Jan 22, 2019
‘Duke’ of Michigan winegrapes retires

Michigan fruit growers took a long lunch Tuesday, Jan. 15, celebrating the career of “Duke” Elsner, who advised winegrape growers for decades in the fast-growing industry.

Elsner retired from his full-time work with Michigan State University at the end of 2018, although he continues to work part-time. Growers at the Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show honored him at a luncheon with a presentation and a team-trivia style game sponsored by the National Cherry Festival and Greenstone FCS. The game, moderated patiently by Emily Pochubay, featured a variety of questions about the state’s fruit industry.

Among the game’s answers: Duke Elsner’s real first name is Erwin. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University, and his PhD from Penn State. It was 1990 when he started working for Michigan State University Extension (MSUE).

Today there are more than 40 wineries in Northwest Michigan, but back in 1990, there were only five.

“There were some early pioneer types who proved it could be done,” Elsner said. “They were just trying to get their name out there, and get into some of the bigger cities in the Midwest.”

Michigan’s wine grapes acreage grew quickly after that. Rather than start small, entrepreneurs risked hard-earned personal savings earned in earlier careers to launch wine vineyards.

“Of all those new wineries, very rarely did I start at ground zero,” Elsner said.

“When they needed something, I could make it happen for them … that was my spot in the business, I guess,” he said. “Really the key thing was to tell them ‘no’ when they had a bad idea, or a bad piece of property.”

His first job description in 1990 involved being the MSUE’s general agricultural agent for Grand Traverse and Kalkaska counties, and he advised on everything including animals. In the mid-90s, he was assigned to work with small fruit production, primarily wine grapes, and in 2004 he became the regional viticulture and wine educator. Now, he’s been replaced by Tomas Todaro, who’s full-time in the role.

Erwin “Duke” Elsner was honored at a luncheon. Photo: Stephen Kloosterman

At the January luncheon, Grand Traverse Fruit Growers Council President Paul Hubbell presented Elsner with a plaque that thanked Elsner for his dedication, “especially your commitment for attending 7 a.m. breakfast meetings from 1990 to 2019.”

“And I’d like to add one more thing: Duke, you’re welcome to come forever to our fruit council meetings at 7 a.m. if you still want to get up that early,” Hubbell said. “Duke, thank you for what you’ve done for the industry – we really appreciate it.”

He continues to work for MSUE part-time, specializing in pollinators and butterflies. At the Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show, he manned the booth promoting the growth of Saskatoons.

“I grew up on a farm, and (with) all these years working with these folks, you can’t take the farm out from under me,” he said. “I’ll be somewhere in ag.”

– Stephen Kloosterman, FGN Associate Editor

Top photo courtesy of Duke Elsner

Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show – 2019

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