Sustainable viticulture ripens in California

Though it still only accounts for a tiny fraction of California's total vine crop, sustainable wine production is a fast-growing business in the American state.

Talking at a sustainability seminar hosted by London’s Royal Horticultural Society this week Glenn McGourty, winegrowing and plant science advisor at the University of California, outlined a brief history of agriculture in the USA and described how things were beginning to come full circle.

According to Mr McGourty the Native Americans had understood sustainability on some level, successfully managing land in his home state for some 3,000 years.

And up until the Second World War agricultural techniques were energy efficient and farms were generally self-sufficient, not needing to import products from outside for their day-to-day use.

But following the war and the Depression of the 1930s, things began to change both dramatically and rapidly.

“After the Depression people decided they never wanted to be hungry again and things changed from subsistence farming to produce, produce, produce,” he said.

“We saw the birth of the factory farm and productivity tripled over 30 years.”

As we have since seen, excessive use of chemicals in agriculture also comes with a downside, but, said McGourty, this should come as little surprise since the toxic compounds we use to boost productivity were born out of chemical weapon research programmes.

“Chemical farming is an outgrowth of the war effort,” he said, describing how the first fumigation of fields was to use up nerve gas left over from WWI while the original synthetic fertilisers were surplus nitrates from munitions and explosives factories.

By the 60s we had started to realise all was not well with modern farming techniques, and we saw the beginning of what we would now look at as sustainability.

Farmers started spraying as and when chemicals were needed, rather than as a matter of course and ‘soft’ less toxic pesticides that only affected certain target species became more widespread.

The interest in less chemical-dependent farming also lead to a growth in organic farming, but there is more to sustainability than simple organic, said McGourty.

Using the case study of the Fetzer Vineyards, the largest producer of organic grapes in California, organic viticulture manager Ann Thrupp described the state of the market.

While under 2% of the state’s wine lands are organically certified, there has been a huge growth in the sector in recent years and many of the growers’ associations that influence farming practices in the region are increasingly considering sustainability as an important issue.

Even if they still spray, they spray less, she said.

At Fetzer the sustainability strategy goes well beyond cutting out the chemicals.

Cover crops are planted to encourage predators such as spiders and wasps to feed on pests, left over seeds, stalks and grape skins are composted and put back onto the land and wastewater is filtrated through reed beds and aeration ponds before being re-used on the land.

The company has cut waste going to landfill by 94% since 1990 and operations are powered by on-site PV panels, with green-tariff electricity bought in to make up the shortfall.

Water is sterilised using UV treatments, tractors and trucks run on bioethanol and the farm’s buildings are also exemplars of sustainable construction.

“This is not just rhetoric,” said Ms Thrupp.

“This is something we believe in and are putting into practice in many ways. And this is something the public wants – there is growing pressure to farm in more natural ways and the demand is there.

“In the USA the growth rate of the organic sector exceeded 20% per annum and there’s nothing to suggest that’s going to change any time soon.”

Sam Bond

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