg Orchards family recently was named Connecticut's Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year, although that well-deserved accolade certainly won't hurt.
Mother Nature willing, Holmberg's three-year-old pinot blanc grape vines are poised to put forth a bumper crop, which he plans to turn into an Alsatian-style white wine by the following summer.
"The grapevines have been growing so well that they are as far along as five- or six-year-old ones," says Russell, who developed his interests in viticulture while earning his bachelor's in plant science at UConn. He graduated magna cum laude in 2004.
Holmberg Orchards, located in the picturesque hills of Gales Ferry, has evolved over the years since 1896 when Adolph and Hulda Holmberg came over from Sweden, from high quality vegetables to the fruit orchards started by sons Harold and Henry in 1935. Richard and Diane, Russell's parents, took over the farm in the 1980s, expanding into retail and pick-your-own markets. Then came the pies and bakery items, which sister Amy has a hand in running, along with the retail specialty food shop.
Russell, who grew up on the farm, often took "field trips" with his dad to fruit grower conferences. He says he started taking notes when he was about 16 years old. Now he's as likely to be one of the speakers at various Connecticut and New England agricultural conferences.
"We have a really first-class winery set-up now," says Russell, whose parents, both with backgrounds in education, challenged him to put together a business plan that justified investing in equipment, getting a state winery license, and planting two acres of grapes. The facilities, with a capacity of 1,500 gallons of wine and up to 2,000 gallons of hard ciders, also received a Connecticut Department of Agriculture farm viability grant.
In 2006, the Holmberg Farm Winery started producing hard apple cider from the farm's Russet apples, which the Holmbergs say are ideal for making traditional New England apple cider, thanks to the fruit's high acidity and tannin levels.
In the past year, Holmberg has been able to bring its sweet cider production back to the farm, too, after investing in a new, larger cider press, rotary bottle filler and U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved UV light juice treatment equipment which is capable of removing E. coli bacteria from cold juice.
"It's just as safe as pasteurization, the flavor is as close to untreated juice as you can get, and it is eons more environmentally friendly because we're not heating up and cooling down thousands of gallons of juice," says Russell, who is happier making cider on the farm than hauling apples and bottled juices to and from another processor. "We now have a really topnotch juice-processing facility, from the washing equipment to the press to the processor to the bottling line, it's really first-rate."
The young farmer also is excited to adapt the latest growing techniques from fruit producers in Europe and Chile, who have been advancing the art and science of producing significantly higher yields of fruit from smaller trees, planted closer together, and reducing the time it takes to put orchards into production.
"The Europeans have been dealing for years with fuel and labor prices that we're just starting to become aware of," he says. "There hadn't been a lot of changes in how we grow fruit in the Northeast in 20 or 30 years."
But in the last 10 years, there has been a lot of conversation across the continents.
Russell's focus has been on the orchard to consolidate the existing fruit orchards, converting them to the high density European system and then diversify the freed-up land to more grapes, bramble crops of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. He'd also like to grow cherry trees.
Last May, he planted three acres of apple trees in the intensive European system and hopes to be harvesting the fruit in three years' time. It's one of only a handful of New England orchards adapting to the new methods.
"We're expecting to harvest 1,100 to 1,300 bushels of apples per acre, compared to 600 to 800 bushels of apples per acre on our existing blocks of trees," he says. "We have a 50-acre farm; if I could get that down from 35 acres of apples to 10 or 15 highly productive acres, then it's on to more of the other crops."
Holmberg was presented the Connecticut agricultural award on March 21 in the State Capitol by Governor Dannel P. Malloy and Agricultural Commissioner Steven Reviczky.