Dawn and Bob Betts Honored by John Brahm III Grower Award for Ceaseless Research and Innovation

Dawn and Bob Betts of Betts Farms LLC

The usual “surprised but pleased” reaction that most people admit to having when presented with a major accolade doesn’t quite sum it up for Dawn and Bob Betts.

“We were shocked,” Dawn says of learning that she and her husband Bob won the John Brahm III Grower award for their pioneering work with grapes at Betts Farms. “It’s the Wine & Grape Foundation. We’re Concord growers!”

“Grape growers are the reason the New York Wine & Grape Foundation exists,” notes Executive Director Sam Filler “The New York State Wine Grape Growers helped launch our organization with Jim Trezise in 1985. We are thrilled to serve and honor growers every year, like the Betts’, who continue to be the backbone of our industry.”

The New York Wine & Grape Foundation created the Unity Awards in 1990 to celebrate, recognize and encourage cooperation among grape growers, wineries, researchers, retailers and others who contribute to the advancement of this dynamic industry.

The John H. Brahm III Grower Award recognizes an individual or individuals for their dedication and contributions to the New York grape industry. Brahm, who died at age 76 in 2019, launched Arbor Hill Grapery & Winery in 1987 after overseeing 850 acres of vineyards in New York and California for Widmer’s. He was deeply invested in the business of growing and making wine.

Bob, a fourth-generation farmer at Betts Farms in Westfield may grow Concord grapes, but his work has introduced farmers of all kinds to practices that improve the health of their plants and ensure the ongoing health of the land and community that surrounds it.

“I’m just going to brag about Bob for a second because he won’t say these things himself,” Dawn says. “He is the most knowledgeable person in our area and well beyond about the benefits of multi-species cover cropping.”

Bob, as Dawn predicts, is more downbeat about it.

A Hobby With a Purpose

“I guess you could say it’s my hobby to raise cover crops,” he says. “I like to experiment, and plant cover crops seasonally, and see which ones make soils and vines healthier. Which ones help with water and wind erosion? Which ones help with the kind of compaction that happens after they’re run over again and again with a tractor?”

Experiment with different seasonal cover crops, across separate soil types with unique sets of wind, water and erosion challenges, and you’ll have variables to play with for decades.

Bob and Dawn’s main focus, of course, is growing Concord grapes—but they both agree that their tinkering has made their business more ecologically and economically sustainable.

“When I took over the farm, we had 14 acres,” Bob says.

“I joined him in 1988 when we got married,” Dawn says. “From there, we planted more, we purchased some and we leased some.”

All told, the Betts now have 185 acres of land they own and 45 leased acres. The vast majority is Concord, with a smattering of Niagara and Catawba.

“Growing grapes for juice and growing grapes for wine is very different,” Dawn explains. “The varieties have to be trimmed and managed very differently.”

But, Bob says, they both benefit from cover crops.

“In 2011, we experimented with a 5-acre patch of vineyard that we cover-cropped,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the difference. The earthworms went crazy and they aerated the soil, reducing compaction. The cover crops helped bring nutrients down into the soil, which then went into the vines. We take so much out of the soil every year by growing those vines, and this helps bring that nutrition back so we can keep doing what we do.”

Dawn and Bob Betts with son Thom and Family

A Passion for Sharing Knowledge

Within a few years, they cover-cropped all of the land they farmed and began spreading the gospel.

“I’ll talk to anyone who wants to know about cover crops,” Bob says. “Nothing is secret.”

The Betts’ open-handed approach means they are frequently approached to participate in studies (often with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program), and communal knowledge shares (the annual coffee pot meeting among growers during harvest time is always well-attended at the Betts Farm).

They are so passionate about the merits of cover crops, that they’re holding an information sharing educational seminar at their farm this summer.

“Cover cropping has not just made our vineyard healthier, but it has reduced our need to apply synthetic fertilizers and herbicides,” Bob says. “It has saved us a lot of money in inputs, while also helping to create a healthier crop. We are going to share results from 13 years of experiments this summer on June 12 at our farm in Westfield. Anyone who wants to learn can attend.”

In 2013, Bob and Dawn formally welcomed the fifth generation to their fold by incorporating as Betts Farm LLC with their son Thom, now 33.

“Thom is taking everything we’ve done and pushing it forward even more,” says Dawn. “We truly believe that being great stewards of the land and creating healthier soils leads to better vines and a healthier community.”

Picture of Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves' work frequently appears in Wine Enthusiast, Wine Searcher, Wine Industry Advisor, Liquor.com and many other publications. They co-founded Thinking Outside the Bottle, which provides communications services to the drinks industry.