Grape Vines Bind Family to Dorchester County Farm

“By Maren Wright
Capital News Service

It may seem like a Dorchester County Council Feb. 2 zoning change was about making wine, but in the case of Layton’s Chance Vineyard and Winery, it’s about family.

Layton’s Chance’s owners asked for a zoning amendment when they first planted their vineyard in 2007. Three public zoning commission hearings and revisions for state environmental concerns later, the provision to allow winery operations on agricultural land passed unanimously.

Joseph and Laura Layton had not initially planned to seek zoning changes; they had planned to retire from the farm they ran for more than 40 years.

Laura Layton thought the Gulf Coast sounded nice. And Joseph Layton, noting the lack of interest from his children, thought he’d be last in a long line of farmers. Their son had a different idea.

“”It surprised the heck out of us when he told us he wanted to come back to the farm,”” Joseph Layton recalled.

After eight years in the corporate world, the business school graduate decided he wanted to be more than a Dad with a successful job.

“”While I was building wealth, I wasn’t building anything I wanted to give to my kids,”” William Layton said.

The Laytons had a decision to make. The 1,300-acre farm would now need to support two families, and farming is not the same industry it was 50 years ago.

“”In my lifetime it has changed from a job of manual work to a job of mental work. It’s an information industry,”” said the elder Layton.

For 30 years he kept records of every pound of fertilizer applied and every crop yield from his 50 fields. Now with the use of global positioning satellites, he can record yields from every square inch of his land.

But technological advances don’t ensure success. Costs for fuel and fertilizer have increased. In 2003, the Laytons had their worst crop on record.

“”I lost more money that year than I thought I was capable of losing,”” the elder Layton said.
Looking for success in a new generation of farming, their son proposed Maryland wine as an option. The Maryland Wineries Association said the Eastern Shore is the fastest-growing area of Maryland’s wine industry.

Maryland’s wine industry is not new. In 1662, Gov. Charles Calvert planted 200 acres of European grapes on the east bank of the St. Mary’s River. For those who wonder if Dorchester has the climate for grapes, St. Mary’s is right across the Chesapeake Bay from the county.

The crop never really caught on — bound by a variety of problems.

Rob Deford of Boordy Vineyards said that the laws 25 years ago were terrible. There was no cooperative marketing and distributors wouldn’t take note of Maryland wines. With no association of growers, each faced these challenges alone.

It wasn’t until a second wave of wine pioneers used cooperative promotion and information exchange in the 1980s that Maryland’s wine reputation grew. Now Maryland has 34 wineries producing 1.3 million bottles per year.

For the Laytons, those challenges weren’t their only concerns. Joseph Layton is a farmer and William Layton is a businessman. They know how to make things grow and how to structure a business model. But wine has its own culture.

“”One of the tough things is that we weren’t really wine drinkers,”” the elder Layton said.

Now a dozen bottles sit behind him on a shelf and his conversation is filled with the uniqueness of the Norton grapes their vineyard will showcase, and how they’ll feature dryer reds, two whites, a blush and a fruit wine.

He sounds more sommelier than farmer, but the learning started with growing grapes.

“”The University of Maryland has a good program,”” William Layton said.

Their acreage, great for growing grain, was a little too fertile for grapes. They put drainage into the fields to protect the roots from too much water. They planted grass between widely spaced rows, requiring the vines to struggle, a key to healthy vines and good tasting wine.

“”We needed to be able to stress the grapes,”” he explained.

The first year they planted just 2 acres, and the businessman learned trellising, spraying, and pruning techniques. He learned through failure as well as success. Cutting back the vines each year for root growth, they have yet to see any grapes.

This year’s T-form trellised planting will create two curtains of leafy grapevines from each row. William Layton is taking a risk by trying something new.

But really, the whole venture is a risk. Still Joseph Layton discusses the worst possible outcome, the loss of his farm, nonchalantly, like a farmer who plants before spring rains come.

This spring the family will break ground on the winery, just as their first grapes will appear on the vine. The $10,000-per-acre investment has yet to pay dividends. This is a long-range agricultural business model, to be nourished by the next generation.

The elder Laytons have moved off the farm, and their son, his wife and two children live there, handling the day-to-day operations.

“”It has been very, very pleasant for me now that William solves many, if not most, of the problems,”” Joseph Layton says.

His wife, retired from teaching, attends pruning workshops instead of Gulf Coast bingo games. This non-retirement is not what she imagined, but she admitted it’s been great.

“”We’ve had to change our mindset,”” Laura Layton said, then added, “”It’s been wonderful to see our son raise his kids on the farm.”””