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Grower Spotlight – Robert VanVleck

Born

April 20, 1942 – Lansing, MI

Education

  • High School Diploma – Charlotte High School
  • Baccalaureate – Central Michigan University
  • Graduate Work – Michigan State University

Years Farming

Bob has farmed his entire life, with breaks for schooling.

Years Working With Fenn Valley

Bob has been selling grapes to Fenn Valley since 1999, and is our longest continuous growing partner.

Varieties Sold to Fenn Valley

Vidal Blanc

Youth

img_0004Bob was raised on a dairy farm in Charlotte, Michigan.  He attended Charlotte High School where he thrived academically and athletically.  His greatest athletic achievement was pole vaulting.   Bob held the school pole vaulting record for 10 years by reaching a height of 12’4″!

After high school, Bob attended Central Michigan University to pole vault, and pursue a teaching degree.  Two months into student teaching he was disillusioned, but stuck with it and finished his degree.

After CMU, his path led to Michigan State University where he pursued a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Management.

In 1967, one year into his M.S., Bob applied to Welch’s in Lawton.  He got the job, moved from East Lansing to Lawton, and 3 days later Mother Nature dumped down 36” of snow!  He never looked back.

Career

Bob worked in grower relations at Welch’s for 11 years as a “Field Man.” His natural talents and education in teaching primed him for success in this role.

When Bob started at Welch’s in 1967, it was already a large business.  At the grape grower level, however, it was a completely different story.  With a large number of growers, most with modestly sized vineyards, there was a true grape growing community in Southwest Michigan.  Bob loved working with and being part of that community.  He knew nothing about grapes when he accepted the position, but learned quickly.  Having known Bob for many years, it is no surprise that he was accepted into the fold.

Unfortunately, the farming community has gone the way of so many other industries – retraction and consolidation.  National and global price competition, rising land values (especially “fruit ground”), and decreasing interest in farming have resulted in near loss of the vibrant community Bob once knew.  It is seeing resurgence, however, in the emerging wine grape industry!

Farming

img_0001Farmers are very astute observers, as well as excellent teachers.  Bob learned quickly, became a trusted field man, and soon had his own grapes in the ground.  Bob bought his first vineyard in 1970.  It was a 22 acre farm with a house and 10 acres of vineyard.  In 1978, he purchased another 11 acres of vineyard.  His successful operation grew to 85 acres by the late 1980s.

Large-scale growing of a high-value perennial crop is not easy.  One of the lessons Bob learned and lived by was, “a good grape grower has to think like a peach grower.”  If you leave too many peaches on the tree, you get low-quality peaches.  You also grow low-quality fruiting wood for the coming season, and put yourself into a yo-yo cycle of production.  Bob knew better, and succeeded.  Every vineyard is different due to many variables: site, variety/rootstock, training system, etc.  Bob’s vineyard is like a garden.  Every plant is an individual, and treated as such.  The vistas are spectacular, and it is truly a pleasure every time we visit.

Bob is an avid learner and attended industry meetings both as an employee of Welch’s, and as a grower.  It was at these meetings that he met Doug Welsch.  Doug is the owner of Fenn Valley Vineyard, and an avid learner himself.  They struck it off, and become mutually-respected peers.

In the 90’s, Bob decided that he wanted to try his hand at growing wine grapes, which were just gaining traction in Southwest Michigan.  He approached Doug with the idea and although Fenn Valley had never worked with any grower on a long-term arrangement, Doug agreed.  A new production risk by the winery would have only been entered into with a growing partner of Bob’s caliber.  They shook hands, and it has been a fully-respected, mutually-beneficial contract ever since.

Bob and his wife Janette planted Vidal Blanc in 1996, and had their first modest crop in 1999.  In 2000, they harvested 13.68 tons.  Bob proudly pulled out his records to show cropping history.  In 2016, Bob harvested 18.9 tons for Fenn Valley!

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6130 122nd Ave | Fennville, MI | 49408 | 269-561-2396