Farming for the enlightened consumer

Guest poster Chris Turyk is the cofounder of Unsworth Vineyards located in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island. He is involved in all operations from vineyard to bottling. Thank you for contributing these insightful thoughts, Chris!

Upon reading the Canadian Organic Standards and transcriptions of Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on Biodynamic philosophy, practical farming knowledge left much to be desired. What they lack in concrete procedures, they make up for in vague, verbose and mystical nonsense.

Hungry to understand my connection to food and the environment from which it originates, I enrolled in the University of British Columbia’s practicum in sustainable agriculture at the UBC Farm. With hands in the soil pulling purslane from endless beds of carrots, oodles of time exists to consider natures’ nuances and human coexistence with it. Exploring other various sustainably managed and often Certified Organic farms throughout BC’s Lower Mainland further solidified my understanding of each farm being its own entity with its own rhythms. What worked on one farm to yield the perfect cucumber, was in stark contrast to another.

Studying at the farm, it became apparent that when posed with an agricultural query, eleven answers came from ten farmers, especially when sharing the same green philosophies. We find ourselves living in a golden age of sustainable agriculture. How then do we share our vast and nuanced practices with today’s informed wine consumer?

Humans revel in the ability to categorize expansive topics into clean boxes. Certifications exist, showing consumers that farm production methods follow established criteria, judged at a higher environmental standard than the status quo conventional farm. Well intentioned though they are, they run the risk of eroding potential for uncertified growers to express the positive impact their practices have. The silent salesman stamp on the back label can never do justice in expressing the efforts farmers make in crafting the best possible product.

To put it in a political context - the far right represent some of the largest companies on the planet, whom all but control the commodity wine trade. Swing over to the idealist left, and we witness connection to nature, herald lunar cycles, apply homeopathic remedies and endure mountains of physical work. Where does that leave the majority of those who are left of center? The most interesting solutions seem to originate from this cohort.

Without colourfully extolling the benefits of a vineyards’ recent conversion to Demeter Certified Biodynamics, expressing farming techniques to the well-read wine drinker is daunting. Contrary to popular belief, agricultural practices are not a pyramid of Biodynamics resting above Organics, lutte raisonnée, with conventional agriculture at the bottom. Purchasing a bottle of wine that doesn’t degrade our planet doesn’t mean choosing Biodynamics or nothing.

Advances in equipment and technology, next to vineyard sprays, represent the least sexy part of wine. They also represent the future of viable viticulture. Not all sprayers are created equally.

During visits to any agricultural region, we can witness sprayers in action. A visible plume of vapour blasting up from the middle of a row solidifies this. However, this common image illustrates a substandard sprayer in dire need of retirement. The plume is only visible because the spray, whether kelp or a systemic botrytis spray, is being applied everywhere but on the plant where needed. The best sprayers on the market straddle the canopy, and have ultra-fine nozzles which lightly and evenly coat the desired area. Many feature a vacuum on the opposing side, filtering and reusing any excess spray which may permeate the canopy.

When I read, “farmed using traditional practices” and other such vague claims on a back label, I don’t envision horns of silica and manure, or dynamizing Equisetum arvense. I picture an ancient tractor burning oil, while indiscriminately blasting broad spectrum sprays which may or may not contain heavy metals that end up in the local ecosystem.

Farming challenges, much like Burgundian bottle prices, can vary greatly from one side of a slope to the other. In high disease pressure growing regions, achieving Certified Organic status might force higher CO2 emissions due to fossil fuel intensive inputs. Harvesting healthy fruit by certification worthy standards likely requires broad spectrum biological sprays with limited long-term efficacy, forcing frequent reapplication.

Copper Sulphate, a foliar spray permissible by Biodynamics and Organic standards, is under heavy, near glyphosate level, fire as of late. Copper is, after all, a heavy metal. It has become a major concern in areas where its pervasive use results in soils becoming saturated with its presence.

Soil toxicity due to heavy metal use counters the higher meaning by which these standards are meant to assure. Regardless of which product one chooses, all are applied via the same mechanism - the almighty tractor - which for now, requires diesel. Wherever a tractor goes, soil compaction and exhaust emissions follow. Although as pastoral as draft animals are in vineyards, I’ve yet to encounter a horse with a PTO (power take-off) shaft, severely limiting implements they can utilize. Quantifying a broad, frequent approach against a deft, calculated, targeted and perfectly timed systemic spray approach with minimal applications is a question only individual farms can answer.

Mowing between vineyard rows appears benign in the grandiose world of vineyard management. In the Okanagan, where I spent a year farming, leaving every few rows un-mowed had many benefits. Longer grasses will provide insect habitat, increase biodiversity and may provide a little extra protection from wind eroding the topsoil. Depending on which pests are around, animals feed on the pests and can mitigate one’s need for insecticide or conversely, make undesirable insect problems worse.

On Vancouver Island, where I have spent the majority of my growing career, leaving every few rows un-mowed has different effects. Due to fertile clay loam soils, grass can be seen growing. In 10 days, waist high, moisture retaining forage bolts which noticeably increases unwanted diseases pressure. Regular mowing also forces the cover crop to regrow and metabolize more water out of the soil, hitting deficit earlier in the season. Water deficit results in earlier vine signaling to produce riper fruit with more flavour development as opposed to vegetative growth. Contrast this with clear cultivating which dries out the soil quickly, hitting the goal of early water deficit, but at the risk of wind and water erosion, virtually eliminating anything but vines from growing.

Every region wrestles with unique challenges. Farming pressures and consumer demand guide the wine industry more than I realized prior to joining it. Harvesting immaculately healthy fruit worthy of fine wine often requires intervention of some type. For good reason, consumers are skeptical of these interventions.

I argue most Canadian wineries are very sensitive to the effects they have on their own air, soil, groundwater and community. As such, they do what they can, given their unique challenges and use as light a hand as possible their luxury product permits. Wine from your local region also possesses the distinct advantage of not incurring the carbon emissions of transcontinental shipping - a debate in sustainability unto itself. There are no simple answers in wine; I’m in it for the diversity and nuance. If your priorities are enjoying wine free from poison (besides the unavoidable 8.5%-16% ABV), don’t want to leave scorched earth, a toxic ecosystem and undue atmospheric carbon behind you, consider this adaptation from Michael Pollan: “Drink wine, not too much, mostly local.


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