Ξ April 6th, 2011 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Herbicides, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |
A picture is beginning to emerge of widespread herbicide drift damage to vineyards in America. Sleepy Creek Vineyards located in east-central Illinois is the latest to be brought to my attention. Indeed, it was winery owner Joe Taylor himself who wrote this site following upon my interview with Dr. Susan Kegley about his own encounter with drift and subsequent crop loss. And just as Kevin Kohlman of Oregon’s Legacy Vineyards insisted, Mr. Taylor too finds those adversely impacted downwind to be reluctant to come forward owning to multiple obstacles, legal and otherwise. Yet their stories must be told, their bravery extolled. For we can all agree a vineyard has an equal right to exist along side the corn field. If only the problem were one of proper, rigorous regulation of specific herbicides. But that is not the case. Syngenta, Monsanto, and a host of other companies, market EPA approved chemicals that even when used as directed cause damage and mortality to non-targeted plants well beyond the initial point of application.
The interview with Joe Taylor below does not dwell on his well-founded worries over the herbicide 2,4,D. I decided from the outset to ask after what it is he and his wife hope for Sleepy Creek; what it is they’ve created in a less than a decade; how the locals have responded to their neighborly comportment. This is the real story, ultimately: A community-enriching farm centered on wine. Is 10 acres too much to ask for?
This interview was conducted March 30th. For background please see Herbicides.
A final note: For wineries suffering losses due to herbicide drift, please contact me.
Admin Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. When is bud break out there?
Joe Taylor Well, it’s a nice sunny day today, a little chilly, we’re in the 40s. It’ll be another 3 weeks or so before bud break.
Are there other vineyards near you?
JT We’re kind of out on our own, in east-central Illinois. Southern Illinois has a lot of vineyards, and northern Illinois has a lot as well. The next closest one to ours is probably an hour away. So we are in a little quiet pocket in the state.
You’re essentially doing cool-climate viticulture.
What is your training in viticulture?
JT I’m mostly self-taught. I did take some on-line courses from UC Davis. There is actually quite an industry going on out here in Illinois. We have a lot of workshops and conferences, some of which take place at other vineyards. You can learn quite a bit that way. But I am mostly self-taught, I have to admit.
I’d say that about half the grapes we’re growing out here came from Cornell’s program. The other half came from the University of Minnesota’s program. We’ve actually been really happy with the Minnesota varieties, the newer ones coming out.
What do you mean by ‘newer’ ones?
JT Newer varieties, hybrids. For example we’re growing a grape called Marquette that’s actually got some Pinot Noir parentage. I think it’s the grandson of Pinot. It only came out I’d say 6 or 7 years ago. Not many commercial wines are being made from it yet. We’ve got a little bit planted and we’re hopeful about it. There have been a lot of cool-climate varieties that have been developed here in the last 4 or 5 years.
So what got you interested in the game?
JT In all honesty, I was looking for a way to have some property and hopefully help pay the bills with it; pay the mortgage. I was looking at different forms of alternative agriculture. I didn’t want so much property that I’d be a row crop farmer growing corn or beans. I just looked at all the options and, to be honest, I stumbled into the whole Midwest wine and grape industry. Like a lot of people here in the Midwest, I didn’t even know you could grow grapes here. But the more I looked into it, the more I learned that there is a pretty extensive history or grape growing here in the Midwest. So with all the exciting things going on, I kind of got sucked into it all. Next thing we knew, we were planting vines!
Ten acres is a fairly significant amount of land. Do you have a large winery?
JT We are a relatively small winery. We’re now producing roughly six-thousand gallons of wine. We sell it all through the tasting room. We don’t do any distribution. For us it’s more of an agri-tourism thing. We strive to make our wine good, but we are also trying to provide a unique experience out here.
Do a lot of locals patronize your winery?
JT We do. That has actually been a pleasant surprise. Better than I thought would happen, we’ve been getting a very good local following. We’ve only been around 4 years. We’re still pretty new at it and learning our way. Making mistakes, but that’s part of the process.
But there seems to be cause for some concern according to your comment on my site. You have experienced herbicide drift events.
JT Yes. We’re pretty nervous right now. I don’t know how much you know about the corn and soybean industry, but years ago they came out with the Roundup Ready soybeans so they could spray Roundup. That caused quite a stir at the time. And now they are getting ready to release 2,4,D soybeans. That’s really got us nervous. When we saw your blog we paid particular attention. We had actually been watching that case [Kohlman versus Roseburg Forest Products] a little bit. Even though it’s not physically near us, the subject matter is very close to what we’re dealing with here.
Certainly 2,4,D is one of the most volatile and can travel great distances. How close to Sleepy Creek Vineyards is the nearest soybean or corn farmland?
JT There is one right across the road on one side of us. It’s very close.
Have you had conversations with the owners of that property?
JT We have. We’ve really tried to talk to all of our neighbors; let them know what we’re doing; tell them about the sensitivity of grapes. That being said, every year we seem to have a little 2,4,D damage in the vineyard. We can’t quite pin down where it is coming from. The problem with 2,4,D is that it’s been known to drift for miles. So we can be two of three farms over and still get hit. Our immediate neighbors are doing a really good job trying to stay away from it for our sake. But what can you do about something that’s sprayed 3 or 4 miles away?
In Kevin Kohlman’s Oregon, he complained quite bitterly that the forest products industry can take out a permit to spray as many as 14 different herbicides, but John Q. Public can never really know on what day they will spray or which suite of chemicals. Is the situation similar where you farm? Do you receive notification?
JT Not necessarily. There is no legal requirement to notify anybody when they’re spraying. That being said, supposedly the law is that if you spray and do damage to your neighbor, you are liable for that. But the problem, similar to Kohlman’s case, is it all comes down to the proof. That’s the difficult part. And the problem with 2,4,D is extra hard, especially with the ester formulations of it, because somebody can spray it on a perfect day, no wind conditions or anything, and then it can volatilize 3 days later and cause the damage. They are not liable then because the day they sprayed the conditions were right. At that point it becomes an EPA issue. How can they let a chemical be out there that people can’t guarantee that it will stay where they put it? That’s just absurd when you think about it. I’m really surprised the farmers themselves haven’t stood up against it.
Then you have the additional problem that people use it on their lawns out here. You go to the lumber store and buy some weed and feed. Look at the ingredients. It’s got 2,4,D in it. To me that’s just crazy.
It certainly is. There is also the question of the contamination of irrigation water as well. Apart from drift, it can also end up in your water supply. Do you use a municipal water supply? Or local creeks?
JT One of the nice things about our vineyard is that we don’t have to irrigate. We get enough rainfall every year. And we have our own well. Hopefully that is relatively well protected. There is a creek that goes through the property here. We have pasture upstream of us for cattle. They use 2,4,D in pastures, too, so I do worry about that.
Are they all family farms near you, or are they large agri-business concerns?
JT I would say it is a mix of both. There are some small family farms still around, but there are also large, more corporate farms with big acreage.
It is a fairly easy process to track down ownership?
JT That’s usually not too hard to do.
At what point in the growing season do you usually discover drift damage to your vines?
JT Unfortunately for us it’s usually right around the bloom time for the grapes. That’s when they’re most susceptible, when the herbicides can do the most damage. They can pretty much take your crop out for the year. Mid-May, I’d say, is when we really get worried.
Have you lost whole plants or is it typically a lost crop?
JT For us it’s mostly loss of our crop. That makes me think that the herbicide is coming from farther away where we’re not getting a super-heavy dose right on the vineyard. The vines do get physically stunted. You can see that there is a certain deformation of the leaves. You can tell if it’s 2,4,D or not. There is a certain characteristic to them; they get this unique fan-shape. So you know that it’s specifically 2,4,D you’re getting hit with. What the herbicide will do is essentially stunt the vines. We then have to be a little more pro-active and hit them with a little foliar fertilization, something like that, to help them grow through it. We have a low fertility site which makes good wine but doesn’t make for super vigorous vines. So the problem is that when we get a 2,4,D hit that really knocks us back.
In Kevin Kohlman’s case at Legacy Vineyards, he eventually talked with every regional political figure, including his representative, about what was happening to his vineyard. Now it was his representative who simply said “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” Have you gotten any responses like that?
JT I have. I hear that same thing. “You’re in corn and bean country. What are you trying to do here?” But it doesn’t matter what I’m doing here! What if I have ornamental plants in my yard? I don’t want them killed with herbicide. I don’t think that’s a legitimate response, basically. I think we all have a right to be where we’re at. My philosophy is to do what you want on your land as long as you can guarantee it’s going to stay on your land. These are choices we all must make.
One of my responses when I get that kind of remark is to say that Illinois, back before prohibition, was the number 4 grape growing state in the country. So we were actually growing grapes before corn and soybeans.
Tell me something about your viticultural practice. How have you set up your vineyard?
JT We have separate blocks of varieties. Right now we’re growing 6 varieties in large quantities in our vineyard. And I have some test plots where I’m trying out other varieties. One of the things I’m testing for is resistance to 2,4,D. But I’m also interested in how other varieties do on our site. We’re still learning. The industry is pretty new out here in the Midwest. We’re all figuring out what we need to do.
Do you have ancestors who were grape growers?
JT Not that I know of. But ironically, I grew up in Livermore out on Tesla Road where a bunch of the wineries are. We had vineyards right next door to us. That must have influenced me. (laughs) It’s weird how life works out. I didn’t even think about it at the time. We moved to the Midwest when I was in 4th or 5th grade. Now I’m growing grapes!
I like that. Maybe Concannon was your neighbor! Do you play with any noble varieties?
JT Here we pretty much have to stick with hybrid varieties. In southern Illinois they are growing some tremendous Cab Franc. That variety is starting to take hold down there. We’re just a little too cold. There’s a touch of Chardonnay here and there. I’ve seen a little bit of Riesling. We’re excited about the hybrids we grow now. They have some real distinct differences from some of the classic grapes. That’s what I enjoy about it. I don’t want to make wine like that made somewhere else in the world. I want to make wine that is unique to our region. So I think we have some neat opportunities here to make really unique wines. We’re having fun playing with it.
Besides, I can get some wonderful California wines at very reasonable prices here. There is no point in me trying to make a wine similar to those. I would just as soon embrace our differences and hopefully give the world something a little different, something fun; and to encourage folks to pay attention to the differences.
Who is your customer base?
JT I’d say that about half our customers are within a 100 mile radius of us. The other half are people just traveling through the area. We’re not far from an interstate so we do get that traffic. We’re also close to the University of Illinois; it’s only about 20 minutes away. That’s worked out well for us. Up to this point we’ve not been able to keep up with demand. Thats a good problem to have.
About your harvesting, is it done by machine?
JT We do everything by hand. There’s really not much mechanization out here in the Midwest. Most vineyards are small plots, or spread far apart. That’s one of our challenges. We don’t have labor pools or custom service like they would in a bigger area. We’re very fortunate being a small winery. Everything we do is sold through the winery. We’ve got some very loyal customers and we created what we call our Purple Finger Club. It’s basically a volunteer group that comes out and helps us do all the harvesting. We usually get 40 to 50 people a day to go pick grapes. We pick in the morning and crush in the afternoon. Then we have a big party. Having a small winery you can do stuff like that.
Of the varieties you grow, do they have different ripening times? Or is the crush all at once?
JT I kind of got lucky on that. They span themselves really nicely. Some usually start ripening mid to late August. Then we’re picking through the first weekend of October.
I noticed you are on both Facebook and Twitter.
JT We are. One of the big problems for a small winery is advertising costs. It is so expensive to get your name out there. Social media has been a real blessing. We can really get the word out and save a little bit on the marketing side of things. It’s also a lot more personable. People like that, especially from a small winery.
You guys are right on the ball. If you don’t mind my asking, what is your background?
JT I have kind of a strange background. I use to own a company, was a co-founder of a company, that designs and builds museum exhibits. I loved the job. It was a unique industry. But I had the bug to do something else. I made a deal with myself that anything I might do had to be at least as interesting as that business. Owning a vineyard and winery is the only thing I could come up with.
So you have a Natural History/Anthropology background?
JT Exactly. That’s kind of my personal interest. And Paleontology and Archaeology.
That’s remarkable. By the way, you sound like a young man. Did you retire early? Is there a lot of money to be made in museum displays?
JT We did okay. I wouldn’t say I’m rich, but I could make enough money in that to convince the bank to lend me more to do this! I’m about 45.
Well, you’ve got a long stretch ahead of you as a winegrower.
I noticed on your website that there were no pics of labels.
JT You’re right. We’re currently reworking our website. The one you’ve seen is an old one. It’s functional; but we have a new one in development. That one will have our labels on it. We have fun labels. Here on a farm in the Midwest, we’ve got an old timber frame barn. So we’ve got a bit of a barnyard theme going on with our labels. We’re in an area that’s not a traditional wine drinking area so we really have to bring down the intimidation factor. When people come in the doors we want them to feel comfortable.
You and your wife are sort of a pioneers.
JT In a way. Fortunately in Illinois there’s been a lot of people who’ve blazed the trail for us. It’s fun being part of a new industry. Right now in Illinois we’re almost to 100 wineries and something like 1200 acres of grapes total. It’s come a long way in 10 years when there were probably only 25 wineries. It’s grown quickly. Eight years ago, when we first planted vines, people were shaking their heads. “What are these guys doing?” But they are changing their minds now. People are coming out to visit. They are really beginning to enjoy themselves during their time out here.
Well, Joe, it was a great pleasure speaking with you. And if you notice spray impacts in your vineyard this season drop me a line. I wonder how widespread this problem is? In Oregon I get the distinct impression that folks just swallow their losses from herbicide drift.
JT I think most people are too scared. It’s a lot of time and money to take on the big guys. And I think that’s what is happening here, too. Everybody independently has the problem but most don’t want to bring on the attention. I think the problem is bigger than people realize. And it’s only going to get worse for a while.
You’re very brave to stand up.
JT Well, thank you for helping to spread the word on it.