Visitors to the Farmhouse Vineyards’ tasting room lift their glasses of Boyfriend sparkling wine to examine the contents using the evening light streaming through windows.
The pale gold hue of the effervescent dry white wine hints at notes of apricot and honey. If the customers look past the contents of the glass and through the windows beyond, they will see fields of cotton competing for attention next to rows of grape vines. This scene conveys the partnership of a traditional crop for this region and one that is growing in popularity. As the owners of Farmhouse Vineyards, and others in the Lubbock area have learned, their farming experience and determination can be used to leverage the gifts of Mother Nature to produce fiber and fine wine in this often-unforgiving climate.
Farmhouse Vineyards is a family-owned operation in Brownfield, Texas, and is owned by a brother and sister, Nicholas Seaton and Traci Furgeson along with their spouses, Katy Jane Seaton and Anthony Furgeson. Comprised of eight generations of agriculturists before them, they grow grapes for some of the largest wineries in Texas down to the most boutique.
From Well to Wine
Nicholas has been farming in Terry County for as long as he can remember. At 13 years old, Nicholas bought his first tractor with money he made from a cotton crop surrounding the historic Whitehouse Parker, their original farmhouse now turned tasting room.
“We got interested in planting a vineyard because we were looking for a way to preserve our water and rest our wells,” Nicholas said. “Water is our most precious resource.”
Due to decreasing water availability, these farmers knew they needed to find a way to adapt to utilizing less. This directed the farmers to plant grapes, which allows them to use water more effectively.
Anthony said with the water table continuing to diminish, farmers will be looking to become more economically viable by seeking different markets.
“We’ve tried to diversify ourselves,” Anthony said. “Just growing cotton over and over is fine, but we’re trying to set it up for the long term, so we have the option for it to be passed to our children, if that’s how it’s decided.”
Like many family farms and operations in the Texas High Plains, the Seaton and Furgeson families plant their seeds in the same soil as their family members who came before them.
“None of us would be where we are without the generations that came before us,” Traci said. “If it was not for them taking care of the land and making it accessible, we would not be here.”
According to Katy Jane, the Texas High Plains has a high concentration of generational family farms, which is a key factor in what makes the area special.
“They’re not doctors, lawyers, or dot-com-ers who have a farm on the weekend,” Katy Jane said. “Their whole livelihood comes from an operating loan and one paycheck a year and has for their father, their father before them, and his father before him.”
Both Anthony and Nicholas were born cotton farmers, which taught them many lessons about farming and gave them the expertise to help Farmhouse Vineyards get to where it is today.
“Cotton brought us to the dance,” Katy Jane said. “We would have never been able to plant vineyards if we did not have the infrastructure and the equipment and the farming know-how.”
Together these farmers grow a diverse array of row crops, specialty crops, and livestock including cotton, peanuts, black eyed peas, melons, pumpkins, various grains, vineyards, and 4,000 Dorper ewes.
“Row crops helped us understand the difference between what it’s like to raise a dryland crop and an irrigated crop,” Katy Jane said. “There are two ways to go at it; one relies solely on God and the weather, and the other, you can rely on science.”
One of the wines at Farmhouse Vineyards is a Rosé named Bloom, dedicated to their lives as cotton farmers. On the back label, it reads: “The price of cotton makes you want to drink; fortunately, we planted vineyards as well.”
“As cotton farmers, we’re still getting paid what our great-grandparents got paid. But our inputs have increased over 500%,” Katy Jane said. “So that’ll make you want to drink or go looking for a new job.”
However, the Seaton and Furgeson families are not looking for a new job when it comes to cotton farming and still choose to plant and grow cotton like the generations that came before them.
Farmhouse Vineyards is located in Terry County, which has been named the grape-growing capital of Texas because it produces over 80% of the wine grapes in the state.
After their first vineyard was planted in 2010, Farmhouse Vineyards has continued to expand in vineyard acreage and now sells fruit to the top 20 wineries in Texas.
“We sell 95% of the grapes we grow, and the other 5% we keep for ourselves,” Katy Jane said. “The 5% we keep goes into the boutique wines you experience in our tasting rooms located in the Texas High Plains and the Texas Hill Country.”
Creating their own wine was not in the blueprint for the Furgeson and Seaton families when they entered the grape business. However, the year 2015 brought a strong harvest, and tanks filled faster than expected leaving the vineyard owners with their malvasia bianca grapes, a then unknown varietal.
“So, we took those grapes and made Housewife, a semi-sweet wine,” Traci said. “After that, we made those grapes into a sparkling wine we call Boyfriend, and we continued to use those grapes to make our white wines.”
After Farmhouse Vineyards used their flagship grape, the malvasia bianca, in four different versions to showcase the different ways it makes a great white wine, wineries have more knowledge of the grape. This grape is in such high demand, there is now a waiting list for the fruit.
The tasting rooms located in both Brownfield, Texas, and Johnson City, Texas, allow consumers to experience and enjoy the boutique wine in what feels like the comfort of their own home.
“Wine is an experience, and you’re going to get a different experience depending on who you’re with, where you are, and what you’re eating it with,” Traci said.
Randy Wade, associate director of development at the Rawls College of Business, said he and his wife, Stacey, discovered Farmhouse Vineyards at Lubbock Uncorked when they moved back to Lubbock from Denver. Since then, they have told everyone they know about the greatness of Farmhouse Vineyards.
“Farmhouse Vineyards is a fast-growing partner to the Texas viticulture industry, and their wine club pick-up parties are a crowd favorite,” Wade said. “When we meet newcomers visiting Farmhouse, we always share our favorite wines, and the West Texas hospitality shines through the glass every time.”
This experience at Farmhouse Vineyards is intentional as the owners have worked hard to produce an environment that is fun, educational and positive.
“Our goal is to produce and grow world-class wines and grapes. We want to produce a product and place that people are proud of,” Traci said. “Once people learn that we are growing world-class wines in their backyard, they are instantly connected and have found an appreciation of agriculture in this area.”
However, the journey to experiencing boutique wines and a quality product from Farmhouse Vineyards has not been easy. Their lack of knowledge was hard to overcome and took years to hone.
“It’s taken us over a decade to get comfortable just growing grapes,” Anthony said. “It’s taken so long to understand the vine, the cause and effect, the weather, how the weather implicates the different markets, COVID, all the different things that have hit us. I now finally feel comfortable and confident in what we’re doing.”
By farming 7,000 acres of row crops each year, the family had the infrastructure and knowledge to plant vineyards. However, Nicholas said he believes it would be easier for a farmer to start out growing grapes than to start growing grapes after years of farming a row crop like cotton.
“It’s the polar opposite of growing row crops,” Nicholas said. “In row crops, it’s all about yield and production, and in the vineyard, you may lose tonnage to get a better flavor and a higher-quality fruit.”
Through years of experience and experiment these farmers have learned the know-how to examine the current needs of the vines and grapes just by looking at them.
“It is about keeping the vine balanced between canopy and fruit. Some years, that’s more canopy, less fruit. Some years, it’s the opposite,” Anthony said. “If the plant looks healthy, and the plant looks balanced, then you know you’re onto something.”
As farmers of a wide array of crops, one of their favorite parts of the vineyard is having a product with complete vertical integration.
“Producing a product from the vine all the way to wine while not losing control makes it very rewarding to be able to share the wine with that customer,” Anthony said. “They truly get to see the beginning to the end of your hard work.”
Farmhouse Vineyards has 124 acres of premium Texas wine grapes which house 24 varieties. By planting 24 varieties, they have been able to see what grows best in the area and grow varieties that are different from everyone else.
“You can probably go anywhere in the world, and you’re not going to find the variety of varieties that we’re growing here in the same vineyard,” Anthony said. “The vineyards, for the most part, are thriving with that combination.”
Climate and Change
Grapes have been grown in the Texas High Plains and Terry County for a little over half a century and the grapes grow well in the Texas High Plains because of the climate and soil.
“We have a diurnal climate, which anywhere you go in the world, you’d have to have, or you won’t produce high-quality grapes because grapes have to rest at night,” Anthony said, “so, the production of sugar in the plant needs to be an extended process over time.”
Associate chair of Undergraduate Programs at Texas Tech University in the Department of Plant and Soil Science Thayne Montague, Ph.D., has a joint appointment with AgriLife Extension. His research shows grape growers in the Texas High Plains have some real advantages in climatic conditions that make grapes grow well in the area.
“We have warmer days in the summer and cooler nights, which helps the metabolism and plants to photosynthesize and store carbohydrates,” Montague said.
According to Montague, in this area, most wine grapes grow well in the sandy soil because it drains well. Additionally, the soil in this area is fairly deep, which allows the roots to go down and get a larger rooting area to exploit any moisture in the soil profile.
However, not all wine grapes grow well in this climate, which is one reason why Farmhouse Vineyards grow 24 different varieties.
“We’re just trying to figure out what grows well and that’s what’s different about our perspective is so much of our input is from the farming aspect,” Anthony said. “You’re probably not going to get that from many wineries because we are in the business of growing things.”
Like any other crop, it is important to know how to plant in the soil and learn what works best in each region. According to Montague, as the growers continue to plant more varieties, the higher the chances the growers will have to find what works best in this area. He said he hopes this will help the public understand that you can produce good wine with varieties that may not be as common as what comes from California.
Every Plague in the Bible
“When you farm you truly choose to go into business with God and Mother Nature and that to me, just seems wholeheartedly risky,” Katy Jane said.
Weather is a big part of the challenge in the Texas High Plains, which can be difficult when starting to get a crop up and when finding varieties that grow well in this region.
“I like to say that most growing regions have one or two pressures, and West Texas has all of them,” Katy Jane said. “But what it also has is generational farm families that are so phenomenally great at what they do that they overcome it and adapt. So, they’re still turning out premium fruit despite facing every plague in the Bible.”
With every challenge comes the need for a solution, and Montague has spent over a decade working with producers and other universities researching grapes in the Texas High Plains. Just recently, Montague completed research projects looking at irrigation volume and how to help grapes withstand winter temperatures.
“The weather here is generally somewhat extreme; one day we will have 60-degree days in the middle of January and the next day it won’t get above freezing,” Montague said. “Those extremes most grapes and producers don’t really like.”
Farmhouse Vineyards and many vineyard owners have incorporated frost protection fans into their vineyards by disturbing the cold freezing air mass because late frost is a big challenge for many growers in the Texas High Plains.
“We implemented wind turbines because they were tried and true,” Katy Jane said. “We have been able to produce a crop consistently ever since we have put every single acre we own under frost protection.”
Late freezes are only one of the weather challenges in the region. Hail damage can also be costly for vineyard owners. This is why Montague said he has incorporated hail netting, which is a half-inch mesh that protects the vine, in some of his research trials at the Texas Tech Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute.
“Hail can be very detrimental to grapes,” Montague said. “We had a hail event last September and it really destroyed a number of growers’ grapes.”
With about half the farmers in the Texas High Plains using hail netting, Montague has conducted research on both the effectiveness of hail netting and how the netting affects the yield of the crop and the plant itself.
“What the study documented was that the hail netting does potentially protect the plant, but it kind of slows down the plant as it is ripening throughout the growing season, which is not a really bad thing. It’s just the yields may be a little bit less,” Montague said.
However, the reach of Texas Tech and current research goes farther from a classroom and the Texas High Plains.
Classroom to Vineyard
A former graduate of the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech, Sherah Mills is a vineyard manager for five different vineyards ranging from Fredericksburg, Texas, to Sonora, Texas. She is a third-generation Red Raider and got her first job out of college as a vineyard manager, managing a 20-acre vineyard.
“I am now currently managing close to 50 acres on five different vineyard properties,” Mills said. “I use my degree every single day, day in and day out.”
Mills has seen many parts of the wine business by working both in the vineyard on the vines and in the tasting room pouring glasses. During her time in the tasting room, Mills said she has seen consumers that are both die-hard Texas wine people and others shocked to learn that Texas grew grapes. However, just in the last 10 years, Mills said she has seen the Texas wine industry grow exponentially.
“A lot of our vineyards are out in West Texas and in the Lubbock and Brownfield area,” Mills said. “But, for the wineries in the tourist destinations, I’m in the thick of it and I can’t keep up from week to week because it is constantly growing.”
The growth is not just an increase in the number of wineries in Texas, or the acres of vineyards, it is also the increase in education and recognition Texas is getting for its wine.
“Texas has a booming wine industry, and we make some award-winning wines from wine competitions from around the world. Not just here in the U.S.,” Mills said. “We’ve had some types of wines do really well around the world and that’s pretty cool to see.”
However, educating consumers about these victories can be a challenge for anyone in the Texas wine industry because many consumers want to compare Texas wine to other prominent wine-growing regions.
“In my opinion, we are on the same level as the wineries out there in Napa Valley and Washington,” Mills said. “Like our wines are fantastic here in Texas, but they are going to taste different because we have a different growing season and a different climate.”
The success and enhanced reputation of Texas wines has taken decades to get to where it is today.
“I think from the farming side of things, some of our vineyards out in West Texas are now well into their 40-year mark, or 40 years of growing,” Mill said. “I think we have now had several decades of farming and weather patterns, and we are seeing what varieties work better for which parts of Texas.”
Being in the Texas Hill Country Mills said she educates her clients and consumers about varieties and being a vineyard manager. She said people have a romanticized idea of green vines and drinking wine. However, being a vineyard manager is just like being any other farmer and you have long days and long nights.
“With farming, there are days where you’re not done until you’re done, and that is farming,” Mills said.
One exciting part of the Texas wine industry is that there are new people who have start-ups and small businesses joining that are bringing a different perspective and camaraderie to the industry.
“We still have producers that are in competitive markets against each other,” Mills said. “But there is a lot of camaraderie that happens, and I think that all goes back to being a part of the agricultural world and the agricultural community.”
With many of the new producers joining the wine industry as their second career choice and many of them not having an agricultural background, Mills said she finds it refreshing that at the end of the day, the spirit of agriculture shines through.
Future of the Fruit
The future of the Texas wine industry is bright and that is not only due to the farmers who have put in the work to get it where it is today but also because of the young people who are ready to help take it to the next level.
“We have some folks in the industry who have been working very hard for a very long time to keep it moving forward,” Mills said. “But I think, moving forward, we’ve got a group of young people throughout the entire state in the industry who are going to do some pretty cool things.”
Right now there are people in the industry who are developing an established and well-known brand known as the Texas wine industry.
“Texas is growing world-class wines that are competing on the stage around the world,” Anthony said, “and they’re succeeding.”