All organic winemakers face similar challenges: providing adequate nourishment for their crops, controlling weeds, and protecting their plants from diseases and pests. Organic vineyard managers not only use different tools to address the challenges of raising our crops, we have a different philosophy. They use environmentally friendly alternatives to the synthetic herbicides, fumigants, fertilizers, and highly toxic insecticides used in conventional agriculture.
A comon misconception about organic farming is that it lacks sophistication or science. Some people think that organic farmers just put seeds in the ground and let nature take its course. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Organic vineyard owners need a thorough mastery of ecology and soil science. Modern organic farming techniques use environmentally friendly alternatives to the synthetic chemicals used in conventional agriculture. We balance soil enrichment, cover crops, beneficial habitat, and crop rotation to ensure soil fertility and control weeds and pests. Many organic grape growers know the way to protect their vineyards from pests, the way we nourish the soil — affect the health of our planet and the health of those who enjoy our harvest. Although organic farming methods tend to be more labor-intensive and costly in the short run, they avoid serious — and ultimately more costly — long-term issues like groundwater pollution, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and human health problems caused by exposure to chemical residues. Organic wine may cost a bit more in the grocery store, but we believe that when the long-term costs associated with these problems are factored in, the organic choice is the healthiest and ultimately, the most cost-effective option.
Organic Farmers Create Nutrient-Rich Soil Without Chemical Fertilizers. When most people think about the difference between conventional farmers and organic farmers, they think of chemical pesticides. Ask an organic farmer about the cornerstone of organic farming, and their answer will always be "creating rich, healthy soil." Proper preparation and stewardship of the soil is the foundation of organic farming — to a large degree, that's what makes it possible to grow crops without relying on the many chemicals used in conventional farming.
Organic vineyard owners think about how plants will be nourished well in advance of planting time. We make sure our soil is rich in "organic matter," the part of the soil that is comprised of anything that once lived, including plants and soil organisms. Fields high in organic matter have less soil erosion, retain water better, and release nutrients more slowly into the soil for natural, healthy plant growth. Every time crops are harvested or weeds pulled, nutrients and organic matter are withdrawn from the soil. If they're not replaced, the soil is eventually depleted of the very resources plants need to flourish.
Healthy soil, rich in organic matter, is "alive" with microorganisms. These vital organisms break down nutrients to make them available to plants, making the soil more fertile and helping control soil-based plant pathogens.
Compost — Organic vineyard managers use quality organic compost, which recycles plant and sometimes animal waste materials into nature's best plant food, containing high-quality organic matter and beneficial microorganisms. Microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, earthworms) break down (digest) the raw components of compost, generating heat. The compost mixture reaches and maintains an internal temperature of 131 to 149 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 5 days to kill any disease-causing bacteria and weed seeds before it is used in a field. We also use pelletized chicken manure, which has been heat-steam processed to kill unwanted bacteria.
Cover Crops — Whenever possible, organic vineyard managers plant cover crops (such as Austrian field peas, bell beans, and mustard) and till them under. These cover crops replenish the soil with nutrients (such as nitrogen) and organic matter.
Natural Minerals — Organic vineyard managers sometimes add natural minerals to improve our soil's consistency and pH balance. For example, if they need to lower the pH (make the soil more acidic), we may add mined sulphur. To raise the pH (make the soil more alkaline), they may add powdered limestone. The best soil pH range for most vegetables is between 6.0 and 7.0.
Conventional farmers rely on various chemical fertilizers to nourish their crops. These synthetic fertilizers provide more precise and immediate control over the growth rates of crops, at a cost. Synthetic fertilizers can pollute the environment when they're manufactured and leach into our water supply after they're applied. Most synthetic fertilizers are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and they require a lot of energy to produce.
Organic farming preserves natural resources by recycling and using renewable materials. Most of the materials used to increase soil fertility are recycled byproducts from other industries that might otherwise go to waste. A principal ingredients used in compost is plant parts left over after harvest. Organic vineyard managers may also use pelletized feather meal, pelletized chicken manure, fish slurry, and pelletized bat and seabird guano. This ingredient list may sound unappealing, but utilizing these waste products enables farmers to grow healthy plants without the use of petroleum-based fertilizers.
When it comes to the final product you buy in the grocery store, all the organic farmer's hard work really pays off. Plants fed with synthetic fertilizers can actually grow too fast, creating cellular material which is thinner than that of more slowly growing organic plants. This means that if both products are handled correctly, organic grapes actually have a longer shelf life than their conventional counterparts.
A number of studies show that when nitrates, a common element of artificial fertilizers, are converted to nitrosamines, they may be carcinogenic. The nitrate content of organically grown crops is significantly lower than conventionally grown products.(UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2000).
Organic vineyard managers must find ways to prevent weeds from competing with our crops for nutrients and water without using synthetic chemicals. Controlling weeds without herbicides takes a lot of time and is very costly. Organic vineyard managers do all our weeding by tractor or by hand, which is very labor-intensive. Conventional farmers spend only about $50 an acre on herbicides that knock out every weed in sight. Organic farmers may have to spend up to $1,000 an acre to keep weeds under control. The best thing to do, then, is to prevent weeds from growing in the first place by limiting the germination of weed seeds. Some of the methods we used are:
Cover Crops — Cover crops add organic matter to the soil and “shade out” weeds, keeping enough sunlight away from weeds to prevent them from reaching maturity and setting seed. The fewer weed seeds produced this year, the fewer weeds grow in our field next season.
Planning Ahead — Organic vineyard managers often pre-irrigate fields to germinate weeds, then till them under before they mature to reduce the quantity of weed seeds remaining in the soil.
Mechanical Solutions — Organic vineyard managers sometimes use a “flame weeder,” a propane device that directs flames toward the ground to kill newly germinated weeds.
The Organic vineyard manager's approach to controlling plant disease is a preventative "wellness regime" for the land, as opposed to a course of "treatments" after illness has set in. Organic vineyard managers don't use fumigants, or "soil sterilants," to kill soil diseases and weeds; instead, they rely on healthy soil with its natural "immune system" intact. Using fumigants to prevent disease is like prescribing really strong antibiotics: they kill all the good organisms in the soil along with the bad. In addition, fumigants (such as methyl bromide) may cause serious human health and environmental problems.
One of the biggest rewards of organic farming is healthy soil that's full of beneficial organisms, hard-working bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter into nutrients that can be readily used by plants. Beneficial microorganisms also compete with and/or prey upon disease-causing organisms. These "good" microorganisms function like the white blood cells in our bodies, keeping the harmful bacteria and fungi that cause disease in check. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides kill the soil's natural immune system, forcing conventional farmers to use large amounts of chemical fungicides and soil sterilizers to protect their crops from disease.
Many Organic vineyard managers are currently experimenting with cover crops that have soil disease-suppressive qualities. When such a cover crop is tilled into the soil, it releases a natural compound that inhibits the germination of certain fungal spores, protecting the next crop planted in that soil.
Pest control often makes or breaks an Organic vineyard manager's year. Because they use fewer, less-toxic pesticides than those used by conventional farmers, they must rely on a variety of other methods to keep pests in check.
An organic vineyard manager's primary strategy for fighting harmful pests is to build up populations of beneficial insects that help us by eating adult pests, eating pest eggs, or by becoming parasites inside pest insects themselves.
Lacewing larvae prey on Aphids, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, small caterpillars, thrips, and whiteflies and more.
Ladybugs (both adults and larvae) prey on Aphids, insect eggs, soft-bodied insects, and whiteflies.
Minute Pirate Bug prey on Aphids, mites, psyllids, small caterpillars, thrips, and whiteflies.
Big-Eyed Bug prey on Flea beetles, mites, small caterpillars, thrips, worm eggs, and other pests.
Damselfly prey on Flea beetles, leafhoppers, mites, small caterpillars, thrips, worm eggs, and other pests.
Assassin Bug prey on Aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers, and other pests.
Syrphid Fly prey on Aphids and soft-bodied insect.
Parasitic Wasps prey on a variety of pests; larvae feed on or inside the bodies of pest insects, killing them.
Organic vineyard managers build populations of beneficial insects by planting borders around our fields with “host crops,” flowering plants that the beneficials particularly like. They generally use plants such as mustard, buckwheat, alfalfa, clover, radish, yarrow, coriander, dill, carrot, vetch, baby’s breath, California poppy, bachelor buttons, and alyssum. They plant them once at every site, and they re-seed themselves every year. The host crops are good habitat for the beneficial insects we periodically release into our fields, and they also attract more beneficials over time. The borders serve another extremely important function as “trap crops,” distracting pests from our crops by providing them with an alternative food supply.
When a pest outbreak can’t be handled by beneficial insects, Organic vineyard managers sometimes use insecticides approved for organic farming (meaning that they’re listed in the USDA’s stringent National Organic Standards). Criteria for allowed organic insecticides include low toxicity to people and other animals, low persistence in the environment, and low toxicity to beneficial microorganisms in the soil.
Although all farmers can lose a crop to pests, organic farmers are more vulnerable. Sometimes natural pest control strategies are very effective — but other times, nothing we do seems to work. Periodically we lose a large portion or all of a crop to pests, and everything must be tilled under. Occasional losses such as these contribute to the higher cost of organic produce.
“Certified organic” refers to produce grown on farms that have been inspected by an independent, third-party certifier. The certifier ensures that a certified organic farm complies with the strict National Organic Program standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Have long-term soil management plans and establish buffers between their vineyards and nearby conventional vineyards.
Annual certification inspections enforce the USDA’s strict guidelines, so consumers have the security of knowing exactly what goes into their certified organic wine.