Scratching out a niche
CHRISTY SWIFTLAKE PLACID - If you visit Henscratch Farms for a little wine tasting, it might be 27-year-old Andrea Nelson who pours a glass for you.
Published: May 23, 2012
Published: May 23, 2012
"This one's my favorite," said the young mom with the long ponytail, opening a bottle of Southern Magnolia, a semi-sweet white that won a gold ribbon at the Florida State Fair this year. Made from the magnolia grape, a variety of scuppernong, the wine is not too sweet and not too dry. "It's a people pleaser," said Nelson with a smile. That's how she describes herself, too.
Nelson is the "right hand woman" of Drew Jones, who owns the farm just south of State Road 66 off of Henscratch Road with his wife, Brooke Bundy. Nelson handles the bookkeeping, ordering, federal and state logs, inventory, gift baskets, private labels, marketing and public relations for the 10-acre farm, which is famous for its scuppernong and muscadine grapes, U-pick strawberries, blueberries, wines and chickens laying green eggs.
Nelson has been there longer than the current owners, who bought the place in 2008. When she started in August 2007, she was answering an ad put in the newspaper by original owners Johanne Lauchman and Chris King.
"They were looking for somebody to do bookkeeping, basket making, ordering and inventory. In the end it said 'leap tall buildings,'" Nelson recalled. Although her background was not in agriculture, but rather in sales and waitressing, Nelson "sold" herself and landed the job.
The farm "means a lot to me. It really has a place in my heart," said Nelson as she showed off the new chicks recently hatched, a few of about 200 free-roaming chickens. She also enjoys not having to work in an office all day, and the flexibility of a job that let her bring her new baby to work with her. Now almost 2, little Todd Jr. sat in a playpen in her office, or spent time in a stroller in the country store, watching the chickens when he was an infant, she said.
In the past five years, Nelson has experienced the ups and downs of the farm and winery. While it hasn't changed much in physical appearance since she came on board (Lauchman and King started it from a fruit stand in 1999 and planted the first grape vines in 2000), the struggle to stay alive during hard economic times is what most stands out in her mind.
"The new owners bought the business in 2008 at the downfall of the economy and have put their all into keeping it here for the county," said Nelson, who added that Henscratch is the only local commercial winery in Highlands County. Luckily, she said things are starting to look up.
"He's done wonders with the wines this year," said Nelson of her boss, Jones. In fact, Henscratch Farms recently entered seven wines in competitions at the Florida State Fair and brought awards home on every one.
Jones, a new winemaker and a carpenter before he bought Henscratch, has found his niche, according to Nelson, taking Best of Show for Florida white wines with the sweet Country White, a double gold for the dry finish red called Red Sunset (meaning the judges unanimously voted it gold), a gold for the Southern Magnolia, and three silvers and a bronze for the rest of the entries.
Nelson shared that they are adding sparkling wines to their product line starting next year, something she's personally excited about. Also, a dry white grape is being planted this year making for a completely dry white wine, a rarity in Florida wines, to add to the next year's lineup.
Born in Ohio and moving first to Tennessee, then Broward County and finally to Highlands County, Nelson knew she enjoyed a quiet, rural lifestyle even if she does miss some of the perks of living near the ocean and enjoying big malls and easy public transportation.
"I love the ag — things growing and changing, chickens making noise," she mused. "It's peaceful when you stop and think about it." She's also glad that her oldest daughter, Ashley, 12, will be involved in FFA this year, and younger daughter Julie, 7, is considering 4-H.
Her own plans are to continue to expand on her public relations and marketing role at Henscratch, making the farm part of the Tour Lake Placid initiative, running school field trips like a mini Ag-Venture rather than a self-guided tour, adding some fun to the annual Grape Stomp festival in August with a Lucille Ball look-alike contest, and encouraging anyone who hasn't tasted Henscratch's wines in a while to check out the noticeable improvement.