By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON TOWNSHIP — Vineyard 2121 got a special visitor Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow made a few stops throughout Southwest Michigan as part of her small business success tour. After making her way through Plainwell and Paw Paw on Tuesday, Stabenow made stops in Benton Harbor.
Debbie and Jeff Pallas, owners of Vineyard 2121, were the first to host the senator. Stabenow would later visit Lark’s Bar-B-Que and Murfee’s Boutique.
“I’m interested in being in small communities that have benefited from rural development efforts,” Stabenow said. “This is a fantastic examples of some folks doing it right. I love to see people take their ideas and their passion into their business.”
Debbie Pallas said she learned Friday that Stabenow would be stopping by at the 38.5-acre farm and winery at 2121 Kerlikowske Road. Stabenow serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which oversees the United States Department of Agriculture. The department manages funds for state and federal programs Pallas has used in the past.
Upon Stabenow’s arrival, Pallas told the senator how they’ve grown from a farm to a winery. This included an introduction from their first raspberry crop to the array of wine grapes the Pallases use to produce their wine.
“I love Merlot, and now I get to see where it happens,” Stabenow quipped Tuesday near a row of wine grapes.
When the Pallases purchased the farm, they reached out to the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s office in Berrien Springs.
There, they learned how to benefit from various programs and what grants to apply for. Through these efforts, the Pallases were made aware of the programs that would help themselves but the area.
Mike Stickle, a conservation technician with the NRCS, said they first visited with the Pallases and created a conservation plan. The plan allowed Stickle to look into what the Pallases’ concerns were and what they wanted to either protect or accomplish.
“When Debbie first came to us, she was looking for help from conservation practices that would help verify her farm in other programs,” Stickle said. “It’s incredible to see how quick this has happened and to see this whole winery go up.”
They would seek help through Rural Development, another USDA agency, and the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program.
“We applied, and they would pay up to a certain portion of the total project,” Debbie Pallas said. “For example, if it cost a business $60,000 to put roads in, the NRCS would reimburse them for a certain percentage of that. Every little bit helped us financially.”
Since being introduced to the agency, the Pallases created their own roads to avoid erosion and added a fueling facility to prevent gas leaks.
Among these best practices was the installation of a seasonal high tunnel – a sort of greenhouse that prolongs the growing season and protects crops against insects.
A visit from Stabenow to hear about their progress was only the topping of the Pallases’ efforts. As a result of enacting the majority of these conservation practices, the farm and winery received the 2014 Conservation Farm of the Year Award.
“You have to turn in all your records and keep everything in writing,” Pallases said. “It’s a lot of work on our part and a lot of work on their part to help us learn and get through the process. Having her (Stabenow) here is all the more encouraging.”
In addittion to Vineyard 2121, Stabenow stopped by Murfee’s Boutique and Lark’s Barb-B-Que in Benton Harbor.