by Sally Colby
Alice Wise, Cornell University viticulture specialist in Long Island, says that everyone who grows grapes should be aware of the environmental impact of their growing practices.
“Grapes are a very high-profile commodity, and we get lots of media attention,” said Wise. “Here in New York, we are under the radar from the public, environmental organizations and government agencies. The average tasting room customer on Long Island is very interested in products that have an environmental story, so we’re aware that this is something we have to communicate well to visitors.”
However, initiating environmentally sound practices is more than making growers look good. Wise says that grape growers have a genuine desire to be good stewards of the land and to leave things in good shape for the next generation.
Watershed and nutrient management are directly related to rainfall, topography and other factors unique to each location.
Every region has weather challenges, whether it’s the east coast with too much water or the west coast with limited water. Wise suggests using appropriate regional weather and disease prediction models to effectively use products. “They aren’t the bottom line when it comes to making decisions about your business,” she said. “There are some kinks in the programs, but growers are increasingly paying attention to these programs. I foresee this becoming more important in the future.”
Whenever possible, growers should select disease-tolerant varieties to reduce the amount of chemical applications. Wise is working on a vinifera trial, and is incorporating hybrids in the trial. “I’m concerned about the freaky weather we’ve had in the past few years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have more challenging winters in the future,” she said. “I also think hybrids tend to be a little lower maintenance than vinifera — fewer fungicides and less intensely managed.” One trial variety is Marquette, which is being grown on a low wire but will be converted to a high wire based on suggestions from upstate growers. “We can manage it with a fairly low number of fungicides,” said Wise. We get powdery mildew and botrytis, but in dry years, it does quite well. It breaks bud early, so we’ve had some frost problems. But wine quality is good based on the several small batches that have been made.”
Pest management strategies are another aspect of ecological stewardship. “On Long Island, we have one of the highest concentrations of Lipco recycling sprayers in the country,” said Wise. “It reduces drift and you can recapture as much as 75 percent of spray. You’re not only improving deposition, but also reducing the total amount of pesticide applied. But even if you can’t afford such a unit, air blast sprayers can be modified to improve deposition and reduce drift.”
Growers should select ‘greener’ pesticides and fertilizers whenever possible. Wise says that research trials provide information on options, but growers have to experiment with materials to decide which work best for their operation.
“Efficacy and cost do matter,” said Wise. “I used to exclusively use ammonium nitrate on my vineyard, and now I use clover under the trellis with peanut meal, compost and calcium nitrate. It’s more work and more expensive, but with very low soil organic matter, it helps.”
Canopy and cluster zone management are also part of the ecological equation. “If you grow wine grapes, especially VSP wine grapes, you know that balanced vines are very important for fruit quality and disease management,” said Wise. “You want good air and light circulation, good canopy, cluster zone leaf removal and good spray penetration into the cluster zone.”
Wise urges growers to choose and use insecticides wisely. “Scouting is important so you can fine-tune applications,” she said. “Maybe the entire vineyard doesn’t need to be sprayed. It’s also important to tolerate some insect damage – it’s ok if vines don’t look perfect.” Growers should consider the secondary impact of insecticides on bees, as well as products that may reduce the number of beneficial predators.
Vineyard floor management contributes to good stewardship. Wise lists compaction, erosion and leaching as issues that can managed by using compost. She also noted that it’s important to justify nutrient applications, and advises growers to use soil and petiole analyses. “It’s important to look at the vines and take measures of performance,” she said. “There’s an upswing in growers trying various organic products. These products tend to be more expensive but there’s a lot more use of compost and materials such as peanut meal.”
Wise says that timing nitrogen applications is important. “We’re very cognizant of how and when we’re applying nitrogen,” she said. “We don’t fertilize in early April – that increases the chance of nitrogen leaching out of the cluster zone down into brown waters.”
Overall farm management and worker safety is a component of good stewardship. About 15 years ago, there was a big push for WPS (Worker Protection Standards), part of which involved mock inspections on farms and vineyards. Inspectors noticed many instances in which pesticides were improperly stored, both on the ground and in the vineyard. “You are responsible and trying to be a good steward, so you have to pay attention,” said Wise. “There’s a big push with our Long Island sustainable program to make sure the loading and mixing area is not near a well, and we don’t want that area upstream from the well. There is cost sharing for pesticide mixing and loading pads that include berms to contain and redirect spillage. Drift is a big cause of complaints in New York. We’re trying to make sure we’re only applying pesticides on crops, and not going to any off-target areas.”
Wise says that untrained workers, lack of safe handling facilities and incomplete paperwork can lead to trouble. “There’s a very high level of compliance on Long Island,” said Wise. “It’s important to the totality of this to be responsible; not only because you can incur fines and have problems, but also because you’re representing the entire industry. If someone in the industry isn’t doing the right thing and gets caught, it makes all of us look bad. Be responsible to yourself and to fellow wine growers.”
Low-impact vineyard management
by Sally Colby