Wineries are becoming big business in Georgia, and the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension is working to support this growing sector of the economy with new expertise for wine growers.
Earlier this month, UGA Extension hired its first full-time wine grape Extension specialist. Cain Hickey, who has worked in the grape and wine industry and been involved in viticulture research and extension since 2007, will begin his work with Georgia’s wine growers March 1.
As the state’s Extension viticulturist, Hickey will help wine grape growers across the state improve their vineyards and research new growing practices and grape varieties that could improve the quality and renown of Georgia’s wines. He’ll also work with the growers of the state’s more-traditional vineyard crop: muscadine grapes.
“Wine grapes are a growing agricultural commodity in Georgia, and they offer some distinct advantages,” said Mark McCann, UGA Extension’s assistant dean for agricultural and natural resources. “They can fit into small and medium acreage, wine making is a value-added process, and the aesthetic properties of a vineyard offers agritourism opportunities. UGA CAES is pleased to add a viticulturist to serve this growing industry.”
In 2005, almost of all of the state’s 1,834 acres of grape vines were muscadine grapes, which are grown primarily in south and central Georgia. In 2015, the latest year that statistics are available, UGA’s Farm Gate Value survey showed the locus of Georgia’s wine production had broadened. While more than 1,000 acres of muscadine grapes are still spread across the state, more growers have introduced traditional and hybrid wine grapes to farms in north Georgia.
Habersham County, home to a half dozen wineries, produced more than $2 million in grapes and wine in 2015. According to a 2014 study, Georgia’s wineries have more than a $7 million annual impact on the state’s economy each year.
UGA Extension has supported the burgeoning industry with its plant disease and pest experts and through county Extension agents, but Hickey’s hire will fill a void in the system. When he begins in March, Hickey will be an assistant professor of viticulture in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences horticulture department.
He received his doctorate in 2016 from Virginia Tech, where he focused on applied research in several viticulture areas, including irrigation management, cover crop and rootstock use, and canopy and fruit-zone management.
Hickey said he looks forward to working with Georgia grape and wine industry members to help solve regional vineyard management issues through his extension and research appointment.