For nearly 60 years, visitors to Orange County’s Dairyland Road admired the hilltop dairy farm that gave the road its name. Maple View Farm was an iconic feature of the landscape, its adjoining ice cream store a must-see, must-taste attraction. Dairyland’s rolling hills and long vistas make it a popular bicycling route in midland North Carolina.

But today the view has changed. As visitors settle into rocking chairs with their butter pecan, they see not the familiar Holstein cattle grazing the memarkadows but instead a grid of grape vineyards stretching toward the horizon. The Maple View silo standing sentinel over the fields now bears the name Union Grove Farm, heralding a new and innovative era in the dairyscape.

In 2021, a venture capital entrepreneur bought Maple View, with a vision of planting its fields with tens of thousands of grapevines. Greg Bohlen is planting 1,000 acres in muscadines, a native Southern grape that advocates acclaim as a nutrient-dense “superfood” with health benefits ranging from better nutrition to cancer treatment. With the help of a local grape breeder, Bohlen has developed a new strain of muscadine that is seedless, thin-skinned, and sweeter. 

“We are going to change the world,” says Bohlen, who has literally bet the farm—tens of millions of dollars from his VC earnings—on turning Union Grove Farm into a major food producer and demonstration laboratory for new agricultural technology. 

Bohlen is a nationally recognized starter and seller of businesses, whose successes include the meat-substitute company Beyond Meat and Hero Bread, a low-carb bakery.

“I am convinced that if I have a legacy, it will be tied to the farm and not to my venture capital work,” he says. “My companies have changed a lot of things in the landscape of the world, but this is literally the first company I’ve had that can do exceedingly well by doing good.”

Greg Bohlen (left), the Union Grove founder and CEO, and Martin Crompton, the Union Grove Farm vineyard and project director. Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Bohlen is planting muscadines using advanced agricultural technology called regenerative farming. It is a process that eschews fertilizers and pesticides in favor of nutrient-enriched soil to revive fields exhausted by decades of erosion and chemical poisoning. His tools are not tillers and chemicals but sheep and red wiggler worms, tens of thousands of them.

This year, Union Grove planted 20 acres of vines and will add 50 more next year, toward the goal of 1,000 over 10 years. Bohlen aims to make the Union Grove grape a moneymaker for his portfolio, but his vision is a public health revolution.

“If they are successful, I will say they will be the biggest vineyard in the Southeast,” says Mart Bumgarner, North Carolina Agriculture Extension Agent for Orange County. “It’s phenomenal that they’re bringing this to Orange County.”

Bumgarner and other farming experts say Union Grove still has a lot to prove to reach that potential. It needs to show both that its new muscadine strain can attract a broader consumer market than traditional muscadines and that regenerative farming—an expensive investment even for a venture capitalist—is worth the cost. It faces some resistance from traditional farmers and the vested interests of the farm world—lenders, property owners, and farm supply companies. 

There also are questions, faced by any farmer, about environmental threats, insect infestation, and the food safety of a new product. “We do not know what diseases could get them, we do not know about the management system of those grapes at this point in time. And we won’t for a very long time, because there is a limited supply of those grapes,” says Mark Hoffmann, an NC State University agriculture professor who specializes in grapes and other small fruits.

Bohlen and his team have heard the skepticism, but they are plowing ahead with a combination of science and field work. They have planted 8,000 vines so far, with a plan to add 30,000 more each year up to 400,000 plants by 2030.

Dane Jensen, a shepherd at Union Grove Farm, stands behind a herd of Katahdin sheep. Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Bohlen’s new strain of muscadine was developed by Hillsborough grape breeder Jeff Bloodworth, a former NCSU grape expert. Test-planting 1,800 varieties, Bloodworth developed a seedless, thin-skinned hybrid to supplant the pulpy, hard-husked muscadine traditionally grown in North Carolina. The new grape, by many accounts, is delicious. 

“Oh my god, have you tasted it?” asks Bumgarner, the extension agent. “It’s a cross between a muscadine and a table grape, and the taste is phenomenal.” 

Bloodworth’s first generation of fruit, called Razzmatazz, is sold now in Weaver Street Market, Food Lion, and other retailers. He and Bohlen developed a relationship after Bohlen began acquiring land near Hillsborough. Bloodworth has patents on the new strain, and Bohlen controls the marketing rights. 

The muscadine is considered a nutritional food because it is high in polyphenols, which impart health-improving antioxidants. “These are the reasons your mother told you to eat your fruits and vegetables, to get these dietary polyphenols,” says Wake Forest University medical school researcher Patricia Gallagher, who is leading a $20 million study of the health benefits of muscadines. Early results show reductions in tumor growth in prostate and breast cancer. 

Bohlen is not yet claiming cancer-reduction properties, but he is pinning his hopes on his grape’s health benefits.

“It’s important for a society that continues to be overweight and a society that tends toward pharmaceuticals instead of looking for their food to heal them,” he says. “That’s our goal, to feed people in a way that makes them healthier, not less healthy.”

Razzmatazz, the new strain of muscadine grape, on the vine Credit: Photo by Meredith Sabye

Mary Ann Lila, professor of food and nutrition at NCSU, says the muscadine goes beyond being just a nutritious food. As part of a regular diet, she says, the grapes can protect against chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even cognitive decline.

“The thing that’s so interesting about muscadines, unlike table grapes, is they are not heavily bred, but they are so close to nature,” says Lila, who directs NCSU’s Plants for Human Health Institute. “They’re natural and they’re naturally evolved to the Southeastern environment. They’re tough, they’re very resilient to the insults the environment can impose, and because of that they are a repository for health-protective compounds.”

The uniqueness of the grape is one of Bohlen’s competitive strategies. The other is the regenerative farming process used to grow it. Regenerative farming aims to rehabilitate fields exhausted by erosion and traditional farming practices by building new nutrient-rich soil. The process avoids chemicals and tilling, instead keeping fields planted in cover crops and infusing them with a compost cocktail generated in Union Grove’s vermiculture lab. 

The facility collects tons of debris and food scraps to feed into bins of more than 100,000 red wiggler worms, which digest the scraps and poop out a nutrient-rich compost. A compost tea then is sprayed onto fields of cover crop, building up new layers of high-nutrient soil. Instead of using tractors and mowers, the farm maintains the land using 250 Katahdin sheep that simultaneously graze cover crops and fertilize the fields, priming them for later grape planting. 

A tank of an estimated 100,000-150,000 red wiggler worms at Union Grove Farm in Chapel Hill. Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Bohlen says regenerative farming not only rebuilds the soil but also recaptures carbon from the atmosphere. “For every 1 percent of soil organic matter we build, we’re taking 8.5 tons of carbon out of the air,” he says. “Imagine how the soil that has been for generations depleted by tobacco would respond if it instead built up an inch of topsoil a year, what that would do to our productive agricultural land in North Carolina.”

Regenerative practices date back to Indigenous populations, but the concept has taken off in recent decades as a movement to reverse climate change and address world hunger. It was spotlighted at the World Economic Forum in 2022 and adopted as policy by the Biden administration, which is investing funding to incentivize farmers to adopt sustainable practices. 

Bohlen and his team are trying to spread the regenerative gospel to traditional farmers and to that end have set up the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at Union Grove to showcase the practices. But they have run into indifference, if not skepticism.

“The main challenge we face is going to be the farmer—the small and medium size, the ones that are going out of business,” says Martin Crompton, Bohlen’s vineyard director. “Ninety percent of them are not making money from farming anymore. What regenerative farming will offer them, if they will open their minds to it, is an opportunity to not just make money from farming but enjoy farming again and encourage their sons and daughters to come in behind them. 

“If they don’t, what we are going to see in North Carolina is out of the 8 million acres currently that we’ve got for farms, a million will be lost in the next 10 years to development.”

The wiggler worms’ poop is converted into a compost tea, which is sprayed over cover crops to replenish the soil. Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Crompton and Bohlen have tried to set up a meeting with state agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler, but so far that has not panned out. Troxler, through a spokesperson, twice declined interviews for this story. 

Hoffmann, the NCSU grape specialist, says Union Grove’s new grape looks promising, but regenerative farming could be a tough sell to traditional farmers. “If there is no economic incentive, I don’t see a fresh-market grower changing their practices,” he says. “They have to show you can make a profit with that approach.”

Bohlen says he is absolutely in the grape business to make a profit. “It takes about $100,000 an acre to get grape production,” he says. “We generate about $40,000 a year in gross revenue, once we’re up and running. That’s a 25 percent IRR [internal rate of return]. I’m pretty happy making a 25 percent IRR.”

Still, Bohlen admits to concerns. “There are a lot of things that worry me,” he says. “Can my team do this? … I worry about the money. What happens if I can’t keep loading the machine? I worry about the unknowns: Zero degrees for three days. What would a year of insects do?”

Other possible issues: Hoffman says grape supply could be an obstacle to mass marketing, since Bloodworth currently is the only producer of the new muscadine strain. Bloodworth says he can easily ramp up production. 

Lila, the NCSU researcher, says a highly bred variant like Bloodworth’s may not confer as much health benefit as a natural muscadine. But she says regenerative practices would help.

A red wiggler worm close up Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Bohlen says the greater concern is what happens to the global environment if food production practices don’t change. “The challenge for me, as I see it, is we’re running out of time. First of all, we’re going to be carbon bound; [global] temperature is going to increase. Second, our soils are losing efficacy and ability every single year, making it more difficult to make the transition.” 

He adds, “I think my team is going to be able to pull it off. Look at those vines. Look at how green they are. Look how much bigger the vines get. I’m willing to embarrass myself by talking about it at this point.”

Ted Vaden was a reporter and editor with the Raleigh News & Observer for 32 years. Now retired in Chapel Hill, he is president of the NC Press Foundation, which supports open government and citizens’ access to public records. 

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