By Saundra Amrhein
Driving up the long rutted path past the vineyards, you first will be greeted by the dogs tearing across the farm to inspect you – as is their duty.
About 30 miles northeast of Tallahassee at Monticello Vineyards & Winery – a certified organic and sustainable operation in Northwest Florida – pride in being an unpretentious Florida farm winery adds to the charm.
Under the ownership umbrella of Ladybird Organics, the 50-acre farm unfolds across perfumed fields, including wild cherry and cultivated pear, fig, and persimmon trees, citrus, nuts, microgreens, and a small chicken-and-egg operation in the distance.
Owner Cynthia Connolly¸ wearing a green cap, corduroy jacket, blue jeans and boots, pulls up in a golf cart. “We are a working farm, and everyone is working,” she said.
As she disembarks, a happy Carson, Bordeaux and Molly commence to chasing each other now that they’ve dispensed with sniffing and checking you out. Before getting to the vineyards, there are introductions to be made. Carson, Connolly says, is the Border Collie who takes care of the chickens on the farm, stopping past problems with coyotes.
“I think he even keeps the snakes away,” Connolly said. Bordeaux, the other Border Collie, watched the sky for hawks. And then there’s Molly, an Australian Shepherd and Blue Heeler mix. “The perfect one,” Connolly called her closest companion, who climbs up into the golf cart seat in Connolly’s absence, keeping it warm. “She stays with me.”
It is a cool March morning with temperatures in the 50s, just a few weeks before the vines will start to bud out in shades of light green, and several months before many visitors will start showing up to take advantage of what the U-pick farm offers.
The hobby wine makers and tasters will be here, and so will the visitors who love to make jelly and jam and others just interested in eating the fruit itself. Thanks to the cool and dry climate, there might be grapes to pick by July, though August and September get the lion’s share.
Here all the visitors will find some of the greatest regional diversity of Muscadine grape varieties – the native grape of the southeastern United States. That Connolly has all the harvesting done by hand – not mechanically – allows for staggered maturing of the fruit and therefore, this greater variety.
But even before those busy months, there is plenty going on here, especially from the worm’s- eye view – literally. In the years since 1980 when Connolly became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural education with a minor in agricultural engineering from Iowa State University, she developed a love affair with earthworms.
“They are so exciting,” she said.
The earthworms – along with their waste – are crucial to the magic of this place. Connolly uses their castings as nutrients and fertilizers for the entire farm, including the vineyard, selling excess to local nurseries. In turn, after the grapes are processed into wine, Connolly takes the pressed pulp left over and feeds it to the earthworms, which digest and excrete it, once more contributing to the enhancement of a rich soil for the vineyards and the rest of the farm.
She is planning a few weeks from now to hold another of her regularly scheduled workshops – reaching out to the community and general public to share the joys of organic farming and vermiculture, or the raising of worms for rich, organic fertilizer and home gardening purposes. Connolly loves to see the reaction of people in the workshop when they discover they can grow tomatoes from earthworm waste.
“They get so excited,” she said. “It’s a contagious thing.”
So is Connolly’s fascination with the natural cycles of life among the plants, animals and wildlife of this region. For her, it was love at first sight.
Originally from Michigan, her father moved the family to the central Florida town of Ocala when she was nine. During her time studying for a master’s degree in English Education at Florida State University in Tallahassee, she had a chance to drive the roads through nearby Monticello.
“I just connected to this area,” she said. “This area captured my soul.” But when she was growing up, she said, girls did not go into agricultural studies, including programs such as Future Farmers of America. After graduate school, she was offered a legal proofreading position in Tallahassee. But she felt hemmed in by the four white walls.
“There’s got to be more to life,” she said she thought to herself. “And that’s the answer. Life.”
She took a part-time writing job with the agricultural extension office of Florida A&M University, and from there – following the enactment of Title IX, which helped expand educational access for women – applied for and was accepted into Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture as the first woman in its doctoral program.
After graduation and then several years working in the nation’s capital and overseas in agricultural education and international consulting with agencies like USAID and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Connolly returned to the place she loved. A real estate agent helped her find an overgrown farm with gaping holes left from removed trees. She loved it.
“I knew stuff would grow here,” she said. Aiding her decision was a sign – when the real estate agent’s car got stuck in a hole for three hours. “I figured this farm picked me.”
It was 1989, long before “organic” and “sustainable farming” became buzz words. But that’s what Connolly knew she wanted to do, having survived and triumphed over breast cancer.
“There was no doubt before I came here – no chemicals, no toxicity,” she said. She started with vegetables, selling them to a local co-operative, and then the vineyard under a pilot program run by FAMU to provide some materials and labor to help set it up.
The first year there was a drought. And quickly she realized something. The earthworm castings she had started to use in the soil did more than provide nutrients – they also provided moisture. Despite the drought, later that season she had fruit on all the vines. And even though she subsequently set up a state-of-the-art sustainable irrigation system, she hasn’t used it once in ten years.
The winery came later, and she was licensed around 2000.
With more than 18 varieties of Muscadine grapes, Connolly produces both semi-sweet and dry versions, including the white varietals of the Carlos and Magnolia, and the red varietal Ison that makes the Florida Red.
Tastings are usually held outside the wine-tasting room, with the glasses resting on an old rustic prayer stand bench with square nails, all under a bell that visitors can ring when they first arrive.
But on this morning, with a chill in the air, Connolly moved the tasting inside. Some of the wines are light and fruity with a hint of pear, others faintly of warmth and brandy – all of them distinct.
On the farm and through her workshops and wine tastings, she gets to combine both of her loves –agriculture and education.
While she thrived in an academic setting, it is on the farm where the marvels of the natural world humbled her and sharpened her creativity and intuition.
“It’s a joy,” she said, “to be out in nature.”
If you go…
What: The Monticello Vineyards & Winery is located outside of Monticello, about 30 miles northeast of Tallahassee.
Where: 1211 Waukeenah Highway, Monticello, FL 32344
For more information or to schedule a tour or wine tasting, call (850) 294-9463 or visit: www.monticellowinery.com
Photos Courtesy of Dewey Riou
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