By Kyle Mason, Viticulturalist
Gladstone Vineyard has been with BioAg since the products were first released New Zealand. We were very much conventional growers with high chemical inputs focusing on the symptoms not the cause. The change came at a seminar Steven Haswell presented which challenged the convention system and exposed its flaws. Leaving the seminar I was inspired to start looking at the whole picture. Were all the chemicals we were applying at the time necessary? Shouldn't I be focusing on the cause, not the symptoms? Isn't there a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way forward?
After talking more with Steven it quickly became obvious that the BioAg system fitted well with where we saw Gladstone Vineyard heading. With the help of Steven and Bruce my vineyard management moved from applying quick fix products to looking at the underlying courses and building a solid foundation from the soil up. The new approach required us to stand back and see the patterns around us. The initial vineyard walks with Steve and Bruce opened my eyes to a new and exciting world.
The first step we took was to re-sow our vineyard understory with a diverse soil building seed mix of chicory, lucerne and clovers which has the functions of – creating improved soil structure through deep rooting understory species (in soil pits we have dug in the vineyard this month we can see the Lucerne root system has grown deeper than 1.5m); creating a sponge to carry vineyard traffic; developing bio-diversity and homes for soil biology and beneficial invertebrates; enhancing long term N fixing capabilities; and development of humus. The management of the inter-row via mowing and grazing of sheep at key times is providing a mechanism to manipulate vigour and stimulate mineralisation.
We then started applying the BioAg range of organic liquid biological cultures. These products deliver essential nutrients and metabolites directly to the soil and vines, ready for immediate uptake. Soil drenches along with foliar sprays are applied monthly during the growing season. These are used to stimulate soil and vine canopy microbial populations and diversity; enhance the function of calcium and phosphorus and improve soil moisture and nutrient utilisation as well as stimulating and supporting fruiting and maturation.
If I am honest the first couple of years in which pest, disease and weed control products were slowly dropped from the system were nerve racking. I was worried that for example when Systhane was removed from the system we would have powdery outbreaks and that the reduction in botryticides would lead to the fruit being unharvestable. At the time I was obsessed with herbicide because having a weed free strip under the vines all year round was seen as "good vineyard management". I would do four herbicides a year; the first would be a Round-up and Amitrole mix at high rates and the other three would be Round-up and Brown Out or Hammer again at high rates! Our Home Block has had 20 years of herbicide applied to the undervine strip and until we changed our system had major Mallow problems. I thought I needed to increase my rates to wipe it out but it just seemed to be getting worse.
I now know that Mallow thrives in unhealthy soils and by significantly reducing herbicide rates and applications and applying BioAg's Soil & Seed regularly as a soil drench Mallow has disappeared and the undervine strip is now dominated by grasses and clovers; worm numbers are on the increase also.
In the first 2 years under the new system the vines quickly came into balance. Shoot size and growth are very even and we have not needed to shoot thin for 3 years. The vine balance means fruit thinning is hardly ever required – the vines are naturally at target yields. We have had a very consistent crop across all varieties regardless of the season for a number of years now.
Another early observation is that the vines are much better equipped to handle heat stress mid summer with a full crop load and limited or no irrigation - basal leaves are not senescing and the canopy is staying cool.
Our cover cropping along with strategic mowing and the use of the BioAg products has brought the vineyard alive both above and below ground. In the spring and summer our vineyards are full of ladybirds, hover files, lacewings, earwigs, parasitic wasps, spiders and other insects both in the cover crop and vine canopy. We currently have no need for pesticides and are hoping that our diverse insect population keeps the pests in check. As mentioned earlier worm counts show we now have good numbers and this is increasing year by year – in 2011 the average spade count was 22.
With improved vineyard hygiene and reduced disease inoculum Botrytis is no longer the major issue it used to be. Over the last 4 years we have slowly reduced the number of botryticides we apply. We originally had a 5% and 80% capfall application then a pre bunch closure application. Last season half the vineyard had one botryticide at 80% and the other half had an extra BioAg Roots & Shoots at flowering but no botryticides. Both parts of the block had no botrytis at harvest even though we had a long period of high botrytis pressure near the end of the season.
We are very happy with the positive effects we are seeing both in the vineyard and in the end product – the wines. The journey is only just beginning and I see exciting times ahead for Gladstone Vineyard.
Biological Agriculture is not one product; it is a whole system approach. The team at BioAg embrace this and don't push their products as a silver bullet. It is one of the many parts that make up our successful management system. Steven and Bruce are very passionate about biological and organic farming practices and have given me good advice along the way. They are always happy to answer any questions I have and regularly call in to the vineyard to monitor progress. I would recommend these products to anyone serious about producing premium wines sustainably.