This MFA Foundation scholarship winner worked his way back home and into niche agriculture
Brandon Fahrmeier, MFA Foundation Scholarship winner in 1992, said it was college that exposed him to the creative thinking and open mind it took to travel a winding career path back to the farm—where he now grows grapes and operates a winery.
“At MU, in some classes, we were taught to think out of the box.” said Fahrmeier. “I met people in college that had a wide range of experiences and ideas about what they would do after school. It was a really open-minded atmosphere, and I guess I picked up some of that,” he said.
When he left the University of Missouri with an agricultural education degree in hand, Fahrmeier headed north to St. Joseph, Mo., to teach vocational agriculture for a few years. Shortly into his tenure there, he and his brother Bret started a greenhouse business back on the farm. Brandon left teaching to head home, splitting his time between the greenhouse operation and Tailor Made Turf, a custom landscape company he started.
But it was his next opportunity that laid the foundation for his “boot-strap” entrance to the world of wine. He took a job with Ball Horticultural Company, in which he covered a territory in eastern Ohio. During his four years in Ohio, Fahrmeier would meet a friend who had a mutual interest in making wine. They began to experiment with small batches of wine in Fahrmeier’s basement.
“That’s when I first started making wine,” he said. “I had a lot of Italian customers who appreciated wine, and I figured making wine especially for them would be a great way of capturing their attention.”
Fahrmeier’s friend, Todd Vaughn, went on to start Maize Valley Winery in Hartville, Ohio.
Now with the wine-making bug, Fahrmeier took a job with MasterTag, a horticultural company, which allowed him to move back home. While selling plant tags to greenhouses and plant dealers wasn’t his long-term goal, it got him closer. He was working from Missouri, and his wide territory (from Texas and New Mexico up to Canada), put him in contact with like-minded business people. And being based back at home let the realities of returning to the farm become more clear.
The deep-soiled hills around Lexington are some of Missouri’s prime farm ground. “When you are in an established ag area like this one, there is a trend in farming to get bigger and bigger,” said Fahrmeier. “Neighbors end up bidding up land to expand their operation. You can do that. Or, you can change what you do on the land. Sometimes that’s what you have to do.”
So Fahrmeier and his family planted the first grapes on the family farm in 2007. Starting a vineyard and winery from scratch isn’t a quick or cheap path toward returns.
“Startup capital is intense,” noted Fahrmeier. “You can spend $15,000 to establish an acre of grapes, and then you have to wait three years before you really get a harvest. It’s four years before you’re in full production.” He said that the deep soils on the farm and rolling hills are good for grapes, but there is a learning curve to make the plants produce top yields.
A renovated barn became the tasting room and retail space for the winery. “It had cows in it right up until we were ready to start construction,” said Fahrmeier.
Build and invite
Location is a critical factor for agri-tourism or agricultural entertainment enterprises. And while the Fahrmeier’s farm isn’t too far away from Kansas City’s population, it isn’t exactly on a heavy traffic route. To bring in customers, the winery leans on the established customer base of the greenhouse business, which has a presence at farmers markets in the city.
“We work largely on word of mouth. About 80 percent of our customers come from the Kansas side of Kansas City,” says Fahrmeier. “They come from the Overland Park farmers market and the River Market area north of downtown. That’s where the ‘guerilla’ marketing efforts take place.
“We are unique from many other wineries and tasting rooms. We’re open until 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday,” added Fahrmeier, “We draw customers looking for a laid back atmosphere that’s not a bar. We have live music on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.”
Aside from word-of-mouth marketing, the winery relies heavily on the Internet and social media for advertising and communicating with customers. Fahrmeier pointed out that even in the relatively short time the winery has been open, digital marketing has change drastically.
“You have to have a web presence. You’re not in this kind of business until you have a website,” said Fahrmeier. “Customers want to preview the place before they come out. They narrow their focus online. The site you put up doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be something.”
Social media is a growing influence on business. The winery uses Facebook to announce specials, entertainment and events.
“And then there is Pinterest and Yelp and others,” said Fahrmeier. “On the social media sites, we have content in circulation that we didn’t put on the site. You have to give the customer more than they expect. If you give them only what they expect, you’ve disappointed them. But if they’re happy, they’ll tell others through social media.”
The challenges behind and ahead
The biggest challenge in starting and operating the winery, said Fahrmeier, is the capital that must be tied into production and inventory.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed at how capital-intensive it is,” he said. “I explain it in terms of thinking about inventory for many businesses. They want to keep costs down. They use a 30- to 60-day inventory and a lot of just-in-time supply. We keep three years of inventory. That can tie up the capital you want to use to grow as well.”
While he first had the operation figured as a seasonal component to the farm, time spent growing grapes, making wine, running a tasting room and promoting all of it adds up quickly.
“The hours are long, and when you’re trying to grow, it seems like you are often behind. As you spend on expansion and making the business more efficient, you’re spending the money you need for labor. So you do it yourself. That’s the story of a boot-strapper.”
Yet, the grape and wine industry is strong in Missouri. And there is demand for local products.
“There is plenty of room left to grow,” said Fahrmeier, “Missouri wineries only make seven percent of the wine consumed in Missouri. In that sense, the sky is the limit. That leaves us with a mission. We have to make good wine. And we have to let people know we’re here.”