The few rows of grapes planted about six years ago near the high school's greenhouse in this southern Illinois town used to give Howard Heavner and his students fits.
The agriculture teacher knew little about how to prune the fickle plant, much less how to spray it. Vines on the low-hanging trellises often got swallowed up by weeds.
All of that is changing. In a state where winemaking and grape acreage have spread like renegade vines, many of Heavner's students are being offered intensive lessons in grape growing. The goal is to encourage students to think about a viticulture career and grapes as a viable alternative crop.
"I don't think we're going to make grape growers of every high school student," said David Ponce, a vintner and winery operator who teaches related classes at Shawnee Community College, a partner in the vineyard-in-education effort.
But, Heavner said, "As tough as farming is, you've got to look at alternatives."
Grape acreage in Illinois has blossomed from 140 in 1997 to about 1,000, according to the state Grape Growers and Vintners Association. In the past eight years, the number of Illinois wineries has more than tripled.
By the trade group's estimates, Illinois produces 500,000 gallons of wine a year in what has become a $60 million industry statewide.
Vintners and experts attribute the proliferation to the appeal of alternative farming in a state that leads the country in producing horseradishes and pumpkins. They also point to consumers' increasing thirst for wine, and the state's topography and soil, which lend themselves to grape growing.
The National Science Foundation is helping fund the push to cultivate high school students into tomorrow's grape growers, underscoring that it is less about winemaking and more about basic chemistry, from the compounds in the fruit to the makeup of insecticides, Ponce said.
In August, more than two dozen state high school agriculture teachers met in Valmeyer for a development course on grape growing -- learning things such as pesticide management, fruit chemistry and juice quality.
At Valmeyer High School, students who enrolled in a new horticulture class for the school year will get three to four weeks of lessons specifically on grapes and vineyards, a far cry from the few days previously devoted to the fruit, Heavner said.
The horticulture students may earn credit from Shawnee Community College, which already fields classes on starting a vineyard, winemaking basics and cellar sanitation. The college also offers training to teachers interested in starting or broadening a viticulture program at their high school.
"We're still learning as we go," Heavner said.
At least for now, 17-year-old Alex Schmidt was keeping an open mind, saying he was "somewhat" interested in considering a future in the fruit he is already quite familiar with at home on the farm.
"We've got a lot of wild grapes in the woods, mainly for the critters to keep them out of our fruit trees," he said.