Several years ago, when researching the relation between the composition of various vineyard soils and terroir expression, I happened upon the concept of biochar. Simply put, biochar is charcoal put to a biological use, in connection with my discovery, as a soil amendment. The use of it has a long history, research strongly supports, dating back to pre-Columbian Amazonians. All of us are by now familiar with the irreversible loss of vast tracts of the Brazilian Rain Forest due not only to the irresponsible and often illegal harvesting of hardwoods but also to the agricultural needs of 1000’s of subsistence farmers. The trouble is that the biodiversity of life of the rain forest is nurtured in the canopy while the soils are poor. A few crop harvests from a plot is all you get before the soil’s nutrients are exhausted. The pre-Columbians knew this and so hit upon biochar as a solution: the so-called Terra Preta soils they left behind more than a 1000 years ago.
And while doing additional research into biochar, I came upon Hans-Peter Schmidt, the first winegrower in Europe, if not the world, to have begun experimentation with biochar in his Domaine Mythopia vineyards located in the Valais region of Switzerland. You may read here of my initial encounter with the gentleman back in 2009 coupled with thorough explanation of biochar and terra preta.
As fortune would have it, I was to attend this year’s Digital Wine Communication Conference (DWCC) in Montreux, Switzerland where Hans-Peter had been tapped as a possible guest speaker, a perfect fit, in my view. Though his role had been greatly diminished by the time the DWCC began (an opportunity squandered), I was nevertheless able to meet with him and arrange a visit to Mythopia, his ethereal domaine. As he writes of his work:
The Legend of Mythopia
Facing the highest summits of the Alps, the steep slopes of the Mythopia vineyard have become a paradise, home to fragrant flowers, fruit trees, rare birds and more than 60 species of butterflies. It’s a vineyard exuding biodiversity where the ecosystem is sustained by a symbiotic network of uncountable species. The vineyard is no longer a hostile monoculture with naked soil but a beautiful natural system designed to produce grapes expressing the subtleties of its terroir. The soil is activated by accompanying plants and the air is full of the music of bumblebees and the perfume of wild blossoms.
In 2009 the Mythopia vineyard assumed the role of the research centre for the Ithaka Foundation and its Institute for Carbon Intelligence. Bridging the gap between theory and practice, methods and strategies have been developed for an ecological and economically sustainable viniculture. In addition the vineyard plays a major role in researching agricultural methods having a positive influence on the climate and biodiversity.
The grapes we harvest in Mythopia prosper without the interference of oenological products. Our wines are made from grapes and air, nothing more.
After a robust hike up Mythopia’s vineyard slopes, the equal to his website’s lyricism, we sat down for a conversation at a favorite spot, one where Hans-Peter often hosts tastings. I was quite happy to learn that my posts from early in 2009 had actually brought visitors to Mythopia. Indeed, I was also pleased to learn that no less a winegrower than Randall Grahm had taken an early interest in biochar and had actually purchased a few tons from Hans-Peter who duly shipped them to California. Our talk improved from there…
Ken Payton So where exactly are we?
Hans-Peter Schmidt We are somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Alpine Mountains. Geologically it is a very interesting place because just to the south is the African Plate, and we are, of course, on the European Plate. The result is severe folding here which in practical terms means we have a terroir here which can change from 10 meters to 10 meters. Here we have a river between, one the one side of which we have calcareous rock and on the other, schist. And it [Mythopia's vineyards] makes it a difficult place to do science because the variation is so immense. On the other hand it is a great place to make observations and to try things and to discover.
KP How did you find this place and what has made you stay?
H-P S My wife and I found it quite by accident. When we first came here it was all naked soil. Intensive production – 900 hectoliters per hectare -, heavy herbicide and pesticide use put the question to us: Can a vineyard be an ecosystem and have a high biodiversity? Could a vineyard ecosystem be compared to a natural reserve in a certain way? After all, why should the place where we produce our food – that which gives us life – why should that be in a toxic environment and not in a natural environment we would otherwise like to preserve? At this point in our reflection, we started to plant trees between the vines and we seeded a high-biodiversity green cover, with legumes for fertilizing and a lot of herbal species; we placed around many piles of stones and bee hives… in fact we put up everything we could think of to make it more diverse, more inviting to plant and animal species. We were hoping to attract life from our surroundings, an area still rather intact here. We have the highest vineyard in the region and we are near forest and pasture. Even after only one year we discovered many new species entering the area. And we haven’t stopped for the last 8 years! Every year we find new species, mostly butterflies because you can so easily see them with the naked eye; but also new birds and mammals. And when we’ve done microscopic images we saw a higher biodiversity in the microbial life of our soils but also on the leaves and of yeast populations on the grapes.
This brought us to the aspect of quality. What effect will this high biodiversity (which is an aim in itself) also have on wine quality? In the end that might convince others to do what we have done here. So the final objectives here were to make high quality wines and maybe to discover in what sense these wines are different. We had to, therefore, make them natural wines in a certain way, which means we only keep for the wines what we bring from the vineyard. We will not add anything. Others may do that and it may improve their wine in their sense, but for us it was important to see what impact does biodiversity have on the wine: on quality itself on the fermentation and stability of the wine.
From the beginning we made what is now called ‘natural’ wine, with no technical interference, no filtration, no additives, mostly gravitation, using the stems in maceration, doing long macerations, passing by the press… these are the choices we’ve made. Mythopia is essentially an ecosystem research project that has to translate into wine quality somehow in the end. But here we want to learn elements that we can transfer to other vineyards. That does not mean we will transfer all we do here to somewhere else; but we hope to learn certain elements that we can propose to other winegrowers so as to help them improve both wine quality and the ecosystem overall.
KP So you use nothing in the vineyard?
H-P S Well, when the pressure of mildew becomes too high we have to use some organic sulphur and copper. This year, for example, we used 250 grams of copper. Even in organic farming you are permitted to use 3 to 6 kilograms of copper depending on the year, so 250 grams is rather low. Sure, we would like to live without but we will not go so far as to risk losing our yield. We have to see the plant health to the end of the season with a fairly decent yield. And we go into the late season for we have vineyards going up to 870 meters. We need the cold Autumn nights with warm to hot mid-days which really makes the aromatic pump in the wines and it improves the yeast diversity on the stems and on the skins while still keeping the acidity in the wine.
KP On our walk up here you mentioned in passing that the region was hit by Drosophila suzukii. My ears perked up because I was the first to report, back in the summer of 2009, on the pest’s appearance, specifically in berry farms in the Watsonville, California area. At that time it was not known whether the fruit fly could puncture the skins of grapes. Well, months later we had confirmation from Oregon from winegrowers that, indeed, the fruit fly could damage grapes. So tell me of your observations of Drosophila suzikii’s behavior here and how, despite the absence of natural predators, the fly might be beaten back or at least contained.
H-P S Yes, we observed this year that the Drosophila suzukii came here, in this region, for the first time massively. Last year was minor in comparison. We observed that they pierced the grape and laid their eggs inside. At this moment the grape skin was open. But other insects followed. We observed a lot of spiders, also wasps, bees, and wild bees, and others. They all profited from the ruptured grape skin by consuming the sugar, and some insect or spider seems to have fed on the Drosophila eggs. It could also be that as the grape was emptied of sugar that the Drosophila could no longer hatch. So in this region we experienced great loss due to Drosophila. Yet it is also logical, from an ecosystem point of view, that in an area of great biodiversity no single insect can become a massive problem. I think we can do additional research in this field, make a project out of it.
As we drove at sunset down the steep mountain road back to the train station in Sion, windows open to the crisp air, the aroma of freshly harvested Lemon Verbena wafting through the cabin, my brain was buzzing with ideas provoked by my hours with Hans-Peter. He is a fine educator, and being around him cannot help but sharpen the senses. Rocks tormented by plate tectonics, savory herbs mingling with conspicuous California poppies, the ever-present hovering of insects, tall stands of grasses rustled by birds, everywhere I looked there were signs not only of hard work but also of the wonderment this grand science experiment has brought into being. I have always believed in the lyrical beauty of select sciences, certainly of Geology and Biology. I mean, the very idea that rocks can fold, that mountains can be turned upside down or eroded away altogether; or that a pest like the Drosophila suzukii can potentially be defeated by beneficial, though equally selfish insects and spiders, are expressive stanzas the earth writes. And Hans-Peter’s Mythopia is a poetic achievement.
Admin, Ken Payton
UPDATE I had asked Hans-Peter to expand his thoughts on wine growing, agriculture and the competition for diminishing resources in an increasingly hungry world. This is how he replied:
Hans-Peter Schmidt We harvest in the gardens of Mythopia something like 25 hL wine per ha providing thus a sufficient annual quantity of bottles for six to seven decent wine drinkers. Such luxury the world couldn’t afford for all, not even for all those that religiously are allowed to enjoy wine here and now. Conventional wine growers can at least care for the supply of 30 drinkers per hectare. But even that would not be enough to let most enjoy adults a daily bottle. The agriculturally used surface of the globe is only 5 Billion hectares. This corresponds to only 0,7 hectares per person to produce all grain, vegetables, fruits, cotton, wine, some petrol, bio-plastics etc. Half of these surfaces used for agriculture are very intensively exploited with high amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, and monoculture – dead zones, toxic for the water, for the air and the biodiversity. We can still defend the idea that vineyards should be gardens in high biodiversity, that cows should live on extensive pastures, that vegetables and fruits grow in permaculture and that eating wild grain is most healthy; however, in such a beautiful world we are at least nine times too many bipeds on earth.
To feed the world and not to destroy the ecosystems, we only have one choice: Produce the daily food in highly intensive closed systems like skyscrapers or in old mines under the earth, highly automized, with artificial light, optimal temperature, an optimal fertilization regime and pathogen control. Recycling all the water, all fertilizers, exchanging CO2 from industrial plants for oxygen to improve the air in urban areas, recycling the human manure to soil substrates and thus closing the nutrient cycles to avoid burdening the agronomic ecosystems. The productivity of those optimal closed agronomic systems would be up to 10 times higher than intensive field agriculture under the open sky in a changing climate. As sun energy is sufficiently available and will be cheaper and cheaper, the cost for light, pumps, filtration, and temperature control will be highly competitive to the actual agronomic system that externalize all ecosystem costs. Outside the landscapes could be reforested to clean and purify the ground and surface waters, to recycle atmospheric carbon dioxide into the soil with organic matter, and to ultimately improve the climate. Vineyards could become natural resorts with high biodiversity; gardeners could grow supplementary natural fruits and legumes as the economics would not be measured in yield but in leisure time and quality.
Happy Earth Day. How to celebrate? For my part, I have a very low carbon-footprint activity in mind. I have also prepared this account of a visit I recently made to Domaine Virgile Joly to speak with the man himself, Virgile Joly. Located in Saint-Saturnin in the Hérault department, Languedoc-Roussillon, Domaine Virgile Joly is one of 12 wine producers I have chosen for my next documentary. Over the next two weeks I hope to post interviews – of varying length – with each of the twelve producers in order to show exactly why I have selected them. With a difference. As is my custom and preference, I will allow each producer to speak in their own words. Let’s begin.
Virgile Joy I was born in Avignon, in the Rhone Valley. My grandparents had a vineyard. They were part of the local cooperative in northern Ventoux. It is quite high and not a very good terroir. In Ventoux, the good terroir is south of Mont Ventoux It is a little too cold in the north and there is more clay. Lighter wines are made, but it is difficult to find a good balance with such a soil and climate. The mountain itself influences the weather. Some years there is a lot of rain and wind, or it is too cold, the harvests are late. But it was that experience which gave me the taste of Nature. I studied Biology at school. I was very interested in the science. When I was 17, during orientation day, they explained to us we could be a winemaker. It involved two years of study in the university, but only after two years of Biology. So for me it was perfect! I was very happy.
After study I began to to work as a winemaker, but my idea was always to start my own business. In 2000, I was working here for a big winery, I was buying grapes for them from Perpignan to Nîmes. I was following something like 15 wineries.
Ken Payton Did you have certain ideas about organic even then?
VJ I had a personal philosophy, but about how it applied to wine, I had no ideas about that. At that time I did not really care about organic wine. Neither was it in fashion. But my mind was changed when I decided to start my own business, to work for myself. The big question was: What do I want to do? What kind of wine, what style… a lot of questions. The idea was to make very high quality wine, and I felt held back if I worked for another. I had ideas about the use of barrels and oak, which grapes would have better flavors if handled differently; I knew, for example, that grapes picked by hand would make a much better wine than that picked by machine. So from the beginning it was all about making the highest quality wine. I was very optimistic! (laughs).
Then I found something very special in Saint-Saturnin. Beginning near the end of 2001, I was focused on my own vineyard and company here. It happened faster than I was thinking it would.
So the question was: Why choose Saint-Saturnin? Why choose organic? Very simple. To have a high level of quality, you must respect your terroir, your vine, and what is around you, the ecosystem. So chemicals could not be a part of this. Yet even in 2000, I noticed that a lot of high-quality grape growers were already very close to organic viticulture, but without certification. So I began to organize my thoughts. We know that chemicals are very bad for the earth, and the grower is in intimate contact with the earth. So chemicals were eliminated from my plan, not only the sake of quality and for the benefit of the customer, but also for me and my sons.
Were you alone in the area when you made this decision?
VJ In 2000 it was all conventional, but now it is more and more organic. You know, I think somebody has to show people it can be done. For example, people are thinking that in organic viticulture you have grasses in the vineyard. It is not true. People think you have less of a yield. It is not true.
After working for 10 years in organic viticulture, growers can now see what has been the result in my vineyard. They can see that if you do your work well, you can have good results; and even with the higher costs of using more manual labor, at the end of the day we often have better results than conventional growers. They are beginning to understand. For me it is about higher quality wines. The next step is up to them.
VINEYARD AND TERROIR
VJ So here we are in the center of the Saint-Saturnin appellation, just beyond the plateau du Larzac. We were just in the village of Saint-Saturnin itself. To the south, on the right, is Saint Guiraud, on the hill. From there it goes east to Jonquières and turns around to Arboras, just north. So all of that big terrace is Saint-Saturnin AOC. It is part of 4 villages. Beyond these creeks is Montpeyroux, also an AOC village. But we are now in the middle of Terraces du Larzac. According to the AOC system, we have Languedoc, the region; sub-region, Terraces du Larzac, and then we have Saint-Saturnin and Montpeyroux.
We have a very stony soil with limestone. The soils here are very deep. There is nothing to stop the roots. This is one of the reasons it is such good terroir and so well known. The terrace soil is very homogenous and it is flat. That is very efficient for us to work. It makes things easier. We have the benefits of the terrace but no problems of the slope.
We have very high quality and don’t have big yields here, and this is one of the reasons the cooperatives started so late. Before the creation of the cooperatives, the growers did not need them, but because of changing markets, they realized they could save money if they joined together. This was in 1950, when the Languedoc region was producing a huge quantity of wine, much of it heading to the north of France. Back then the French were drinking 150 liters per person per year, I believe. Now it is 40 liters per person… (laughs) We’ve lost a lot of customers! Maybe it is better for them to drink a little less!
It was realized, because they produced such small quantities, that they could not compete with other parts of the region who produced far more for the bulk market. So they decided to plant Grenache and Syrah, very good grapes, in order to concentrate on making very high quality wine. There is a good reason I’ve chosen this place: when I started, I had old vines which had been planted for quality.
What was the viticultural philosophy then taught in school?
VJ When you go to school it is because you want to become a winemaker; you don’t study a lot about viticulture. It is mainly winemaking. In France, there are other people who take care of the vineyard. They are more specialized. But I have a big knowledge base, so I have no problem with understanding viticulture. Most of the teachers were thinking of commercialization. Many of the professors were themselves working on projects to make it easier to produce grapes, and generally with chemicals. Organic wine was not a subject then.
Were organic vegetables being grown? Other agricultural products?
VJ Yes. I think generally for the consumer, organic produce was their first introduction to the idea. Now the customer understands you may also find a good organic wine. It was not the same 10 years ago. Ten years ago the consumer was thinking that organic wine was not very good. It was just a philosophy, but not a way to make wine. Now there are far more growers and greater volume, and people have more contact with the growers themselves. For example, a wine consumers had been drinking they now learn has converted to organic and that the wine has not really changed. More than that, they now understand the larger purpose of organic which is to preserve Nature, that it is better for the earth.
This follows the same pattern in California. People would go out of their way to spend more for organic produce when the choice began to appear in the market. But when it came to wine, people were initially unwilling pay a premium price. Of course, now both organic produce and wine are far cheaper owing to so many producers converting. A lot has changed…
VJ In 10 years the difference in France is really big; the mentality has changed, not only for the customer but for the producers and retailers as well. When I started, organic was not in fashion. It was very rare.
This vineyard of mine is one of the biggest. We have here 2 hectares. You can see we have planted some trees where we can help assist in restoring the three levels of the ecosystem. The first level it that of the floor [soil surface]; here we have birds, rabbits, grasses – we don’t use chemicals, so we have good life in the soil. The second level is the human level, the level of the vine. There are also birds here living in the vines. The third level is that of the trees, which we have now planted. So when and where possible, we plant them around the vineyards. Here we have even more bird and insect varieties. We work at all of these levels both to preserve the ecosystem and, sometimes, to re-introduce a more balanced ecosystem.
What is the rainfall here?
VJ Here we have something like 800 millimeters a year. Pic St. Loup has 900 to 1000, but we are the area with the best rainfall. The elevation at Saint-Saturnin is about 170 meters above sea level…
So in the Summer the grasses must really compete for water…
VJ Yes. It is really a problem. It is a Mediterranean climate, so we have water in Spring and in Autumn. The Summers are always dry. Competition with grasses makes it difficult.
So the soils here drain well. Do you cut away the surface roots of the vines?
VJ In fact, when we work the floor to till the grass, we remove them. It is one of the reasons for the high quality of the grapes here. You have two kinds of roots, those which go deeper and those which stay at the surface. So, if you want to produce high quality, you want to keep your vines for more than 50 years. Now, if you want to produce as fast as possible, Chardonnay for example, because it is enjoying good sales, or because now it is Pinot Noir, then you plant and after three years you can have a first harvest. But if you want to make high quality wine you must have your vines for a long time. For myself, I wait for around 7 years before I take a first harvest, and even then I have a low yield.
So if you want rapid growth for a harvest after the first three years from planting vines, then you need lots of roots, a lot of water, so superficial roots will be permitted to grow faster than the deeper roots. But if you let the vine take time to mature, the deeper roots will go deeper and deeper into the soil to find water. Then, after 10 years, for example, if it is drier you can easily see the difference. The vine with superficial roots will suffer from the dry conditions.
Here in Saint-Saturnin, with the good depth of our roots, even in 2003 when it was very hot with no water, most of our vines did not suffer. The only vines suffering were those in vineyards which were not worked and where chemicals [herbicides] were used on the floor. In those vineyards the ground, the soil, was much harder and the deeper roots were underdeveloped. After that experience a few growers returned, not to organic, but to the understanding to use less chemicals and to work the soil.
A CONVENTIONAL VINEYARD
VJ Do you see that very chemical ground?
I do. That’s a conventionally farmed vineyard?
VJ Yes. It is a bad idea to add that black plastic when vines are planted. Now they have no idea what to do with it. The floor is completely white because the surface is never worked; so the stones are cleaned by the sun and the rain. The stones are never moved. The ground becomes very hard, so the water cannot penetrate. The rain will then run fast across the surface. Two problems here: the first is that of erosion. The water has to go somewhere and you can often find deep holes and cuts. The second problem is that the chemicals do not kill everything. Some grasses always win, win, win. So you end up with soil without water, erosion, and you still have grass.
It is soil you can never get back. When producers convert to organic, do they remain organic?
VJ Well, five years ago organic wine was like an El Dorado. The sales and prices were high. There was a big demand and little organic wine could be found on the market. So a lot of producers changed viticulture to take advantage of this. Now, if you are a bad producer, becoming organic will not help you sell your wine. You are still a bad producer. Organic does not help you. It must first be a good wine; if not, it doesn’t sell. People will not care if it is organic or not.
Being organic the first year is easier. During conversion, you still have use of some chemicals. So you can still control the grasses and weeds as you have in the past. But by the 4th or 5th year, they all come back. Now, if you were a large producer, or have become by then a bigger producer, the more hands-on work required in organic viticulture becomes very expensive. For example, you have to learn to spray correctly or you can lose your harvest or have a greatly reduced yield. You need greater technical understanding of viticulture.
In 2001 there were some financial incentives to help people convert to organic. Many producers joined up for a 5 year program to full organic conversion. But after 5 years, many gave it up and returned to conventional, to non-organic In their eyes, it was just too difficult and expensive. Some left the conversion after 2 years, it was just too difficult for them!
Do you think you’ll always be a winemaker?
VJ Yes, of course! I really love it. I love being in the vineyard and making wine. I love blending wines. I also am very active in two groups* to help spread the organic message. The first group is to help defend and to promote the Saint-Saturnin AOC – we are in the process of having our own AOC. The other group is dedicated to promoting organic viticulture. We organize wine fairs like Millésime Bio; and we organize wine tastings.
But to answer your question clearly, winemaking is my life.
Thank you, Virgile. I will see you in May.
*[Mr. Joly is vice-president of the Syndicat des producteurs de Saint-Saturnin and a technical administrator with the very progressive Association Interprofessionnelle Des Vins Biologiques Du Languedoc-Roussillon AIVB-LR.]
Vine Diseases are not my specialist subject, in fact before last week I knew practically nothing about them, but for some reason a casual reading of a blog post from Jim Budd set me off on a major tangential internet sortie.
Jim’s post was entitled “Bourgueil and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil: the fight against eutypiose, BDA and esca”, and it was Bourgueil that hooked me, since I spent 10 wonderful days in that quaint Loire town in 2006 on a family holiday (which explains my fondness for Cabernet Franc). The fact that most of the piece was a transcript of a French article almost dissuaded me from continuing (I am nowhere near fluent in the language) except for an intriguing picture of a dying vine and Jim’s reference to “Fatal Wood Diseases”. I therefore clicked on the link to Vitisphere.com.
The post begins describing the disturbing development of ESCA, BDA (Black Dead Arm) and Eutypiose since the ban on the use of the controlling chemical Sodium Arsenite a decade ago. The accompanying picture shows a necrosis (canker) caused by Eutypiose.
The local viticultural body, FAV37 (la Fédération des Associations Viticoles d’Indre-et-Loire et de la Sarthe) completed a study in 2010 showing that in Indre-et-Loire alone damage from these diseases came to €12-14 million ($16-18 million) and are increasing their activities to dispose of the dead and diseased wood to try and prevent the spread of the disease.
The piece finishes stating that 30-40,000 vines were collected by a Chinon based wood company to recycle as barbeque fuel, but that this was only a small part of all the vines that actually died this year – a sobering thought.
So that was the story, but all it did was raise more questions than it answered; what exactly are the three diseases mentioned?; what causes them?; how prevalent are they?; Apart from a brief mention of sodium arsenite what else is being done to combat the disease other than making barbecue fuel?
The more sites I visited in trying to answer these starting questions, the more secondary questions (plus some ambiguity & contradiction) appeared, which sent me into yet more searches which eventually spat me out after 2 days with a glimmer of understanding and enough words to put together this piece – even though I may never get firsthand exposure to the topic.
Eutypiose (Eutypiosis) is the French term for Eutypa dieback, first identified in the 1970s and since confirmed worldwide (Californian losses to the disease are estimated in excess of $260 million a year). The disease is caused by infection with the fungus Eutypa lata which results in stunted development and internal V-shaped necroses and external cankers. Leaves may show chlorosis, deformations and tattered edges.
In the 1970s the disease Dead Arm, made famous to consumers by the d’Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz, was identified as really being two diseases, with the combined symptoms of Eutypa dieback caused by Eutypa lata and those of Excoriosis (Phomopsis Cane & Leaf Spot) caused by the different fungi Phomopsis viticola.
Black Dead Arm (BDA) is caused by yet another fungi, or to be accurate several species of the Botryosphaeriaceae, first described in 1974 in Tokaji, Hungary – giving the diseases alternative name of Botryosphaeria (Bot) canker. Over 12 species have been isolated from diseased vines globally and, while early research believed they were opportunistic pathogens that only caused symptoms in stressed vines, the current data suggests that certain strains are strong primary pathogens.
Symptoms include V-shaped necroses similar to those caused by Eutypa lata, brown necrosis along the length of the affected tissues. Confusingly, occasional stunted growth, leaf discolouration and damage adds to the similarity with Eutypa dieback, meaning the two diseases are often difficult to accurately diagnose.
In France the disease was also known as d’apoplexie lente (slow apoplexy) prior to its classification as BDA in the Medoc in 1999.
Esca (La Yesca in Spain) is another complex disease with variable symptom expression. Although first classified in Italy in 1900 it seems to have been around much longer with similar symptoms described in medieval works such as the influential Arabic agricultural tome Kitab al-Felahah by Ibn al-Awam, a 12th Century Moor from Seville, and earlier Latin and Greek texts. The name is Latin for food or bait (used by several Italian restaurants around the world including New York) and may be a reference to the fruiting bodies of the fungi responsible resembling bait lures as they sprout from the wood. A Wine Spectator article from 2008 reported that 5% of the vineyard surface area in France was affected by Esca, although later reports suggest that by 2010 this was as much as 10%.
The fungal pathogens are Phaeomoniella chlamydospora and various species of Phaeoacremonium which cause chronic symptoms of stunted growth, shoot tip dieback and internal wood decay of the trunk and larger branches. Leaf necrosis results in a “tiger stripe” pattern while berries show dark spots or “measles”, leading to the disease’s alternative name of Black Measles.
Primary symptoms predispose the vines to wood (white) rot caused by higher fungi such as Fomitiporia punctata, Fomitiporia mediterranea and Stereum hirsutum.
Esca affected vines may show chronic symptoms one year and the next appear perfectly normal, but the disease will reappear, each time causing an overall decline.
Eventually an acute form of the disease called vine apoplexy occurs, typically in mid-summer when rainfall is followed by hot, dry weather, where rapid withering of apparently healthy leaves and the death of vine organs, including grape clusters, happens in only a few days – the vine usually dies in the same year.
The main feature in common with all these diseases is that they affect vines at least eight years old or that may have been subjected to stress. It is clear from reading the reports and research papers that there isn’t always a clear diagnosis because of the similarities in symptoms; V-shaped necroses; longitudinal brown streaking in the stems; leaf chlorosis and patchy discolouration; stunted shoot growth; external cankers. In the absence of one exclusive diagnostic indicator much of the disease reported in the vineyards is probably a combination of two or all of the above.
It is also worth mentioning Petri Syndrome, named for Italian Lionello Petri who first published the symptoms in 1912. Also known as Young Vine Decline (Young Esca) the primary infectors of Ecsa, Phaeomoniella chlamydospora, Phaeoacremonium inflatipes and Phaeoacremonium aleophilum come together to cause disease in younger vines of 2 or 3 years. The disease stunts growth and leads to tissue decay with leaf chlorosis and necrosis. Internally, black spots or streaks are seen in the xylem tissues and the sap of infected plants can turn dark brown or black, giving the alternate disease name Black Goo.
Although common around the world this disease has been heavily researched in California since the late 1990s due to the high economic impact and the realization that infected nursery stock was the main source of diseased vines – vines pulled up for whatever reason were being replanted with plants already inoculated with the causes of the disease.
It would be easy to continue veering off into new areas by including other diseases such as Syrah Decline, Phomopsis or Black Foot, however the causes and mechanisms of these diseases are different or, in the case of Syrah Decline, still not fully understood, so we’ll put them to one side, at least until the end.
The key pathogens described above are all species of Ascomycetes (sac) fungi which produce spores in sacs (asci) which develop until the pressure within the asci shoots the spores out. Direct spore dispersal is up to 30cm but they travel further due to rain splash and wind – Eutypa ascospores are known to be able to travel as far as 30 miles (50km).
The exceptions are the Basidiomycete (higher) fungi such as Fomitiporia punctata, Fomitiporia mediterranea and Stereum hirsutum involved in Ecsa white rot, arguably a secondary symptom of the chronic form of the disease.
With BDA, Ecsa and Eutypa dieback fungal spores colonise the vine through open wood vessels, the result of pruning, frost, mechanical or graft wounds – although an Australian study shows that soil-borne infection should not be ignored. The spores develop, invading the xylem vessels where fungal growth results in the interruption of sap-flow which may induce a host defense reaction, resulting in further blockage. Wood necrosis and rot impairs the flow of nutrients leading to vine decline and slow death, while fungal phytotoxins weaken the vine causing associated symptoms.
Petri disease is more likely due to nursery vines infected by the fungi prior to planting, as opposed to infection through wounds, but the effects are similar.
There is no reliable means of eradicating a pathogenic fungus once it becomes established within a vine, so removal of diseased wood or the entire plant is necessary (remedial surgery with disposal or burning of the wood debris). The best control is to protect vines from infection in the first place, but this can be challenging since the fungi are common in nature and considering the number of wounds made on each grapevine in a year with the extended period of wound susceptibility (which, for E. lata, is up to 7 weeks from pruning and greatest in early winter).
By timing any pruning as late as possible in the winter/early spring (Feb/Mar in the Northern Hemisphere) sap is flowing more freely which helps with wound healing. Spore release from infected vines is closely correlated with rainfall so new pruning should be avoided until at least 36 hours afterwards. Prof. Doug Gruber of UC Davis has championed a double-pruning technique where initial mechanically pruning leaves long spurs in early winter followed by hand-pruning to short spurs in late winter.
Application of fungicidal wound protectants in spray, paint or paste form should prevent fungal access through pruning wounds. Although spray-on liquid formulations are easily washed off with rainfall they are more feasible in large vineyards since application of paint or paste is labour intensive and only economically viable for high-value vineyards. However, which chemicals to use is the subject of intense research and contentious debate.
A 2009 study showed that Topsin M, aka thiophanate-methyl, was the best overall product across the Ascomycetes – yet a mixture of active ingredients is more likely to handle the spectrum of different fungi found in the vineyard.
Different cocktails reported include;
— MBC fungicide (Benomyl, Carbendazim, Topsin M) & chlorobutinol
— Biopaste (boric acid), Garrison® (cyproconazole and iodocarb) and Topsin M
— Carbendazim & prochloraz (-manganese)
— ATCS® acrylic paint (alone or mixed with Bavistin® or boric acid)
The biggest likely problem is that many of these fungicidal chemicals are likely to be removed from the market due to environmental and human health concerns, as happened with Sodium Arsenite (the only product that kept all main disease symptoms in check). This carcinogen was banned in Europe in 1991 (with extensions for Spain, France and Portugal until 2003), a fact that French viticulturalists claim is the direct cause of the relentless increase in Grapevine Trunk Disease over the last decade and has some calling for its re-introduction.
In reality biological & ecological control methods may be the only long term options available to growers, something which is starting to become understood.
Biological control agents include the fungi Trichoderma and Fusarium lateritium and the bacteria Bacillus subtilis, which have been shown to control infection by E. lata in trials, although results were variable. Researchers are also looking at garlic extracts and lactoferrin as wound protectants.
Biological control agents available today are based on Trichoderma species: BioTricho®, Eco-77® (both based on single strains of Trichoderma harzianum) & Vinevax®™ which is based on a mixture of five strains of T. harzianum and T. atroviride. Another agent, Trichodex® (Trichoderma harzianum T39) is also used as a treatment to prevent Botrytis cinerea (grey rot).
Some strains of Trichoderma work better than others, and are more effective on some varieties, such as Chenin Blanc, compared to others, such as Cabernet Sauvignon & Sauvignon Blanc. This may be why the French report poor results with Trichoderma as both these grapes seem more susceptible to Esca, BDA and Eutypa dieback (with Merlot and Semillon less so) and may be why Esca is especially prolific in southwest France and the Loire.
For Petri Syndrome then treatment to account for possible nursery stock infection is advised. Hot Water Treatment (HWT) at 50°C (122°F) for 30 minutes & then cooling to 2-3°C (36-37°F) for rootstock and scion wood is effective in controlling Phaeomoniella. This is similar to the method oif controlling Black foot Disease.
Also I came across tales of more organic remedies that are worth recounting. The first was from a Loire grower who uses companion plants (wild leek, Allium ampeloprasum) to “re-mycorhize the under-soil” which he believes has been sterilised by over use of the weed killer Roundup. In the Wine Terroirs article “Experimental cure of Esca in the Loire” the grower, Didier Barrouillet, claims he has seen vines recovering from esca.
In the same vein the 7th International Workshop on Grapevine Trunk Diseases, held in Chile last year, reported some success using soil bio-fumigation with mustard (Brassica juncea). Although used here for Black Foot Disease research the idea of bio-fumigation, using companion crops or “green manure” from Brassica species looks to be bearing fruit (!).
Those last two topics brings home the message to me that viticulture at its simplest level is only agriculture, and growing anything in the soil requires a healthy respect for that soil and the complex eco-system it harbours – something that the ever increasing use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides can only disrupt.
The pathogens and symptoms of Grapevine Trunk Diseases mirror this, it would be wrong to fixate on a single cause or cure when they are a complex interaction of numerous fungi acting on genetically distinct sets of vines. A vine can, and probably does, become infected by multiple pathogens many times and while susceptibility to the effects of BDA, Ecsa and Eutypa dieback varies between grape varieties there is no sub-species of Vitis vinifera that is immune.
I should also reiterate that during my time reading and re-reading the different papers and presentations I encountered repeated ambiguity & contradiction both on disease naming, symptoms and causes. I endeavoured to filter through the pages to ensure as much consistency as possible, but I have no doubt that the current view of these diseases is still incomplete with more interactions awaiting to be discovered. Syrah Decline is a case in point – but I’m not going to go down that tangent just yet!
Grapevine Trunk Diseases in California and Control Strategies (UCD Presentation)
Emerging diseases of vine in the central part of Spain, Vicente González and María Luisa Tello, of the Madrid Institute for research and Rural Development, agriculture and food (Imidra)
Abstracts from the International Workshop on Grapevine Trunk Diseases (next in Valencia, Spain, 18-21 June 2012)
The California couple moved to Oregon in 1999 with dreams of creating a new vineyard. Under their plan, 2010 should have yielded 26 tons of grapes. Instead, year after year they’ve watched vines wither and die, killed by herbicide drift so severe it has sterilized the soil in places. They’ve put off launching their own label while they rebuild from the financial damage.
“Every spring and fall I don’t worry about the frost,” Kohlman said. “I worry about the herbicide spray.”
And so begins a newspaper account of Kevin Kohlman and his wife’s costly legal battle against a cynical corporation and their politically entrenched cronies. After years of delay, posturing, seeming violations of the rules of discovery; after the Kohlman’s sank $500,000 of their retirement money into the litigation, Roseburg Forest Product at last triumphed. That was in late 2010. I was to interview winemaker Kevin Kohlman last March. My two part interview, a must read, may be found here. Never one to surrender, I wanted to catch up with the gentleman for an update, knowing full well he would forcefully speak his mind. More to the point, he had openly worried in our interview whether during the coming spring, Roseburg Forest’s herbicide spray regimen would again severely damage his vines. And I wanted to know how had his life changed since the court loss. And what’s with the helicopter that recently buzzed low over his property? Let us find out.
Admin Good evening, Kevin. Some months have passed since we last spoke. I would like to know, and my readers to know, what has changed or stayed the same in your world since the conclusion of your court case with Roseburg Forest Products. Since the original story appeared, along with our interview, have any environmental groups been in touch with you?
Kevin Kohlman No. I’ve had a few people contact me in regard to your article and that in the Register Guard’s big article. And there’s quite a bit of stuff going on now, I’ve heard, with people up in the Triangle Lake. I don’t know if you’ve heard much about that. There is group called Pitchfork Rebellion that has had on-going spray issues. They are not viticulture people, but they’re people that have had organic gardens and things that have been, and are being hit by sprays between Roseburg Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser. I believe they’ve actually filed a lawsuit against the Oregon State Department of Agriculture. It’s about time somebody broke up that little band of good old boys.
Good to hear. So tell me how are your grapes looking? Yields good? Has there been any recurrence of spray damage?
KK First, I think we’re going to be three to four weeks late in this area. We are three to four weeks late now. I’m just coming into berry touch at this point. So that’s pretty late. So I’m going to be dropping two thirds of the clusters. I’m typically hanging two to three clusters per shoot. This year I’m going to hang one cluster per shoot. But I’ve got 35 leaves per shoot average right now. I should be able to ripen a really nice crop. It will just be less. It will probably be half of the normal crop. If you take two thirds early enough the plant will put enough energy into that remaining cluster. So your tonnage will not fall off two thirds, but will fall off about a half. That seems to be how it works out normally.
But it’s about growing great wine; it’s not about growing massive amounts of fruit. That’s the way I’m attacking the season anyways.
So it seems you recently had a helicopter buzzing your property, whether surveying or intimidating — who can say for certain — have you had any actual confirmation of spraying near your vineyard?
KK Yes. There have been several sprays within three miles of me. But we have not had any effects that I can see yet. I haven’t heard anything back from the Department of Agriculture concerning the samples. They pulled samples and I made them leave samples with the evidence tags intact. They took some for themselves. But I have not heard anything back on what occurred. I haven’t gotten a call back whether there was even any analysis done! Or any investigation. No word at all.
Because you have not yet detected any damage to your vineyard, do you think that, whether because of media coverage or the their vulnerabilities exposed during your court battle, Roseburg Forest Products is showing some restraint with respect to aerial sprays?
KK No. I really don’t. I think that possibly the one clearcut that is directly west of me that funnels the spray, they were already five years old when I was hit. The clearcut and replanting happened in 2003. They are already beyond the five year mark when the trees are free to grow without competition from the broad leafs the spray is meant to kill. Roseburg is just backing off. Why spend money when the trees have made it to the point where the weeds are not really going to impact them greatly.
They could come out and say, “Oh yeah, we’re avoiding hitting Mr. Kohlman.” But it would be a PR ploy. They don’t need to spray that clearcut above me at this point. But there is a brand new clearcut directly west of me. I don’t know if it’s Roseburg Forest’s, just on the other side of the ridge; but I am watching it closely. That one happened this year. So, who knows? I’m not out of the woods yet, so to speak! (laughs)
Now that you will be back in production soon, have you come up with a label design? Do you have a new name for the wine? Are you beginning to think again in commercial terms?
KK Yeah. This year I am hiring a winemaker. I’ve actually interviewed several; just to do a custom crush for me, not to hire directly. I am going to be under the name Spire Mountain Cellars. and I will probably be getting my bonding, all the ATF paperwork put in here this season. My wine will be made under bond by one of the three winemakers I am interviewing. And two years from now I will most likely open a tasting room.
And a website will be up and running?
KK Yes. Right now it is still under construction. there is no real sense in getting too much going on. But if this vintage goes like I think it will — most of my Pinot Noir and Tempranillo are pretty big wines — and we’re able to keep, as I prefer, to keep high acid and pretty high sugar because of our location, then I know my wines can handle 18 months in barrel, 24 months in barrel. Typically in the past that’s kind of where we’ve been with some of our wines. So if I get all the paperwork done this year, I can bring my wine out of one bond into my bond, and be ready to bottle and have a tasting room somewhere around 18 months to 2 years from now.
That is wonderful to hear. I would love to attend the grand opening, let me tell you!
KK Oh! Well, I’m sure there will be an invite list and you’ll be on it. I’ve got to keep doing this consulting work do earn enough money to get the capital back to do that, but I’m getting there!
Indeed. I’ve since done another article after speaking with you about a winemaker in the Mid-West who was having the same damn problem with spray drift. He wrote me about his difficulties and losses. It was 2-4-D in his case. But I wanted to tell you that he had been moved by your struggle.
KK Well, I’ll give a little advice: Don’t take it to the courts! That’s a quick way to hemorrhage money. They are broken. It won’t do you any good to go there. (laughs) I mean, if you’ve got a neighbor who won’t do anything, and the EPA won’t do anything, and your state Department of Ag won’t do anything, then I guess you have no choice but to take the matter into your own hands. I know it sounds wrong but… otherwise all they’ll do is financially ruin you.
I’m not your average income individual, so for me it was a big struggle that did not completely ruin me, but there are not a lot of people who can afford a $500,000 hit in their late 40’s and hope to recover from it. Fortunately I am pretty good at what I do, and I have a trade to fall back on. I’ll be able to recoup the loss in three to five years. And then I can go back to what I want to do, and that is to make wine.
You yourself make wine.
KK Oh, absolutely. In fact, in 2003 I had Kyle Evans’ help, formerly of Brockway Cellars [Abacela's second label] — it is really his wine — we made the Pinot that was involved in the lawsuit, that was rated as a $35 a bottle wine.
[Clarification: 2003 was the vintage. The wine was left in barrel, to be bottled for retail in 2005. Then the spray disaster struck. For the purposes of litigation, a value must be determined to properly assess the total financial loss to Mr. Kohlman in the event of his court victory. A tasting panel was assembled and Mr. Kohlman's wine was judged to worth $35. Admin]
But again, it takes time to recover. I will eventually be my own winemaker; but to get started I’ll do just like a lot of small artisan wineries do: I’ll hire somebody to do a custom crush if they do it under my guidelines of what I want my wine to be.
So how much time are you able to spend on your property in Oregon and how much time spent elsewhere consulting? It must really eat into your time to be at home.
KK Absolutely. I’m typically there in Oregon 2 weekends a month right now.
Is that right?
KK Yeah. I’m doing a lot of traveling. I’m doing consulting work with General Electric, the water processing technologies group. I’m managing refinery chemical engineering processes. It is not something I had planned on doing. I retired when I was 39 to make wine. It’s one of those negotiations where they wanted someone with my background, my experience. I said I really don’t want to go back into it. But they said ‘tell us what it would take’. I gave them a number and they said ‘Done!’ I went ‘Darn!’ I should have given them a bigger number! (laughs)
But I am fortunate. It works out. I have a place in the Bay Area. My wife comes down here a weekend a month; I go home a couple weekends a month… so, you know, it’s not bad. We got a balance going. I’ve hired a lot more crew to do a lot more work in Oregon that I would have been otherwise doing. So we’re not losing ground there.
Good. Is there anything else you’d care to add?
KK Well, that’s pretty much where I’m at. I’d emphasize that there really needs to be some major changes in the Department of Agriculture and the way they enforce EPA regulations. That ultimately has got to change. I have no power to get them to do anything. As I said, they supposedly came out and pulled samples from my vineyard. So what did they do with them? Is it up to me to force them to do something? Here again, we’re in this game of ‘we won’t do anything unless you really see a big problem’. Nothing has changed. The sprays continue to be sprayed and spread, and everything according to the Dept of Ag approach is only reactive.
We just had an article come out recently about the Oregon wine industry’s contribution to the state’s business. It is now at 2.7 billion dollars. And we’re still allowing the forestry business to just haphazardly do what ever they want? There have got to be some changes in the Dept of Ag. Absolutely. If nothing else comes out of the article, maybe some pressure can come to get these people to actually do their job. That would be a first.
A last question: When did the person working for you notice the helicopter hovering over your land ? What month was that? I would imagine it was the Spring.
KK It was early Spring. I believe it was in March or early April. It was during a spray. I don’t actually know where they were doing the spray, but they sure enjoyed touring my property. (laughs) If it is just a helicopter flying around then it could be a tourist. But if it is a helicopter with a [spray] boom? I get a little nervous about that.
I think the wine industry needs people like you willing to stand up and fight back against hostile forces. You’ve done a fine job.
KK Well, you know, if you just throw money at a problem it makes everything just go away. Right? (laughs) Apparently not! (laughs)
Thank you, Kevin.
KK You’re welcome, Ken.
Gly(cine) phos(phon)ate (glyphosate), more commonly known as Roundup, has been the herbicide of first resort for farmers, horticulturist, conventional home gardeners, golf course greens managers, even the US government’s coca eradication efforts in South America (op cit.). And vineyards. According to the most recent figures I’ve been able to find, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Pesticide Industry Sales and Usage Report 2006-2007, Glyphosate is the most popular broad spectrum herbicide used in the agricultural sector of the United States. From 2001, when an estimated 85-90 million pounds of the active ingredient were applied, to 180-185 million pounds used in 2007, Glyphosate has dominated the broad spectrum market, with Atrazine a distant second.
And there is a reason for Atrazine’s second place showing.
“Atrazine, 2-chloro-4-(ethylamino)-6-(isopropylamino)-s-triazine, an organic compound consisting of an s-triazine-ring is a widely used herbicide. Its use is controversial due to widespread contamination in drinking water and its associations with birth defects and menstrual problems when consumed by humans at concentrations below government standards. Although it has been banned in the European Union, it is still one of the most widely used herbicides in the world.”
Monsanto, Glyphosate’s company of origin (their exclusive patent expired in 2000), has long maintained the safety to both the environment and human health of the product they’ve marketed as Roundup since the 1970s. Indeed, so successful has been the multinational’s public relations campaign that even the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), reliant upon the much vaunted University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program accepts its use in vineyards. From CSWA’s Grower’s Guide.
“‘Integrated pest management (IPM) is an integral part of any sustainable farming program,’ as explained in the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices (SWP Workbook, page 6-1.) IPM is an approach to managing pests by combining biological, cultural, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks (National Coalition on Integrated Pest Management, 1994). IPM is relevant for all farming systems, including organic and biodynamic systems.”
The Grower’s Guide goes on to insist that,
“IPM does not provide standardized prescriptions. In fact, the application of IPM changes in time and space, as pest managers adjust to circumstances. Nevertheless, IPM always is a knowledge-based, multi-faceted approach that safely maintains pests at sub-economic levels. IPM programs emphasize preventive, ecologically-based methods first. Good IPM practitioner improve over time, as their knowledge increases (SWP Workbook, page 6-1).”
Please note the comment above that IPM is knowledge-based; that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases. So what does the IPM recommend concerning the use of Glyphosate in vineyards? It appears to be their herbicide of choice for vineyard site preparation and established weeds. The IPM shares a grim rhetorical flourish also found in industrial or conventional agriculture: that the use of Glyphosate is a kind of “chemical mowing”.
With Monsanto’s history of reassurance as to the safety of Glyphosate, why cite as ‘grim’ IPM’s reference to its use as chemical mowing? Well, because IPM’s continued recommendation of Glyphosate’s is not sustainable. And here are the reasons why.
As has been widely reported, at least since 2005, that Glyphosate is responsible for what are now popularly known as superweeds. From The New York Times to a June, 2011 report written by Greenpeace, a scientific consensus is emerging as to the reality of superweeds. Perhaps listening to farmers might also be of assistance, as this short documentary, Farmer To Farmer does.
No doubt, the evolution of superweeds has been greatly accelerated by Monsanto’s creation of so-called Roundup Ready crops.
“Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near ubiquitous use of Roundup has led to rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds. Farmers throughout the East, Midwest, and South have been forced to spray their fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand, and return to more labor intensive methods like regular plowing as a result of the RR superweeds. ‘We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,’ said Eddie Anderson, a farmer from Tennessee, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years.” (op. cit. New York Times, May 3, 2010)
But the development of superweeds vis à vis Roundup Ready corps aside, it remains a basic principle of evolutionary science that the overuse of any given pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide will eventually result in an acquired resistance among targeted life forms.
Although still far from settled, the science is becoming clearer that Glyphosate is somehow associated with birth defects, according to an excellent comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature conducted by the organization, Earth Open Source (website forthcoming).
POLITICAL EROSION OF SOUND ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE
In a recent WIRED article, Genetically Modified Grass Could Make Superweed Problem Worse, Brandon Keim writes
“On July 1 — a Friday afternoon, a time usually reserved for potentially controversial news — the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s herbicide-resistant Kentucky bluegrass would be exempt from tests typically required of transgenic crops.”
Based on a New York Times article, the article makes clear that a very specific regulatory failure has allowed to the USDA to approve a Roundup Ready, genetically modified species of Kentucky Blue grass with no environmental regulation. The reason for this rests upon a history of political expedience and a failure of the imagination. Specific statutory protections are simply absent. In Tom Philpott’s excellent, must read, Wait, Did the USDA Just Deregulate All New Genetically Modified Crops?, he writes,
“Long story short, it means that the USDA theoretically regulates new GMO crops the same way it would regulate, say, a backyard gardener’s new crossbred squash variety. Which is to say, it really doesn’t.”
Without new legislation, we as citizens, will very quickly losing the few legal remedies that allow us resist the further contamination of the natural world by genetically modified crops. Of course, Roundup Ready plants and Glyphosate are just part of a larger story, but it is certainly true that science cannot properly be done absent the political will to implement the findings.
And this brings me to my final point. Inasmuch as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance insists, seemingly in keeping with IPM’s a guiding principles, that its approach is indeed knowledge-based, that practitioners improve as their knowledge increases, then, in light of the material linked above, what is to become of Glyphosate’s listing as a viable tool for sustainable winegrowers? The time has come, this writer believes, to remove this chemical from consideration. It cannot be part of any sustainable practice. The science does not support it. Very simple.
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.
The dust may have settled around the civil case of Kevin Kohlman versus Roseburg Forest Products, but not the herbicides. Fate and transport issues remain. Indeed, in this interview with the expert witness in the case, Dr. Susan Kegley of the Pesticide Research Institute, we learn of a surprising new twist, one of potentially even greater import than that of herbicide drift as it has so far been discussed in my series: Surface and groundwater contamination.
Drift falling directly onto a vineyard, whether upon initial application or through secondary volatilization, is only one of the modes of errant herbicide transport. It may often happen that a herbicide finds its way into the primary irrigation sources used for a crop.
Though in the Kohlman’s case, we saw prima facie evidence of a helicopter spray application clearly done contrary to label recommendations – as shown in a photo included in part 2 of my interview with the gentleman – the jury came back with a reasonable doubt. How are we to explain their decision? Apart from claims that the defendant, Roseburg Forest Products, frustrated discovery and massaged evidence, of an apparent Voir Dire violation during jury selection, and the judge’s refusal to allow relevant information into evidence, Dr. Kegley mentions an additional possible source of doubt. Perhaps it was that too few water samples were taken from the Kohlman’s irrigation sources, for herbicide contamination was strongly indicated in their holding reservoir. The idea is that both drift and improper herbicide applications, on snow melt for example, were potential contamination pathways. It bears repeating that none of the herbicides found in the Legacy vineyard were used by the Kohlmans.
Here as well does Dr. Kegley provide a crash course on what might be called the culture of the EPA; she sketches the health concerns surrounding herbicides commonly used in forestry; and offers insight into the scientific spirit. With even ’sustainable’ farming is at risk, of the dire consequences of drift and water contamination on organics, including finished organic wine, she say with classic understatement, “It’s not good press, put it that way.” Of course, her work is far more multifaceted. I strongly encourage readers to visit her company’s website, the Pesticide Research Institute, to learn more.
Please read the newspaper report Dying on the Vine for critical background. For previous installments of this series, please see Herbicides.
Admin I am working on the matter of herbicide drift and I was hoping you might help. My research began when looking into a case out of Oregon, the Douglas County area, involving a winery, Legacy Vineyards.
Dr. Susan Kegley I was the expert witness on that case.
You know, it was the funniest thing. During my conversation with Mr. Tupper of the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) a short time ago and he mentioned your familiarity with drift issues and the herbicides in that case. It is a remarkable coincidence that you were in fact the expert witness!
Dr. SK (laughs) Well, it is one of the few that made it into the papers. A lot of times these cases are settled on the contingency that nobody say anything to the public.
Is that right? I spoke to Steve Renquist. He’s the OSU Extension agent, and he went into considerable depth. He mentioned nothing about such a contingency. As the expert witness, are you free to speak?
Dr. SK The case is over. As for speaking, I was never told not to. He lost. So there is no settlement.
Yes. In that case it came down to reasonable doubt about the source of the herbicides.
Dr. SK Yes. Herbicides are used for more than one thing. The question in that case was where did these things come from. There were other uses of herbicides, but they were all further away. And the wind wasn’t blowing in the right direction to get them into Kevin Kohlman’s vineyard.
And even if one assumes roadside spraying alone might have had some effect, it certainly wouldn’t have resulted in the death of so many 1000s of vines. One of Mr. Renquist’s points was that because of fairly recent introduction of the wine industry in that part of the world, near Roseburg, that it is going to take some time for negotiations between the timber industry and wineries and grape growers to come to terms with spray drift?
Dr. Susan Kegley That would be an accurate characterization. I think that one of the things that happened to Kevin was that he called his legislator and she said what was he doing trying to grow grapes in timber country anyway? So there are a lot of barriers that need to be broken down before this is given the same weight. If you think about it economically, grapes have the potential to – and are already – contributing pretty heavily to Oregon’s economy. The state would be wise to accommodate as many different economic activities as they can. The Oregon Department of Agriculture really doesn’t think that way now.
It took 4 years for this case to be litigated. Once again relying on my conversation with Mr. Renquist, he suggested that there were perpetual continuances sought by Roseburg Forest Products. Is that your observation as well?
Dr. Susan Kegley I wasn’t privy to the day to day legal details about why it took forever. (laughs) But that sounds correct. They kept asking for the case to be dismissed.
The idea was to wear down Mr. Kohlman. Maybe this guy will just go away.
Dr. SK Yes. But he wasn’t interested in giving up and going away.
When did you come into the case? And your responsibility was to perform scientific assays of plant tissue?
Dr. SK Perhaps it was in the summer of 2008. No, there were 2 main things: Providing testimony on whether pesticides and herbicides can move from one place to another, the fate and transport of a compound after you release it from the spray rig; and then the other was to talk about damage characteristic of those particular herbicides.
So it was principally Oust and Velpar. Is that correct?
Dr. SK Yes.
But there has also been talk of 2,4,D and Garlon. I’ve been told these are used in smaller applications, a rancher spraying a fence line, for example.
Dr. SK No. They use those a lot in forestry.
And they are often used in aerial spraying?
Dr. SK Yes.
I’ve read the product sheets for a number of these herbicides. And 2,4,D was specifically recommended for grasses…
Dr. SK It’s mostly used for broadleaf plants. You may have looked a label that is specific to roadside spraying. Several 2,4,D products are made for targeting different markets, including forestry applications.
Perhaps this is merely inflammatory, but my understanding is that the product is related to Agent Orange. Is that correct?
Dr. SK Yes and no. It’s got one fewer chlorine atom than Agent Orange does. Agent Orange is a mixture of 2,4,D and 2,4,5,T. Both of those products are contaminated with Dioxins and other really carcinogenic substances. In theory they’ve gotten most of the contaminants out of the production process, so it is not clear whether that is still an issue. The EPA usually spends some time talking about impurities, and I haven’t looked at that assessment lately, but they seem to have gotten it down to the point where the EPA is not concerned about it anymore.
Were you to estimate the percentage of these chemicals, Oust,Velpar, 2,4,D, and Garlon, used by the forest products industry, where would 2,4,D fit in?
Dr. SK It is one of the main ones. People are moving away from ester formulations of 2,4,D, which is very volatile and does really drift. But that was one of the products we found that was used in the Kohlman case. They are not out of circulation.
A lot was made of the elevation of the helicopters seen spraying herbicides on the clearcut above the Kohlman’s property. The article mentioned spraying being done at 90 feet when the recommended altitude is far lower. But then there is the question of secondary volatilization on subsequent days, and as a result of environmental events, rain and wind for example. Is there science on the secondary volatility of these compounds?
Dr. SK Yes, and that is mostly what the Drift Catcher program Karl [Tupper] and I together worked on over at PAN, volatilization drift. The 2,4,D ester formulation does do volatilization drift, and most of the other chemicals used in forestry; Garlon might be the next most volatile. Certainly Oust, sulfometuron-methyl, they’re not volatile at all. They are not going to volatilize after application. So if you’re finding Oust and sulfometuron-methyl it is almost certainly from spray drift.
Herbicide Toxicity and Transport
The subject is vast and very complicated. And bringing bad news to one’s readership is often met with a shrug. The wine community tends to be upbeat, and a bit on the conservative side. In any event, someone wouldn’t buy vineyard property in complete isolation from all local services. Neither would virtually any business. So it is more likely that there is patchwork of land ownership nearer towns and cities. So with respect to drift upon application and drift from secondary volatilization after application, many more people and farmers are potentially affected by timber industry herbicide use than simply Mr. Kohlman and his vineyard. Now one of the issues OSU Extension agent Mr. Renquist could not address are the health risks associated with these chemicals. Could you speak to that matter?
Dr. SK 2,4,D is on the list of possible carcinogens.
Is that because of Dioxin contamination?
Dr. SK Probably, but it’s not really clear. Very few of the tests have actually been done with very pure 2,4,D. And then the question becomes whether someone is using pure 2,4,D in the products. And that is not clear either. There is certainly still some Dioxin contamination. That’s the issue with 2,4,D. It is also an endocrine disrupter. There is a fair amount of evidence that shows that it interferes with reproduction in amphibians for sure, and potentially humans as well.
Garlon, at high enough doses, causes birth defects. And again, are you going to get enough from spray drift to have that effect? We’re not sure. It depends on the particular incident. All of these herbicides can make their way into groundwater. They are all potential groundwater contaminants. You run the risk of exposure through both air and water when living in the area, particularly if you’re on a well.
Oust and sulfometuron-methyl have relatively low toxicity to humans, but a super high toxicity to plants. So that anything that depends on plants for food – like grape growers and vineyard owners – (laughs) it’s particularly problematic. But it not so much of human health risk. Or even fish or aquatic organisms, or birds, anything like that, not the data I’ve looked at anyway. There are always more studies that can be done, but basically it comes out pretty clean on those studies.
And then Atrazine is also on the list of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Its been a big deal at EPA. People have been trying to get EPA to regulate it, but it’s billions of dollars a year for Syngenta, the company that makes it. EPA has trouble making decisions about chemicals like that.
Whose Science Is It Anyway?
There is also the question of synergistic effects. Everything is tested on a chemical by chemical basis, but in the chemical bath an industrial agricultural area can be, it seems somewhat futile to analyze each in isolation.
Dr. SK But we have no data on the testing. No one has tested them as mixtures even though they are often formulated as mixtures of active ingredients in the products. It is another failing of our regulatory system although I do not want them to spend the next 50 years doing the tests on the mixtures! I would like to see them move to something besides the more toxic herbicides and pesticides.
That raises another question about whose science is it? I mean, Monsanto is infamous for its ability to skew and bend research protocols to already preconceived ends, if I may put it that way. I’m trying to be diplomatic here. So how do results from your organization, the Pesticide Research Institute, confront the often proprietary research done in university labs, for example, by companies like Syngenta and Monsanto? In other words, how can science be done if the scientific protocols and results are not publicly known?
Dr. SK Well, EPA uses a certain set of data to register the pesticide/herbicide, to make the decision to allow it to be used. That’s public. Or at least EPA’s interpretation of it is public. We don’t get to look at the actual studies. EPA’s staff writes it up, and that is what’s made available. So we have that data. We’re really relying on the agency to do a good job of that. But that does not always happen, that’s for sure.
Where you have some help is with independent researches, mostly at universities, who are studying the effects of these chemicals as well. The problem is that for someone trying to get research money, funding for research on these things, it’s not a particularly sexy topic. So it is not well-funded. It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re doing the same studies that a billion other people have done. You’re not learning anything new.’ And that is the goal of academic research. Tyrone Hayes, who is a professor here at UC Berkeley, has been doing research on Atrazine and its effects on amphibians. He’s finding feminization of male frogs so that they actually have ovaries and eggs. EPA is trying really hard to ignore his evidence. (laughs) EPA has said that it’s an effect that the frogs were feminized, but it’s not an adverse effect!
We certainly don’t have enough information on these chemicals; but we have more than we do on a lot of chemicals. And that’s helpful. We have enough to know that we shouldn’t be using some of them. From the angle of the grape growers, these really toxic and persistent herbicides and pesticides, like Oust and sulfometuron-methyl, because they just don’t go away for years, they really should be reserved for very, very select uses where you don’t really want anything growing anywhere! There are not too many of those situations. Certainly not steep hillsides with forests and soil!
It is not clear in the Kevin Kohlman case. Certainly drift played a part. But it is also possible that the ground water he was using for his vines may have been contaminated. There were not enough water samples taken to really confirm that.
Can it be said that EPA evaluations take into consideration ‘extra-scientific’ considerations? From the outcome of the Kohman trial, for example, it’s clear that it was very difficult for the jurors to overcome reasonable doubt. He didn’t seek a change of venue, perhaps because the Kohlman’s felt completely confident in the quality of their scientific evidence they had amassed. [See the interview with Mr. Kohlman, conducted after this, for his reasons in not seeking a change of venue. It had, among other reasons, to do with the requirements of a civil suit. -Admin].
Dr. SK Do you know what happened, though? The jury foreman who, once selected, and having sat through the whole trial, he died the night before, or very soon before the verdict was made. The person who was the alternate – and I’m telling you what I heard from the attorneys – had worked for the forest service in the past; but he had not revealed that during the Voir Dire, the jury selection process. He had apparently made some comment like ‘I’ve worked with herbicides all my life. There is nothing wrong with them.’ Had he said that during the Voir Dire process he would have been excluded from the jury. There were all kinds of things that didn’t work out quite right.
Yes. I read in Marie-Monique Robin’s The World According to Monsanto it often happens that chemical company executives, whether from Monsanto or Syngenta, others perhaps, bounce around from private to public service. It is not unusual for someone to go from an elevated position within Monsanto to the EPA, for example. That’s what I’m getting at. It seems that there is an extra element here that vitiates the science. So my question is how does one work to make science triumph as opposed to political expediency and convenience.
Dr. SK That’s a really good question. If I knew the answer to that… (laughs) But that is the key question. The hires that are made at EPA, even at the staff level, are vetted by industry, at least that’s what I hear from inside the agency. I have not confirmed that myself, but I know someone pretty high up in the agency who said that during the Bush years there was a lot of this, even among fairly low-level staff positions, this vetting by the industry. The thing is, political appointments can only take you so far. Your staff has to made up of good scientists. They have to believe in protecting public health. You can change the upper-level by political appointments but the staff, they’re government employees, so they’re impossible to change. If you get someone who isn’t a good scientist and who doesn’t care about public health protection, you will be out of luck for many years.
Ultimately you will be found out, whether through the Freedom of Information Act or peer review of your work, presumably…
Dr. SK It’s really hard to distinguish between crappy work and someone with a bias.
With respect to Oust and Velpar, one of them, perhaps both, that among the scientific experiments concerning drift involved applying them under ideal circumstances, in this case on a table top landscape, the plains of Texas, rather than the rugged, mountainous landscape of Roseburg Forest Products’ Oregon. There the temperature changes at elevation, as does the wind and fog, heat gradients, the presence of water, and so on. That would seem to suggest that instructions for the application of herbicides are short-sighted, to say the least. Experimental conditions differ significantly from the real world. So what are we to make of label instructions?
Dr. SK True. That’s exactly right, every bit of it. (laughs) EPA exercises its control over pesticide/herbicide risk through the label. And the label specifies certain application conditions. But there is no one checking. There is very little enforcement, put it that way. No one comes by with any frequency to check if your application is being done correctly; whether you have the proper nozzle size; whether you are applying when the winds are low enough or high enough to prevent drift. It’s a house of cards set up on a label which can’t be enforced. Or it isn’t being enforced. It doesn’t work.
Crop Sensitivity And Organic Woes
What is it about a grapevine that makes it particularly susceptible to these toxins, these herbicides?
Dr. SK There are several different mechanisms of action for these herbicides. Grapes grow really fast during their season. And many of the mechanisms of action of the herbicides are inhibiting some pathway for a vine’s growth. They are particularly sensitive. There are probably many other crops similarly sensitive, but since they are growing a lot of grapes in that area you’re seeing the effects in a vineyard first. In California there have been issues with prune and plum trees, orchard crops, with herbicide drift. They are still finding herbicides used on rice in damaged prune trees 10 miles away. So, grapes aren’t unique; but they are fast-growing and therefore are pretty susceptible.
My understanding is that the levels required to do significant damage are quite low, down to parts per billion. It mortality high at such levels, or is it damage from which a plant could recover?
Dr. SK There is damage from which the plant could recover but you might lose your yield for the year, lose your harvest altogether. I think what Kevin Kohlman was seeing was that established vines would suffer damage, but not die. But the new vines couldn’t handle it at all. They died.
What happens to one’s organic certification when herbicide drift is implicated in crop damage?
Dr. SK They can’t market their crop. Their certification doesn’t usually get revoked because it’s not their fault. Another case I did involved Larry Jacobs who owns Jacob’s Farm Del Cabo out of Pescadero, California. He was getting drifted on by brussel spout pesticide applications that were upwind of him. He would periodically test his crops just to be sure he’s not adding pesticide residues. I think he has to some of that for marketing. Once he detected residue from brussel sprout drift, he couldn’t market his crops for a couple of years.
Grapes are somewhat different. You don’t necessarily test the grapes directly. And from those grapes a wine is made. In your scientific opinion, can herbicide and pesticide residues end up in the finished wine?
Dr. SK Yes. I’ve seen some data on that. There are some that make it in. In fact, there were such residues in Kevin Kohlman’s wine. 2,4,D was found in his wine. That’s not good. So growers really do need to worry about that because, well, it’s not good press, put it that way. I’m not sure whether the FDA tests wine, whether I’ve seen the data there, but there have been several publications on different food crops, and wine was one of them. Yes, it’s an issue.
Are the tests expensive?
Dr. SK Yes. About $300 a sample.
There was a instance of this recently. I read of an enterprising couple of wine bloggers who took what is known in the trade as a ‘natural’ wine made in Washington State, the Walla Walla area, where winegrowers have had difficulties with orchardists and wheat growers, and they submitted it for testing. Now, let me first add that as far as I’ve been able to determine, winegrowers do not necessarily want to know if they have drift issues, even when an orchard or wheat field is very near their vineyard. So the wine bloggers did submit a sample of the wine but only, as far as I know, for the testing of volatile acidity, bioamines, levels of which would cause spoilage or would at the very least suggest poor winery hygiene and quality control. They did not look for pesticide or herbicide residues. If one were to do a test does it cost $300 per compound sought?
Dr. SK No. There is a lab that we use for our air monitoring work. They do a multi-residue scan for about 130 pesticides for about $350 a sample.
Are you an avid wine drinker?
Dr. SK I am, indeed!
And finally, would you tell me how you arrived at your profession?
Dr. SK I have a Ph.D in Organic Chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After graduating in 1982, I taught in academia for 14 years, and did research on organometallic chemistry; nobody knows what that is. (laughs) Then I became very interested in doing environmentally-related chemistry. I then reoriented my research program to start looking at fate and transport of chemicals in the environment. I moved to Berkeley in 1992 and started an environmental chemistry program there, a curriculum development program to get the students using state-of-the-art instrumentation and doing their own projects. They would go out in the field, take the samples, bring them to the lab and learn how to do the analyses. They would learn the whole process, along with data interpretation.”
One of our experiments was on strawberries. We went to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s lab that does such analyses. After doing our work, it really changed their opinions about what they were eating. When you can see the chemicals on your food, it makes it very real.
In 1998 a job opened up at PAN, the Pesticide Action Network. I took it. And I have been doing pesticide research ever since.
Thank you very much for your time.
Dr. SK Good luck. It’s important for this information to get out to the public.
Here is offered the conclusion of my interview with Kevin Kohlman of Legacy Vineyards. I spoke with the gentleman as he drove along I-5 as it threads it’s way through southern Oregon. Ironically, he was Just passing near Roseburg, returning from a consulting job in California’s Bay Area. In his former life he was a chemical engineer. And owing to the financial calamity following upon his failed lawsuit against Roseburg Forest Products, I was surprised to learn he’s had to come out of retirement. Here you will read how he sees the future of the timber industry and of Legacy Vineyards. You will read further details of the cozy relationship between government and Big Timber. And you will get an idea of his indomitable spirit in the face of the potential of further damaging herbicide drift. For Oregon is his home. No timber baron is going to drive him away. This time he’ll ready for them.
Previous posts in this series:
Herbicide Drift And An Oregon Vineyard
Oregon Herbicide Politics, Part 1
Admin I presume spraying will resume in March and April. How do you plan to approach it this time?
Kevin Kohlman If we see damage in the vineyard we definitely now have the list of experts. And if we can get into the vineyard early enough when the damage occurs, we can put together information and absolute, rock solid evidence such that there could be no doubts as to where the herbicide came from. But you’ve got to remember it’s kind of like a quarterback: I should have thrown the ball to the guy on the left side of the field instead of the right. So I lost the Super Bowl. We never get to live in hindsight.
About the time we got to the point where we could really collect data, and the experts could do something, because of their summary judgement delays in the court system, and because of the delays by the Department of Ag, we were way past the time when we could have gotten effective scientific data. In hindsight, if I had it to do over again, the only thing I’d do differently is that I would have the right experts on top of it from a sampling standpoint.
But the thing you’ve got to realize is that if I have a notice that they plan to spray 14 different products, it gets costly. Let’s say I have one of Dr. Kegley’s Drift Catchers in my vineyard, and I ran that thing 365 days a year, when I get a notice that they’re going to spray 14 products, each one of the 14 analyses is about $1,000. So if I have 14 products on one notice, I have to run 14 tests at a cost of $14,000 just looking for the product that killed vines. And if I have 12 notices, each with a list of 14 products – and not all of them overlap – I could have a $40,000 bill just running a test to say, ‘Yup, we found herbicide in the air around your vineyard”. And then comes the question of how do I tell which one of those products killed my vines followed by figuring out where the herbicide came from.
So what needs to change is that the Departments of Ag and Forestry needs to say that they will not allow a timber industry notice to merely read that they plan to spray 14 products sometime with the year. They need to insist that the timber industry tell them exactly what they plan to spray and when they plan to spray it, say within a two week period. Then someone could catch somebody drifting herbicide. But the fact that the Department of Forestry doesn’t do that tells me that they don’t want anybody to find drifting herbicide.
Testing is very expensive, and then tracking it back to the point of origin is otherwise very difficult.
Where would you estimate Roseburg Forest Products is in the cycle of the clearcut above your vineyard? How tall are the replanted trees? And what is the life expectancy of the replanting before it is again harvested?
KK Well, typically they’ve got a 40 year turn. They harvested that clearcut directly above us in 2003. They sprayed it for the first time in 2004, and we were damaged. They sprayed it again in 2005, and we were devastated. They sprayed it again in 2006, and we were hit because we had evidence of new product. So, in other words, every time they’ve sprayed that clearcut, even when they’ve sprayed the roads by hand, we’ve been hit. But if you called Roseburg Forest Products tomorrow and asked them what they sprayed on this township range and section, they could look at you and say, “Go jump off a bridge! We’re not going to tell you that information.” And the Department of Ag can’t make them tell you that information either. The Department of Ag doesn’t even know!
They make no effort to know.
KK Well, they don’t know. They’ll tell you they don’t gather that information. They cite budget cuts, blah, blah, blah. The days of excuses have got to end. You want to talk about anger, if I could get the ear of the Legislature and the Governor’s office I would tell them that these two departments, Forestry and Agriculture, need to be eliminated tomorrow. If they want to save money in the budget? Get rid of them. They do nothing.
I mean, how many public feet of timber has been harvested in the last 5 years? Zero. It’s all private timber. so the only thing the Department of Forestry really does is make sure that the taxes from the private timber harvested gets collected. That’s about all they do. They are little more than an expensive tax collection agency. (laughs)
My understanding is that there will be other vineyard properties moving in over the years. Steve Renquist mentioned that there will be additional pressure on the forest products industry generally because the area is very good for growing wine grapes. That the quality is there. And that wineries, too, can be a source of revenue, as can the hospitality industry with hotels, wine tours, and the like. Can the Oregon state government be persuaded that there is an important economic argument to be made in favor of the wine industry?
KK Well, again, I’ll quote you back what Ms. Morgan [former legislator] said to me, “What are you doing growing grapes in timber country?” As long as the Legislature and the government officials think that timber is the only option for Oregon, the wine business can pretty much go jump the fence.
So the government is willing to close the door to economic diversity in the agricultural sector just for the sake of the forest products industry?
KK Who owns the Legislature? If I drive to Salem, Oregon and I park right across from the Director of Natural Resources’ office, I’ve parked in front of a multi-million dollar building that was donated by Hallie Ford, Alan Ford’s mother. [Alan Ford is president of Roseburg Forest Products] It’s called the Hallie Ford Art Museum. So I got a real clear message about where I stand in this process. I know exactly where I stand in this battle. If the justice system isn’t going to step in and make sure things are done right, and if the economics of the litigation itself means somebody’s got to have a million dollars in their pocket for a lawsuit, and unless you have a hit like mine where it’s 3.5 million dollars in losses, who is going to try? And those are hard dollar losses – there’s no soft stuff in there – it’s all economic and market leadership. I was the second vineyard in Oregon to plant Tempranillo. How much market leadership do you think I’ve lost? So what if somebody has a vineyard and their loss is only three or four rows? For that year maybe it’s a $20,000 or $30,000 loss. Do you think they are stupid enough to go to court to try and stop the herbicide drift? It would not be a financially sound decision. The system is set up to make sure it’s not a financially sound decision to go to litigation.
The public right now thinks they’ve got a Department of Ag, and they’ve got this investigative group, they must be making sure the public is safe. But I’m in the background screaming that their investigation is a joke! Here’s their investigation on the 2,4,D issue… are you ready?
Go for it.
KK A representative from the Department of Agriculture got on the phone, called Roseburg Forest Products and asked them if they sprayed 2,4,D and Garlon on the road at the top of the Tyee Resources clearcut. And they said no, they didn’t. They said they had no records that showed they sprayed up there at all. End of investigation. Investigation closed. They didn’t pull one sample from up there. But the Department of Ag pulled samples from my vineyard. Don’t you think the protocols of an investigation should be that if you suspect herbicide drift came from some place you can see, wouldn’t you go to that place and see if the same products show up in the test?
That would seem to be basic science.
KK Well, that basic science wasn’t done by our highly paid investigative agency, paid millions of dollars by the EPA to investigate label violations! I’m going to go one better for you because you’ve got me rolling now. (laughs) I have photographs that were taken by the Department of Agriculture when they were “monitoring” the spraying by Roseburg Forest Products. They were called by Roseburg Forest Products to come out and monitor a clearcut being sprayed. This was in 2009, I believe, or 2007; I’m not sure which. But I have the photos. The pictures taken by the Department are of a helicopter flying over a snow-covered clearcut, with fog laying in the valley below. And the helicopter is more than 200 feet off the ground.
All three of those elements are label violations.
KK They are actually not violations, and this is where the public is not educated. The are not violations. In fact they are in the suggestions section of the EPA’s label on the herbicides. It says you shouldn’t spray under these conditions because there is a high potential for drift. That’s exactly what the label says. It does not say do not spray; it merely suggests that doing so creates the strong possibility for drift. The only label, the Oust label – sulfometuron methyl is the generic version – the one says do not spray frozen ground or water. In my opinion, and here again, it’s a gray area, if the ground being sprayed is covered with snow, does that qualify as ‘frozen ground’ or ‘water’? (laughs)
Now, this investigative agency, paid by the EPA and my public tax dollars, that took these photos, there was nothing written up that there was a suggestion of a high potential for drift. There was nothing written up on site by the Department of Ag saying to the Roseburg Forest Products people that there was fog indicating an inversion and therefore drift. And this when there had been gathered evidence of drifting! Nothing like that was written up from their report.
It sounds as though each party was acting with a sense of impunity.
KK Exactly. They are not accountable for anything with respect to their positions. I believe they are in collusion. I mean, if they would have just made a statement about the photograph that said the present conditions indicate inversion, that there was snow on the ground, and the helicopter is more than 10 feet above the crop being sprayed, all indications of the high potential for herbicide drift; if they had just made that statement I would have never gone to court. I would never have lost $500,000. But they did not do that. And that is what the public needs to hear. That’s what the public needs to know. We are relying on this agency, the Department of Agriculture, to do its job. But they are not.
I’ve called for the EPA to shut off their funding of the agency, as an enforcement agency. I’ve suggested they hire a third party, an environmental fate group to do the monitoring. [environmental fate refers to the fate of a substance following its release into the environment. It includes the movement and persistence of the substance. Admin] I’ve yet to hear back from them.
You want to light up somebody’s anger, you’ve done it.
I must say I’m astonished. In my conversation with Steve Renquist, he spoke of how there might be reasonable solutions to issues like this through neighborly conversations, and greater public awareness of safe herbicide application; that knowledge would somehow win the day. But it is quite obvious the political and timber culture frustrates neighborly negotiation.
KK And here’s the other funny part. Whenever I’ve gone to the Departments of Ag or Forestry and asked for records, I’ve had to fill out the Public Information Request form. And they tried to charge me money for that. But anyway, what I find really odd is that in 2007 I found out we got a lab sample back that Steve Renquist collected – he’d collected a sample back in 2005 at the same time as the defendant’s guys pulled samples, leaf for leaf. Steve collected a sample because he didn’t trust the way their tissue for analysis was being collected. So he collected samples right next to their guy and saved them in Oregon State’s pathology freezer. He said they would be there if I ever needed them to be run by a third party for analysis.
Throughout this investigation Steve Renquist, in my opinion, has been an absolutely shining star. He is the only individual who actually did something in my case. Before we were at a point where we needed more evidence, I said to him we should send the samples in. He did all the chain of custody forms and sent them into this lab that does nothing but analyze agricultural tissue samples. It’s called Pacific Ag Labs. We got back the analysis from Pacific Ag Labs that showed Oust and Velpar were both in the tissue samples. One was at 16 parts per billion, the other one was at 17 or 18 parts per billion, which is a significant amount seeing how that test was taken more than 120 days after the hit. We got the report back and I called Dale Mitchell [co-chair of PARC, Oregon Dept. of Ag, Pesticide Division, Pesticide Analytical Response Center] and said I’d like them to reopen their investigation. He asked on what grounds. I told him I had received the lab results from the exact same tissue samples that were pulled by everybody else. It shows the products they say they sprayed in the clearcuts. A meeting was scheduled. I went up, sat in his office, and we went through the documents. He took my documents, and he said that while they couldn’t promise to reopen the investigation, he would take a hard look at what I had given him. You want to know what he did with it?
I’m afraid to ask.
KK He handed it to Roseburg Forest Products. He gave it to Tim Miller, who is their attorney for their insurance company. He got all of those documents. So now, before trial, he got to go through all of those documents and prepare a defense to try and fight Pacific Ag Labs’ testing analyses. So when someone starts talking to me about why I didn’t go ahead and file the appeal, I tell them it’s like fighting the mob.
So on December 14th our litigation ended, and I’ve moved on.
But in the back of your mind you’re streamlining a process of how you might proceed with litigation should the herbicide drift happen again. Is that fair to say?
KK If I have another hit of herbicide, I would fight this again. I mean, I have to fight it. This is my home. This is where I live. I’m not going to be run off my property like they were in the 1800s by the railroad companies. This is the same kind of deal. I have no doubt that there are people inside of Roseburg Forest Products who would love nothing more than to spray straight in the air and wipe me out once and for all. So, if I can catch them at it. Beautiful. But you know and I know that if they have a full year to spray when ever they want, to spray whatever products they want – and for them to spray by a 20 acre clearcut by helicopter takes them about 20 minutes – how am I going to catch them? I get notice of a spray but have no idea when. so what do I do? Stay at home everyday with a video camera and wait for them fire up a helicopter?
So the Department of Ag’s notification system must be tightened up. Companies have to be made to specify exactly what they plan to spray and in what time period, a reasonable time period where Drift Catchers could be set out by the Department of Agriculture, out of their budget, on an adjoining commercial operation. It would protect them so that later on if there is a hit, there is some hard evidence by a neutral third party so that the thing would never go to court.
It sounds as though the current tangle of regulations, the overlap and confusion, is essentially designed to provide cover for the forest products industry.
KK Absolutely. Absolutely.
Don’t you have a sneaking suspicion that the outrages are simply so extreme, so egregious, that they can’t help, if well publicized, but goad regional and state government into action?
KK No. I believe there is a big problem there. Number one: An awful lot of people on what I’m going to call the environmentalist side, they don’t stay in science. There’s a lot of people who say they’re sick, their joints hurt; they go into all of these touchy-feely scenarios that the spray has harmed them. In my opinion that has hurt the fact that the strong science that’s here indicates an awful lot of damage is being done to our environment that we can actually measure. Lets stay in science.
I’ve a commercial vineyard and I’ve been wiped out by these products because you cannot keep them where you say you are putting them. So rather than get out into all the touchy-feely stuff, ‘we’re worried about the salmon’… the point is we can’t scientifically prove right now that Oust levels of 16 parts per billion damage a watershed. We can’t do that right now. But I can sure as hell tell you that 16 parts per billion of Oust, when it drifts off the property target site and hits my vineyard, wipes me out. That’s science. (laughs)
We must find ways to make the Departments of Ag and Forestry liable when these products go off target. That means that if there is a property line, and you set up a Drift Catcher one inch on the other side of that property line, when a guy sprays from a helicopter and that Drift Catcher detects the product, Bam!, there’s a liability issue. Guess what? You wouldn’t have aerial spraying of these products in a way that is going to harm other people. It would eliminate that industry.
I’m kind of the tip of the iceberg. The biggest problem right now is that nobody is being devastated as I was. Can you imagine the impact to organic farming just to the State of Oregon if the word got out to the public that you had uncontrolled herbicide sprays that are not being tested for? When an agricultural product is certified organic, have they tested it for sulfometuron methyl? It can travel 26 miles. The organic farmers don’t want that to get out. So people are concerned but they don’t want to make a big deal out of it because that can hurt their market. How can you certify anybody in Oregon if the Department of Ag is this loose with their interpretation of labels?
Did I give you enough information to chew on for a bit? (laughs)
Good lord, I’m gagging. You are like a man without a country.
KK ‘Rock and a hard place’; ‘You were here.’ (laughs)
So why were you recently in the Bay Area?
KK To earn back my half a million dollars that I lost in the trial, plus the 3 1/2 million from the business, I’m back in the consulting industry. I’m actually a chemical engineer by trade. Right now I’m doing consulting work inside a refinery! (laughs) I should be enjoying my retirement, but instead I’m working to pay back my retirement fund that I spent on the litigation.
It’s been an extraordinary pleasure speaking with you.
KK If you know people who can help get the story out, have them call me. I would love folks to hear this story over and over.
I’ll do my best.
Oregon wineries enjoy a reputation as among the greenest in the nation. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic, the state seems to have it all, and in abundance. But is this reputation truly deserved? As the case of Kevin Kohlman vs Roseburg Forest Products grimly demonstrates, all is not well in the Pacific Northwest. And here is why. Herbicides widely employed by the timber industry routinely drift from their targeted crop, replantings on clearcuts in the main. In fact, herbicides applied even under the best conditions, which minimally means in accordance with label instructions, are known to drift considerable distances, not merely upon their initial application, but also because of secondary volatilization. The compromising truth is that, according to evidence gathered by winemaker Kevin Kohlman, the Oregon timber industry writes its own rules. Labeled instructions are only marginally observed; little transparency exists with respect to the herbicides sprayed and at what times; injured parties are met by disabling financial burdens should they seek legal redress. And all the above is sustained by a deep-seated political culture dedicated to protecting the timber industry at the expense of all others.
Hit by herbicides? Let us imagine you’re an organic vegetable or winegrower. Detectable levels of forestry herbicides guarantee decertification. Perhaps you grow herbs or flowers. Better quietly replant. Maybe cane fruit is your crop. Blame failure on the spotted wing drosophila. But what of even the conventional grower who notices herbicide damage to rows of their non-tree crop? They may have been able to resolve the matter with their immediate neighbor, a friendly rancher just across the fence, but not if the ‘neighbor’ shares the business philosophy of Roseburg Forest Products.
Here offered is part 1 of a two-part interview with Kevin Kohlman, a winemakers’ education and cautionary tale if there was ever one. It requires having read Dying on the vine and my earlier post Herbicide Drift And An Oregon Vineyard. Part 2 will appear before the end of the week.
Admin I can’t begin to understand all that you and your wife Karen have been through. Could you very broadly characterize your experience with Roseburg Forest Products these past few years?
Kevin Kohlman In 2004 we were lightly hit with herbicides. But no one knew that it was herbicides. None of the telltale characteristics occurred. It kind of looked like it might be herbicides, it could have been a disease; we didn’t know. We called in Steve Renquist, the OSU Extension agent, and he came out but couldn’t put his finger on the cause of our vines’ distress. That year we lost about 1,200 plants, unproductive for the growing season. There was damage but we didn’t actually have deaths.
It was in July of 2005 that we really got hammered. That was when the vineyard was totally devastated. Mature plants, re-plants, everything got wiped. That’s when everything hit the fan. We again called Steve Renquist out and he said it looked like herbicide. Then the question was asked, “Who owns that clearcut above you?” Of course, I had no idea. So I was told by the OSU Extension to get in touch with the Oregon State Department of Forestry; they could tell me the ownership of the clearcut and whether there had been spray notices published, and all that. That’s what started us down the process.
We found out it was owned by Roseburg Forest Products. Turns out I actually belong to the same Rotary Club as as Alan Ford [President of Roseburg Forest Products]. I called Alan out of the Rotary directory. He reassured me and said he would send his guys out to the vineyard. If there was a problem he said they’d take care of it. They came out and started looking at the systems and were trying to figure out if it was herbicides they had sprayed. They immediately said that the damage to my vineyard didn’t look like their herbicide. They then claimed they sprayed only Oust and Velpar in their clearcut. They told me that the damage looked like 2,4,D and Garlon.
The Turning Point
They claimed to only use Oust and Velpar?
KK Yes. That is what they stated. I wasn’t very educated on herbicides at that time, or forestry operations for that matter, so I told them I didn’t know the differences between damage caused by one herbicide and another. But what kicked it off was that I checked will all the neighbors. The Extension agent and the Department of Agriculture investigator said they didn’t find evidence of any sprays used by my immediate neighbors that could do this kind of damage to my vineyard. In fact, the Department of Agriculture said they were fairly certain that the herbicide came from the clearcut. The clearcut is located directly above us; and it has a funnel shape that dumps right down off of the foothill right onto my ranch.
There was no litigation at that point. We went back and forth, Roseburg Forests Products and I; we were just working together like neighbors. I finally just asked what is it you actually spray? Again they said only Velpar and Oust. So I asked them for spray records. Dan Newton [manager of land and timber for Roseburg Forest Products], one of the people they had out there, said he would not share Roseburg’s spray records with me. He said it was a precedent he didn’t want to set. I immediately had a trust issue, right there. I said, ‘now wait a minute. I’ve been very open with you guys. I’ve let you on my property; I’ve let you pull samples. Now you won’t share your spray records with me?!’ That’s when the trust issue started.
They continued to insist the damage to my vineyard was caused by 2,4,D and Garlon which they claimed not to use. Then they brought in Dr. Cobb who said the same thing. I asked him how he knew it was 2,4,D and Garlon. He said he could just tell. I asked whether he could tell the difference between damage caused by those herbicides and the others. Yes, he said. I came to find out later that you really can’t tell the difference. Unless you test the herbicide residues themselves, you can’t tell which herbicide has caused the problem. Now I’ve got another trust issue on my hands, you know what I’m saying? I knew this process wasn’t going where we need it to go.
So again I asked where did the herbicides come from? They didn’t just magically appear. They said that as far as their investigation was concerned, they didn’t spray the products that damaged my vineyard. Conversation over. I said, “No it isn’t!” I was to then find out from the Department of Agriculture that I had 60 days from the time that I first noticed damage to file a report of loss, otherwise you cannot sue in the State of Oregon.
So even while you are undertaking neighborly negotiations the clock is ticking.
KK Right. Once you notice damage, or more than 50% of your crop is harvested, you know longer have legal recourse in civil court if you haven’t filed a report of loss. So I again called Alan [Ford]. I told him I had to file this report of loss with the Dept. of Ag, a public document, and I really don’t want to do that. I said I still felt we could figure out what was going on in my vineyard. He basically said, ‘You gotta do what you gotta do’.
So there I was… I’d been lied to twice, and now I’m being told I gotta do what I gotta do. So after letting these guys on my property, letting them get an idea about how they are going to cover up this issue, now they’re kicking me loose. That’s when litigation began. And that is not my style! I’ve never been involved in a court case in my life. To me it was very disappointing seeing folks treat a neighbor that way.
Did you speak with other winegrowers in the area about herbicide drift damage to their vineyards?
KK I did. At that time we were trying to keep everything low key. This was between two neighbors. It was not a dispute for public display. Yes, before the litigation began I asked other growers in the area about damage. Many of them have had damage but most incidences have been very minor, and usually it’s about a neighbor who has sprayed a fence line with Crossbow, something like that. It hasn’t been about an entire vineyard being absolutely devastated.
So Roseburg Forest Products’ court strategy, after gaining intelligence gathered from your vineyard, was to sow reasonable doubt.
KK Right. The way the notification system of the Department of Forestry works in Oregon is that they, a timber company, are required to put in a notice of when they plan to spray. Now, only if I am a subscriber – you have to pay to subscribe – will I get notice. But a typical notification – and I’ve already received 12 notifications this year for sprays within one mile of my vineyard – might list 15 different herbicides. And it says only that they plan to spray, for example, from January 31st of 2011 through December 1st of 2011. The whole system is designed to put so much information down that nobody can ever track what’s going on.
And it’s complicated further by the fact that it sounds like an old boys’ network.
KK From what I can see, absolutely. So the Department of Forestry’s goal is to make sure sprays can happen. I actually had a Department of Forestry Stewardship Forester at a spray close to my property which I videotaped. I was asking him questions about a label. He was spraying Oust, but on the label it says you shouldn’t spray it in fog; you shouldn’t spray it in zero wind; you shouldn’t spray it when there is an indication of an inversion which is fog. He looked at me and said ‘If we followed those labels to the tee, we’d never get to spray.’ And this was a Stewardship Forester! That mentality has gone deep into the Department of Forestry here. And then the Department of Ag in my opinion, basically says that as long as you file the paperwork and you start an investigation with us, they reserve the right to decide whether to investigate. But regardless of whether they investigate, you are given the right to litigate. And that is supposed to be the answer to the problem as far as they are concerned.
So the Department of Agriculture essentially undermines the possibility of a resolution outside of court action should one party refuse to negotiate, even if it can be easily determined who is at fault.
KK Yup. They say they are restricted by law from helping someone find out the source of contamination. But I don’t believe that is correct. I actually had a meeting with the then-Governor’s Director of Natural Resources, Katy Coba, the Director of the Department of Agriculture, and Margaret Brown, the Director of the State Department of Forestry. I told them what was going on here. I told them there has to be a change in the way they do business. And we exchanged letters as well. Their answer back to me in a nutshell was ‘We’ll form a task force to look into that’.
So as far as I am concerned, you could take the State Department of Forestry and the State Department of Agriculture and eliminate both budgets to help our state save money. They don’t do anything. They are charged with enforcement of the labels and enforcement of the Oregon Forest Practices Act, but they don’t actually do it.
At what point did you decide to contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?
KK That was way into litigation. I was able to get ahold of the EPA because through our discovery process we found out that the water in our irrigation pond had some problems. Initially Roseburg Forest Products gave the court only a summary sheet of the testing they had done to the water. They set – you’ll laugh at this – they set the detection limits for herbicides at 5 parts per million! In other words, anything less than 5 ppm would show up as a ‘non-detect’.
What? We know that these herbicides are lethal at parts per billion (ppb).
KK Parts per trillion (ppt)! The best way to explain this to the public, since most people don’t know the difference between ppm, ppb, ppt, is this. You know those truck weigh stations along the hi-way? The difference between a part per million and a part per billion is about the same as detecting the difference in the weight of a sugar packet on one of the big rigs.
So anyway, after the fact, when the actual raw data was examined by Dr. Kegley and others, they said they could not use their data to tell me exactly how much was there. But what they could tell me was that there were herbicides measurable above the ppt range. So Roseburg Forest Products did a great job of hiding information from the court system. (laughs)
And lay people, you and I, we wouldn’t necessarily know all of this. No matter what experts you hire, they only get to review the data put in front of them. Early in the discovery process, we asked for all documents pertaining to the testing on Roseburg’s clearcut and on my vineyard that the defendants performed. And they responded by giving us the summary sheet. Then the lab manager told us when under oath during his deposition, that it was from his research packet that he came up with his summary sheet. Well, after court was over we were reviewing notes and we found a note by Dave Russell, one of the defendant’s agents, that said, “Why Oust levels so high?” This was among his personal phone notes when he was talking to DuPont [Oust's creator]. So we wondered why someone would ask why Oust levels are so high if they came up with a ‘non-detect’ on the summary sheet?
So we took that information through the appeals process, the motion for a mistrial, the whole deal. But ultimately it came down to the fact we had subpoenaed the lab after the trial. But when we subpoenaed the lab we got a three-ring binder three inches thick full of the raw data from their testing. We then found out that not only did they find Oust, Velpar, 2,4,D, and Garlon in the vineyard, but they also found all 4 of those products in their clearcut! Remember, they said they never sprayed 2,4,D, they never sprayed Garlon. Then during our discovery, in 2007 approximately – because Roseburg Forest Products stretched it out so long – we actually had experts with them up on the road on top of that clearcut. The experts pulled samples along the road and found massive amounts of 2,4,D and Garlon. That was a strong indication that they had done road sprays, something on the order of 19,000 parts per billion.
Now, in those years we’ve actually received notices from the Department of Forestry where they stated they would be doing road sprays in our area. But when we asked them under oath for their road spray records, they said they didn’t have any records because they didn’t spray those roads. Somebody nuked that road with 2,4,D and Garlon, and those two will easily vaporize and travel for miles. Studies done in Washington and Oregon on those herbicides found damage done more than 26 miles away.
What was the reason you did not seek a change of venue? I read that 4 Douglas County judges recused themselves. Why did they do this?
KK Well, I was told at the time, and I’ve not investigated it any further, that for a civil court case a change of venue you have to have very compelling reasons why that there will be, for example, a tainted jury. According to my attorneys they felt that just because Roseburg Forest Products is a large employer in the area doesn’t necessarily tell the court that you will be able to get a change of venue, not in civil court. That was a strategic decision because they brought in a judge from out of the area, Jackson County. Although I think that in many ways he was a fair judge, there was so much influence by the judge as to what was permitted and what was excluded as evidence.
After the trial was over my attorneys consulted with some experts in the area, they basically said there was a 90% chance that at appeal this ruling would be overturned and I would get a new trial. It seemed very much in our favor. You might ask ‘Why didn’t you just have a mistrial and got to trial again?’ Right?
KK Ken, I’m going to give you a basic lesson in economics. Number one, I spent $500,000 on litigation; plus I’m at a $3.5 million loss just to the business. So that’s the first part. The second part is that the appeals process could take two years if it were granted, which was very possible. I would then spend another $350,000 on that litigation, because it is now a new trial. Not only that but now, because its gone to an appeals court, the defendants get to adjust their answer to our complaint. Of course, we were going to go after punitive damages because we now had evidence to show that they withheld stuff. That makes the possible win worth a lot more; but they could also quote on their answer to our complaint the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which they never did in the first trial. And if they quoted the statute 934-12 – I could be wrong about that number – that says the prevailing party is entitled to attorney fees. So now the ante to get into this poker game is another $350,000. So if I lose they are going to go after me for in excess of $500,000 in attorney fees. You know what I’m saying?
At some point you’ve got to sit down and just say “We’ve got to stop the hemorrhage”. This system in Oregon is so broken that there is no one in there right mind, who was a small-time farmer, who should in any way ever consider a herbicide case, in my opinion. Look at what its done to me.
The Next Step
But if you had to do it again, would you have compiled your evidence differently? Would you have taken more video? Would you refine your discovery questions?
KK You’ve got to remember, you’re relying on the court. Now, if I request all documents, how in the world can a judge deny the motion and say that the three-ring binder, three inches thick, is not to be included in the request for all documents? I’m dealing with a corrupt system, in my opinion. The system is broken. If a judge can withhold compelling evidence, then why should I lose another $500,000 with a risk of losing another $1,000,000 on a system I know to be corrupt?
Especially if the consequences for the forest products industry is going to have to be a rethink of their spraying protocols and the use of certain herbicides.
KK No, they won’t. Because they know nobody, unless you’re a multi-multi-millionaire with money to lose is ever going to take them to court again. They know that for a fact. They’ve been doing this for years. They are still doing it. And there aren’t any environmental groups, there is nobody out there that wants to jump into the middle of this and help people like me. So, you’re on your own. The Oregon Winegrowers Association were all sympathetic and very concerned, but they didn’t step up and say they were going to give me a grant to help this case go through the courts. There isn’t an environmental group that says they want to change this law. There were no offers to help with this case to change the law so that we could have a precedent. See what I mean?
It is a difficult situation. I spoke with Susan Morgan – who was at the time our legislator – way early in our process. I asked her if there was some way I could get the legislature involved in the way the Oregon Forest Practices Act is written. And the very first statement out of her mouth was “What are you doing growing grapes in forest country?” The Oregon legislature wants this to go away. The Oregon Winegrowers Association, from a marketing standpoint they know it isn’t very good for the organic winegrowers in the area. So they want to keep it quiet. And the forest companies are so wealthy, so powerful, and own so much land that they just want to keep things the way they are. I got the message full, strong, and clear. From a financial standpoint, this is absolutely devastating to me and my family. And I understand just where the state stands. (laughs)
But surely exposure and publicity about this calamity would figure into future challenges to the forest products industry.
KK You’ve read the article. Susan Palmer did a very fantastic job of displaying a lot of information. She could have written an article 30 pages long. There is a lot of compelling stuff here. I mean, just the letters between myself and the Department of Forestry and the Governor’s office would make people’s hair curl. I asked specific questions. Why does this happen? What is the protocol for an investigation? They could have easily sent me a copy of the protocol. But they didn’t. And the reason they didn’t is because they don’t have one. How many millions of dollars is the Department of Agriculture’s budget in the state of Oregon? And they don’t even have an investigative protocol? That’s incompetence. (laughs)
End of Part 1
Kevin and Karen Kohlman, owners of Legacy Vineyards, may have lost a battle, but they just may win the war. Up in Douglas County, Oregon and elsewhere in the state, the timber industry is facing new questions about its use of powerful herbicides and their inevitable drift onto vineyard and other agricultural properties.
The recently concluded litigation brought against Roseburg Forest Products was not in the Kohlman’s favor, but a harsh spotlight now shines upon regional herbicide spraying practices, particularly application by helicopter, that simply must change if a new generation of winemakers and vineyards is to survive and prosper. A lot is at stake. By adding badly needed tourist dollars to a growing hospitality industry, tax revenue to city coffers, and international prestige, wineries overall can be an important energizing element to local economies. Agricultural diversity insulates communities, no doubt. And this is by no means limited to Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley; the state’s wine industry is now well-established on the international stage, the quality of her wines beyond dispute. All that is needed is sound political and environmental vision to further ensure all of Oregon’s people and industries have fair and equitable access to her natural resources.
From a January 2nd article, Dying On The Vine, An Oakland wine grape grower wages a costly fight against damaging pesticide drift:
“The California couple moved to Oregon in 1999 with dreams of creating a new vineyard. Under their plan, 2010 should have yielded 26 tons of grapes. Instead, year after year they’ve watched vines wither and die, killed by herbicide drift so severe it has sterilized the soil in places. They’ve put off launching their own label while they rebuild from the financial damage.”
Yes, 1999. And since the original planting of the vineyard, year after year herbicide drift contamination events have made the harvesting of a single grape crop impossible for the Kohlman’s. Each Spring bud break would be followed by severe damage and death to vines, 1000s of vines. After multiple frustrated re-plantings, a painstaking scientific analysis of necrotic vine tissue was done, and it was determined that select herbicides were to blame, herbicides the Kohlman’s have never used but that are commonly employed by the timber industry, Oust, Velpar, 2,4,D, and Garlon, to name the most popular. Owing to the hilly and mountainous terrain and the vast tracts of timber under cultivation, the timber industry often uses helicopters to apply herbicides to clearcuts so as to kill vegetation competing with tree re-plantings. So it is with Roseburg Forest Products. They harvest from timber acreage very near the Kohlman’s vineyard, and in fact employ the very herbicides detected at Legacy Vineyards.
“But by 2004, the year he expected his first real harvest, his vines began to wither. By September he had row after row of shriveled grape clusters on skeletal plants that were dying. It would take another year, after Kohlman had replanted with new vines that also began to fail, for him to understand what he faced.” [op. cit.]
In the coming days I will post interviews I’ve completed with a few of the individuals associated with this case. First up is Steve Renquist. The article linked above and here, Dying on the Vine describes Mr. Renquist’s participation in the case this way:
“When thousands more grapevines died in 2005, Kohlman called Steve Renquist, the OSU Extension Service horticultural agent in Douglas County, who had come out the previous year to take samples of Kohlman’s dead plants. Renquist suspected herbicides were killing the vines, and tests confirmed that.”
Admin Thank you for taking time out of your day to speak with me. Let’s get right to it. We have herbicide and pesticide drift issues here in California. Perhaps fewer than Oregon specifically with respect to the forest products industry. So what kinds of herbicides are most common in that sector?
Steve Renquist The two in particular that we were noticing in a couple of the real contentious spray programs was Oust and Velpar.
And not 2,4,D?
SR Well, 2,4,D was one of the sidebars. When the initial complaints came from viticulturists and producers of other crops, the wood guys were saying Oust and Velpar were proven over and over that they don’t drift, that they don’t cause problems; they stay ‘at home’. But the thing is we were noticing that with both of those herbicides in fact they do drift. And that they contaminate in very small amounts. Our guys were saying when they first checked into complaints that levels weren’t even at parts per million. We didn’t think it was then a problem. But we would subsequently find with both of these herbicides that even at parts per billion they were causing serious damage.
Along with 2,4,D, Oust and Velpar, Garlon was also mentioned in the article in question…
SR Garlon was one the forest people were saying they did not use, but after running a few tests on plant material Garlon is, yes, another one pretty widely used for what they call slash and squirt for killing the hardwoods when they’re trying to replant clear cut areas.
So to be clear, 2,4,D is marginally used?
SR Yes, it’s just marginally used. In fact, 2,4,D is more widely used by people living out in the countryside. They’ll typically use a combination of Triclopyr [Garlon] and 2,4,D. What we find is that when the timber industry is using herbicides, they’re using the Oust and Velpar. And when it is people, maybe hobby farmers and ranchers, they’ll often use 2,4,D and the Garlon.
But presumably those folks would make applications from the ground. They would not use helicopters.
SR Exactly. There is almost no 2,4,D spraying that I’m aware of in our area here from helicopters. I don’t have 100% certainty. But forest guys know it just moves too well, it moves too easily. 2,4,D is one of those products that is going to cause so many particular problems in other sidebar crops other than the tree crop. So it’s just not a preferred herbicide.
I see. The article quotes you as saying that every wine grape grower that you’ve come in contact with has experienced herbicide drift. You go on to say that 25-30% of those growers noted “a fairly significant incident”. What does that phrase mean?
SR Instead of just seeing a couple of plants that might look a little odd, getting a little growth distortion, I think a significant incident would be when somebody notices along one side of their farm a whole row typically affected; a fairly significant segment along the side of a particular vineyard. Depending on the prevailing wind on a given day and a given spray, it would tend to drift and hit a fairly wide area. Out in the countryside you most of the time you don’t have people doing very small spot sprays like a homeowner might. Instead a neighbor, a rancher, for example, next to a vineyard or vegetable crop will be spraying a fence row to get rid of thistles. When they do get damage it’s around 100 plants. Typically that’s the kind of damage that the herbicide would do to the vineyard.
Apart from the Kohlman’s Legacy Vineyards, have there been other legal battles? What recourse do diverse growers have? Not everyone can afford the $500,000 Mr. Kohlman said he spent on the litigation, not to mention the four years in court. How have things been normally handled up to this point?
SR In general, what most people do with that type of toxic problem or contamination is to go and talk to their neighbor. I would think that a pretty high percentage of those 25-30% of vineyard growers being hit by ranchers, or others not growing grapes, who don’t realize just how sensitive grape vines are to herbicides, that they work things out. It isn’t just this great contentious issue repeated between the tree farm people or the timber industry and the grape growers. But we’re increasing the potential for such because Oregon, certainly here in Douglas County, is expanding vineyard properties pretty rapidly in what was once a very traditional tree farm area. So there is this problem we’re facing.
Most people do not have the finances. It comes down to talking, meeting with people, raising the awareness. Most of the time, between one farmer and another, the problem can be worked out after a single exchange. Communication helps educate the other grower or rancher. Someone might ask that an herbicide application be done instead in March, before they get bud break in April. Good communication matters.
Another approach is a grower calls the Oregon Department of Ag [ODA] and they will send an inspector who’ll look at the fields. He’ll decide whether it’s a herbicide issue. If it is, the ODA representative is not authorized to issue a penalty. They often just try to get the parties together, get them talking, maybe over a glass of wine. So we haven’t had much litigation. The situation with the Kohlman’s was pretty unique. Damage was happening over and over. It just kept hitting them year after year. Mr. Kohlman felt as though that when talking with people they would pay no attention to what he was saying. He felt he had no recourse but the courts.
It often happens that real-world tests on pesticides and herbicides are conducted under ideal environmental circumstances. With respect to drift a herbicide might be tested on a flatland, on the tabletop plains of Texas. What is it about the Oregon landscape that vitiates such tests? Why do elements within the pesticide industry, for example, freely admit the problem of drift simply cannot be solved?
SR It is pretty daunting. With such a small hill and mountainous terrain, and with so many acres of timberland, in the modern timber production cycle people use herbicides. With so much varying landscape, the use of helicopters is demanded. When they can use ground crews, they do. But here you have radically changing weather, wind direction constantly changes; so there just doesn’t seem to be much consistency for the people trying to use the herbicides. It’s difficult enough when we don’t have storms; but it often seems like we have storms coming in for the better part of 6 or 7 months straight! And with our vertical terrain you easily get the potential for drift and drift damage.
The grape growers moving in often plant their vineyards on the hillsides. They don’t really want to be on the bottom ground. They get better frost protection, exposure, and drainage. So when you’re up on the slopes, often surrounded by timberland, it is really an easy situation for conflict. So I think the timber industry is probably having to face the same situation as wheat and grape growers ran into in eastern Washington and eastern Oregon 10 to 15 years ago. They were having the same issue. “This wheat country. What are these guys doing out here trying to grow grapes? We’ve always supplied herbicides to kill out the broadleaf in our wheat crop. We can’t change.” It took a lot of time and a lot of negotiation and discussion, between the parties; I believe university extension people were actively involved to bring the two parties together. Now they do a good job in encouraging certain types of products that aren’t so volatile; they encourage people to apply their products outside the growing season of the grapevines. They are finding they can do that. They’ve worked it out.
Well, the timber industry and grape industry, especially in southwest Oregon, they have not had the time to interact around some of these conflicts boiling up. There hasn’t been a group from both industries to sit down and try to work through some of these issues.
Yes. But there certainly appears to be a political aspect as well. For example, the article mentions that 4 Douglas County judges had to recuse themselves from the case. Do you know the reason?
SR At one time or another they had probably worked for, and handled litigation for the Roseburg Forest Products company.
As a defense attorney, for example? Or perhaps owning interests in a timber concern?
SR Yes, in private practice. And perhaps the latter as well. It was unfortunate for the Kohlman’s that they decided not to seek a change of venue. Roseburg Forest Products is by far and away the biggest employer in the area, and they have a great history of having worked well with the people of the area. It was a difficult issue when David went to battle with Goliath.
So the Kohlman’s declined to seek a change of venue?
SR I think they did. They decided that they had enough information to support their side. The Oregon Wine Symposium that occurs in the last week of February in Eugene is a gathering of all the growers. The attorneys for this case were invited by the Oregon Wine Board to come and discuss what are some of the repercussions, what can growers do. I sat in on a pretty interesting session! One of the lawyers said to the growers that you have to keep impeccable records of everything, and do a lot of homework, dig in if you want to start litigation. He tried to be real world about it; not to just say ‘go after people’. Keep exacting records, note the sequence of events, talk to people; but there is no guarantee you will be successful.
Clearly. Do you have any idea why it took 4 years to litigate?
SR I don’t know all the details. But I recall that one of the attorneys said that every time they got up there, the Roseburg Forest Products asked for a continuance. They just kept rolling it forward and rolling it forward. The company figured they’d just wear them out and run up the bills a little bit. I think that was the main thing.
I searched in vain for Legacy Vineyards on the internet. There is nothing. I understand they’ve been forced to post-pone the launch of their label as a result of all of this.
SR Well, they were hit so hard for 3, maybe 4 years in a row, that they had to do an awful lot of reworking in the vineyard. A lot of vines died; somewhere around 4,000 vines died. A big percentage of them had to be replanted. And he’s [Kevin Kohlman] been using things to try and enhance the microbial activity in the soil to help eat up any residue. He was planting new vines in the soil but these herbicides are so toxic to grape vines that even with parts per billion in the soil the vines were still having trouble. He also had to graft over some vines because the residues were not disappearing from the wood that had been contacted. So he had to cut the tops off of some and re-graft. I think the idea was to go back to square one and try to reinvigorate the vineyard.
I was up there not too long ago, maybe a couple months ago, and they’ve got some nice young vines coming on now. Another season or two and they’ll be back into it.
Whether in Burgundy or Napa, many vineyards run the risk of losing various certifications. What of organic or biodynamic growers? What are the consequences of drift contamination for them?
SR Well, you need a 3 year period to try to work that out. That’s one of the other reasons that I think the Kohlman’s are working on enhancing the microbial activity in their soil through the use of compost and compost teas. That will eat up the residue eventually. I don’t know if they were seeking organic certification, but sure, that would mess you up. It would be another big economic setback.
So even if you were to talk with your neighbor about their drift, there would still be a significant financial threat were you organic certified.
SR Another thing is the property that is right adjacent, kind of uphill from theirs, the Forest Products people are still growing on it. At some point they’ll be cycling back in there. Most of it’s been replanted now, so hopefully they can get through this next year without getting hit by another spray.
In light of the lawsuit, do you anticipate greater vigilance with respect to spraying operations?
SR Yeah, because of this case we’ve had people from the timber industry – not just from Roseburg Forest Products, but representatives from other companies, too – put out feelers to the [OSU] Extension and others asking that they sit down with grape growers to get GIS mapping for their businesses so they know precisely where all the vineyards are located. We’re happy to share that information with the timber industry. I think we already have shared one file with most of the vineyards listed. Hopefully they are getting the message. The troublesome thing is the ability of somebody spraying from a helicopter in this terrain… I just don’t ever see the risk disappearing. Hopefully the guys are going to really pay attention to the weather conditions. I know the growers themselves are sure going to be out there taking pictures and verifying and getting third-parties out if there is some question.
How would you characterize the relation between the state and federal regulators in this matter?
SR From what I could tell they didn’t seem to communicate very well. The EPA people and the Oregon Department of Ag people seemed to have completely different goals and directives. What Mr. Kohlman was trying to do was to get EPA to look at the fact that it was their responsibility to make sure that regulations are in place and enforced so as to prevent the contamination of the people’s water. You can’t be spraying these hillsides if the herbicide is ending up in the water. Mr. Kohlman’s pond is at the bottom of the hill. And the runoff is contaminating the people of Oregon. You can’t do that. Water belongs to all of us. So he brought in the EPA and told them to get these guys to follow through. The Oregon Department of Agriculture is not controlling this. They are just advising, not saying you can’t do this. There was a fair amount of conflict going on there!
About conversations you’ve had with colleagues out of state or out of other university extension offices within Oregon, how widespread is the problem of herbicide drift? I’m thinking of a multi-state view.
SR I think it is an important issue in just about every state I’ve been around, and I’ve worked in a few. I worked in Extension for Cornell out in New York; I’ve worked in Ohio; I’ve worked and lived in Minnesota and Iowa with another company. I’ve worked in agriculture for 40 plus years. And in the last 10 or 15 especially, just about everywhere I’ve been it’s an important issue.
One of the problems I think we often face is that there are established industries – it doesn’t matter if it’s California, Oregon of New York – they are the ones, and this includes Extension agents, who are always pretty careful not to offend. So when you get new industries coming in there is kind of a political thing there. As an Extension agent you’ve got to be careful not to offend your prime clientele. So I suppose people are pretty careful.
I grew up in California and went to Cal Poly. I know agriculture in California pretty well. I think the Extension agents and farm advisors down there are very strong supporters and believers in the agriculture industry. They try to support it very strongly. It is one of those delicate issues. They want to educate people; they want people to understand you can’t be over-spraying; it’s up to the industry to control the spray; you can’t be hitting your neighbors. But at the same time I don’t think anybody says we’re going to eliminate herbicides or sprays. Herbicides are a significant tool. But, yes, I do think people tip toe around this issue a little bit more than they probably should have over the years. The education just has to be pressed a little harder.
But it’s also a question of whose science do we read? Is it the science from DOW, Bayer, Monsanto? Or is it the science from OSU? What science wins the day?
SR If EPA continues to have the authority over regulating labels, then the EPA will have the ultimate authority. But more to the point, I think more and more people just need to learn that maybe we have to make that step to no till and using fewer herbicides. And be willing to give it a go. But people don’t like change. They’re just no gonna want to let go of that. It’s not just herbicides. It’s fungicides and insecticides that are showing up in waterways, too. But my gut feel is that I think we’ve shown we can do a lot of good IPM [Integrated Pest Management]. A lot of real creative things have developed. So why not? Let’s go ahead, go forward, and try to find solutions to minimize herbicides around waterways. And then look at forests.
You don’t sound like a wide-eyed radical to me.
SR (laughs) I try to work for both sides of the issue. The universities really don’t want us to get involved in litigation because we do work for everybody in the community. We don’t want to create sides on an issue. The ideal is to get out and educate people. We have this pattern of allowing things to happen and then realizing that it wasn’t a very good idea. We ought to have tighter control over these things.
Well, Mr. Renquist, it was a great pleasure speaking with you.
SR You’re very welcome.
Special thanks to Cyril Penn of WineBusiness.com for tweeting the story upon which this series is based.