By Jessica Dupuy
Photography by Amanda Grace
If you’re a fan of Texas wine, you’ve probably heard of grape grower Cliff Bingham. There’s a decent chance you’ve at least tasted wines made from his grapes. Bingham Family Vineyards & Farm is one of the largest grape-growing establishments in the state, nestled comfortably among other grand vineyards that are led by producers Vijay Reddy, Neal Newsom, Jet Wilmoth and Andy Timmons.
Located in the High Plains, near Lubbock, these vineyards supply more than 75 percent of the grapes used by wineries throughout the state of Texas.
But grapes aren’t the only crop at Bingham’s farm. In fact, grapes didn’t come into play until about nine years ago. For four generations (five, including the newest wave of Bingham children just entering the business), his family has grown cotton—one of the key crops in the region for more than 100 years.
“Ever since I was a kid, I have loved farming,” says Bingham. “The whole process of tilling the soil and pampering these little plants until they take on and do what they’re supposed to do despite nature’s pressure is really rewarding.”
Bingham pursued a degree in business and entomology at Texas Tech University, where he met his wife, Betty. Just out of college, the two married and immediately jumped into farming life—renting and leasing cotton farms to work while they saved money for their own property. The rented property usually involved sharing a percentage of their crop profits with the landowner, while the leased property was a straightforward cash lease arrangement, where the Binghams were able to retain all crop profits.
Of course, experience had taught Bingham that cotton crops put very little back into the soil in the way of nutrients. Many successful High Plains cotton farmers had successfully incorporated some sort of alternative rotation crop to help regenerate the soil. Bingham followed suit and chose peanuts.
The Binghams’ ability to yield successful cotton and peanut crops on leased and rented land grew from year to year, and soon the niche market of organics began to appeal to them. “We were using a minimal amount of chemicals for pesticides, anyway,” says Bingham. “On the High Plains it’s very dry, so insect and fungus pressure is pretty minimal.”
They officially made the switch to organic methods, and by 1993 their entire cotton and peanut operation was certified as organic. In 1999, they finally purchased land and, while keeping their rented and leased properties, expanded their organic cotton and peanut empire. Since then, the family farming operation has evolved to become one of the largest independent certified organic cotton and peanut growers in the country.
“I wouldn’t exactly call myself an environmentalist,” Bingham says. “I’d say I’m more of a conservationist. I’m concerned with the health of the soil. I want my land to be in better shape when I’m finished with it than when I found it. It’s for my kids and grandkids.”
Today, the Binghams farm about 2,000 acres and rotate their crops almost fifty-fifty between organic cotton and peanuts. Annually—when Texas isn’t in a drought—they can yield around 1,000 bales of cotton and 3,500 pounds of peanuts. It’s given Bingham an opportunity as a partner in the organic-cotton community through the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, which is made up of about 30 organic-cotton growers in the High Plains—a number of whom also rotate their crops with peanuts. The co-op pools the annual cotton crop together and sells its product to buyers. More than a third of the yield currently goes to Disney, with the rest headed to the likes of Patagonia, Nike, Billabong and a few Japanese and South Korean companies. Bingham sells his peanuts directly to two different companies who use them primarily for organic peanut butter (in fact, much of the organic peanut butter you see in stores such as Whole Foods Market is sourced from the High Plains).
But with more than 30 years of successful row-crop farming under Bingham’s belt, how did he end up tackling grapes? Despite the romanticism that managing a vineyard might entail, when it came down to it, a lot of it had to do with economics. About 10 years ago, a number of farmers in the High Plains began to notice that the availability of water was becoming a challenge. Their primary source of water, the Ogallala Aquifer, had been progressively depleting with little to no sign of replenishing, causing many cotton farms to, literally, dry up.
Following the lead of farming friends Jet Wilmoth and Neal Newsom, who had each successfully jumped into the grape-growing industry in the late 1990s, Bingham did some investigating. With the help of well-known High Plains wine-growing consultant Bobby Cox, Bingham took the leap into the Texas wine industry in 2004 and planted five acres of viognier, a white French varietal from the northern Rhône. By the time the viognier was ready to market, Cox had helped Bingham secure a promising buyer: Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards, one of Texas’s most respected wineries.
“Bobby Cox was an absolute godsend and at just the right time,” says Bingham. “He knew I didn’t know a thing about grapes, and that’s just what he was looking for—someone who could be coached by him and just get the vineyards planted.”
Originally, Bingham started his vineyards under the same organic requirements as his row crops. But a few years ago, conditions were just too challenging to maintain the vineyards without minimal chemical use. “Our vineyards are still very sustainable; we use compost for fertilizer, and the vast majority of our fungicide is sulfur,” he says.
What started as five acres and one winery purchasing fruit has fast developed into more than 225 acres and more than 20 wineries contracted to receive Bingham’s annual yield. Over the course of the vineyard’s growth, Bingham has found that farming about 1,000 acres of irrigated cotton uses about as much water as 50 acres of grapes. “I can make the same living on 50 acres of grapes, which means I’m using about 20 times less water,” he says. “In the end, the cost is about the same to put money into fifty acres of grapes, but as our water shortage increases, it’s a more efficient use of our resources overall.”
Bingham estimates that, with grapes, he’s able to make about 10 times the profit using the same amount of water that he has to use for his other crops. In recent years, the demand for his grapes has skyrocketed, but he’s committed to growing only what his farming operation can handle—which includes the modest planting of only eight additional acres in 2013 and turning down countless wineries who would like to contract him to plant more. “We have to maintain what we’re doing now and still do a good job at it,” he says.
This philosophy is setting an example for the generation just moving into the business. Cliff and Betty have 11 children, ages 9 to 28, all homeschooled and three of whom are married and living close by to work the farm. Each has shares of the family corporation with the option to join the family business when and if they’re ready. So far, six of the oldest have chosen the family business. Cliff’s eldest son, Clint, has planted vineyards of his own under the Bingham Family Vineyards name and now serves as the general manager for the entire operation—giving the elder Bingham the opportunity to focus less on administrative tasks and more on farming, what he loves most.
When asked about that passion, Bingham admits he has a soft spot for his vineyards. “I’m really glad that it’s the direction we’re heading. There’s just something romantic about the grapes,” he says. “But I still love cotton and peanuts. I have to remind my kids that cotton and peanuts is where we got the money to invest in the grapes to begin with. We’re just thankful to have been blessed every step along the way.”