May 1, 2023 - Climate

Why a prominent venture capitalist is building a Chapel Hill vineyard

The old Maple View Farm silo painted in Union Grove Farm colors. Photo courtesy of Union Grove Farm

Greg Bohlen, a Chapel Hill venture capitalist, has made a name for himself by investing early in hot startups like Beyond Meat and Poshmark, but the investment he cares about most right now is a regenerative agriculture farm on the outskirts of Chapel Hill.

Why it matters: Regenerative agriculture is a farming process that disturbs the land as little as possible while keeping it covered and planted constantly to improve soil health.

  • Conventional farming, on the other hand, can release large amounts of CO2 and harm soil health when the land is disturbed by tilling and pesticide usage.

What he's saying: Bohlen believes farms can prevent CO2 release and even sequester it.

  • "There are all of these [carbon-removing] technology projects, like putting carbon into caves, but the reality is the world is going to get saved by farms like us sequestering huge amounts of carbon," he said.
  • "People will come to realize that over time. I think over the next decade."

State of play: Over the past few years, Bohlen, a co-founder of Union Grove Venture Partners, has assembled around 1,000 acres of farmland in southern Orange County, including the old Maple View Farm, a beloved local milk producer that shut down in 2021.

  • He has invested millions of dollars in restoring the bacterial biome of land that had been degraded by tobacco and dairy farming. The farm sprays a "compost tea" that injects it with healthy bacteria to restore nutrients over time.
  • Union Grove is planting muscadine grapes, a variety Bohlen chose because they are native to North Carolina and full of antioxidants. They're not usually a top choice for eating, but he's licensed a hybridized, seedless varietal with thinner skin from a Hillsborough-based breeder named Jeff Bloodworth of Gardens Alive Inc.
  • "It makes a horrible wine," he said, "so it's all for table grapes.That's the reason we're focused on the nutritional value of the grapes."

Zoom in: Bohlen also wants to make the farm a destination as well, for people to learn about its style of agriculture or to just enjoy nature.

  • His family has already built a wedding venue on a different parcel of land it owns in the area.
  • Union Grove is currently building a beer garden and a distillery on the property. Bohlen recently purchased Top of the Hill's distilling equipment when the Chapel Hill distillery shut down earlier this year.

What's next: It took three years for Bohlen and his team to propagate its hybrid muscadine with the right characteristics.

  • This year it plans to plant 10,000 vines. Next year: 60,000 vines across two varieties of muscadines.
  • "It will be 10 years before we are up to the thousand acres of grapes," he said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Union Grove's grapes come from a Hillsborough-based breeder.


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