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A look ahead to the spraying season

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Agriculture is ugly. That was a thought going through my head as I cut the vines on a freezing cold Sunday morning, looking down onto a big human pile of sh… dropped right there. Funnily enough, the pictures in this blog are NICE pics from our first cutting session in the new vineyard, there is no ‘ugly’ picture of the encounter with the sh… on this blog. Nor are there pictures of big machines or, for example, a picture of the cleaning of a spraying machine in the vineyard. This is strange, since in the field is the only legal place to clean a spraying machine, yet it seems to outrage passersby so much, that I have been told they call the police.

Nice pictures on every vintner’s website, and on this blog, thus don’t reveal one big dilemma and potentially very emotional discussion: on the one side the strong ‘yeah, what else’-type argument that our surroundings (streams, drinking water, countryside) should be free of chemicals; on the other side the – well, also ‘yeah, what else’-type – argument from the farmers that they have to spray to protect their crop.
For me, it creats a deep unease about a process that should be the most obvious and natural: growing stuff. Obviously, wine isn’t essential, so you could get out of growing or drinking wine entirely and be done with that. But the big spraying machines covering several rows and the fog that they leave behind are equally used for essentials we eat every day.

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In fact, if the latest technology is used, you won’t see a big cloud of fog and the sprayed chemical will have a better chance of landing on the plants and not on your skin if you walk past, but the substance is still there.

“Just go bio and be done with it”, I hear you say. We are, and are almost there, actually. Our very long and meandered search for a new vineyard where we can do bio (which has just come to an end, yippeh!) shows how difficult it is. But this does not change that you might be walking or cycling past a spraying machine and not know what’s being sprayed, bio or conventional. Or that you only have one or two bio farmers/vintners in your area and are thus likely to come into contact with whatever conventional farmers leave behind. Or that you feel uneasy about copper and sulphur, if that’s what your bio vintner uses.

Whatever effort you look at, it’s easy to rip it apart. The cost of bio-certification, for example, is prohibitive to small businesses. So, if it is so difficult to convince consumers to pay for the extra labour that goes into bio products, how smashing will the reception be, if you tell them: ‘well, it’s going to be even more expensive, because the certification itself costs so much’.

But if I had to suggest one additional effort, it would be ‘spreading the word’, maybe even ‘spraying the word’ :o). At the moment, a chemical’s leaflet that lists the side effects and is delivered with the substance is in the hand of the farmer mixing up what he is about to spray. It’s not printed on the side of the spraying machine in huge letters. If it was, would we see locals walking their dogs in full protective suit?

I was told that one vintner said that he cannot not sit on his spraying machine in full protective gear with mask, as advised by the local body, as he would lose his wine-buying customers, if they saw him. The sight of a farmer on his spraying machine in full protective gear could be one way of conveying the gist of the leaflet on side-effects. Could such information thrown out to anyone living in farming areas, or visiting them as tourists, be so explosive? Imagine waking up in your holiday flat in June or July, a peak time for spraying, only to find your host, a vintner, going off to work in a gas mask. Would you feel like you were missold?

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By ‘spraying the word’, I mean that if a few basics were shared, those not in the business but affected by it (because they buy, because they live there) would know what to look out for:

1) Create an understanding for the main substances used. For example, if systemic herbicides are designed to get to the inside of a plant, what does it do, if that same product tries the same with your own skin?
2) Discuss in each village at the beginning of the spraying season what residue-levels in the water system should cause concerns and where updates will be published. Arrange an active monitoring of such levels.
3) Convey an understanding for best practice: (i) If the moths (LBAM) are killed when laying eggs, you might have less fungus to fight later on. (ii) if the calculation of the mixture is done correctly, the spraying mixture should come to an end as you reach your last vine, thus leaving no residue.
4) Convey an understanding for “PIWI”s, ie grape types that need less spraying, as well as resistancies to chemicals that have developed.
5) Have signs on the spraying machines or in the fields what is being sprayed and how often.
6) Present the information in a digestible way.

For the time being, it seems to me that the lack of ‘spreading the word’ suits those still applying conventional chemicals. If you speak to a vintner and find out that in June/July they are out spraying almost every day, you realise how big the impact on the environment could be.

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If I had to summarise my learning curve, it would go as follows: Everyone out there trying to make a living in agriculture, or in wine more specifically, is fighting pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. That’s the little catapillars that lay their eggs and eat the grapes, any fungus that makes the grapes rot away, as well as the weeds that need to be removed in different ways, one being the chemical one. You would think that, if the chemicals used end up in our drinking water, alarm bells would go off, more so than if horse meat was found in lasagne. So I set off on an internet search, in an ideal world wanting to find information as specific as ‘in the months of x, y and z, village p reached leves above the legal limits in its water areas, due to the chemicals sprayed in that period’. I was surprised how difficult it was to find digestible information on the internet, on the damage left behind. See results from measurements in 2008/2009 (“PSM-Wirkstoffe in Oberflaechengewaesser” from authorities in this region, – unfort, the pdf does not link), these samples from 2012 and this information from 2002 (if you take into account that it’s old).

However, I think the much bigger impact on what vegs/fruits I will buy from now onwards (and that doesn’t even include looking at the drinking water and the immediate impact on your skin from whatever is currently sprayed) comes from throw-away comments from people in the business. One went like that: “A vintner has a chance that by the time the produce (ie the wine) is tested, some of the chemicals left on the grapes have disappeared, but anyone in the business of selling fresh fruits, when you can’t get the chemicals off through washing, – poor sods.” So, maybe an educated peek behind the scene, – travelling there, asking questions -, is what it takes to change one’s buying habits.

SPRAY THE WORD!

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Harvest. Botrytis. And…

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…a highly financial day in the life of a Mini-Wine-Producer/Blogger:

Financials? The suspense! I know!  Did we invest in pumps, filters, a press even? No. I just followed Jimmy Wales’ request and gave a tiny amount to Wikipedia. Why? My appreciation for their no-ads rule is growing, as the battle of my ad filters against pop ups intensifies, never mind those freaky ads that remind  you of a google search you did yesterday (that’s soo yesterday).

But I can’t help but think that my “yes, I’ll sponsor”-click had more to do with wine and botrytis. But the basics first: Botrytis, a fungus, can turn the grapes into something very desirable (Noble Rot) or that has to be discarded (Grey Rot). But how do you illustrate the two? My “yes, I’ll sponsor”-click was made, I think, in honour of a fairly good illustration of the latter in its German entry, headed “Grauschimmelfaeule” (“Grey Rot”). Two things I love about this page:  It has a picture of a grey rot affected tomato plant that will put you off tomatoes for a long time: it looks like someone did a meticulous job of knitting a jumper round a tomato plant made out of some very bizarre grey wool. But it also lists the latin names: Botrytis cinerea or Botryotinia fuckeliana. Nothing to add to this.

That Botrytis “f…”s with the grapes is something Frank, Boris, Pascale, Hans, Astrid, etc will remember from our own Green Feather harvest, since we we spent a good deal of our time cutting out the rotten bits from each grape (see min 0.44 in the video). So, the idea that Botrytis can, on the one hand, create “Noble Rot” (“Edelfaeule”, “edelsuess”, in German), something that gives sweet desert wines such a special note that the price sky-rockets, but also create the bad rot, the “Grey Rot”, is hard to get one’s head round. This page is a good read on the subject.

Botrytis on tomato plant Grey Rot Noble Rot Wikipedia

image by Rasbak from Wikipedia shared under GNU Free Documentation License

During our own harvest we got to know each BUNCH of grapes, putting it into the ‘sweet’ bucket, or the ‘not so sweet’-one. That felt like a lot of attention given to each grape. So, how crazy is it to give that kind of attention to each individual BERRY? The effort involved in doing a “Beerenauslese” (“berry selection”) or a “Trockenbeerenauslese” (“dry berry selection”) appears in an entirely new light, after our harvest!  If we were JUST doing an “Auslese”, ie a selection, ie separating the sweeter grapes from the not so ripe ones, then the idea of doing that whole process for individual berries is just staggering: Imagine the long line of vines in front of you and you are standing there with two buckets, one for the berries with exactly the right type of Botrytis (or dried up), the other for the rest. That’s obviously what explains the price, – and what a bummer if after all that effort the fermentation then does not go well….

If you have heard of the French sweet wine “Sauternes” (I giggled my way through this 2011 harvest report) being made with Botrytis, but not yet of the German variety, here are some vintner sites that offer Beerenauslese: these were mentioned in a magazine’s recent tasting: coming from south Germany, Rheinhessen and Austria; I myself remember tasting a very nice Beerenauslese at Wittmann, one of the top White Wine vineyards in Germany (and a bio-dynamic one, too).

But before I consider shelling out for a Beerenauslese, as for financial commitments today, I thought I’d stick to sponsoring (Green Feather’s very own) Nick’s “Movember”-efforts of growing a moustache in support of prostate cancer awareness.  And create my very own wishlist for 2013, which includes taking part in a harvest for a Beerenauslese.