Working with nature, rather than against it, is the central tenet of sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming. This includes utilizing nature’s army of beneficial life forms, rather than fighting against them. Insects, invertebrates, birds and mammals are all surprising little helpers in the production of healthy, wholesome crops of grapes and cider apples.
In Kamptal, Austria, Fred Loimer converted his vineyards to organic farming in 2006. Part of that change entailed creating a vineyard attractive to wildlife.
“You need varied greenery around your vineyard, trees and shrubs, where insects can live, breed and feed,” he says. “Vegetation between rows is also important. You realize quickly how many more bumblebees and butterflies you see.
“[British bumblebees] are small, relatively docile species. They get inside the flower and waggle their bottoms.” —James Forbes, co-owner, Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery
“But even more important is what cover crops do to the soil,” says Loimer. “As they decay and decompose over their natural lifecycle, they provide crucial nutrients for soil life. There is far more going on below [ground] than above ground. It’s of enormous importance.”
Earthworms, in particular, can form a great tool for a winemaker.
“They are great indicators of soil health and incredibly useful, because they create precious humus by helping to degrade plant matter,” he says. “They also leave minute tunnels behind, making it easier for rainwater to enter [and] be retained in the soil, and slowing water uptake by the vines, creating a healthier supply.”
In other regions where vegetation in the vineyards is limited, winemakers take different measures. There are numerous “insect hotels” in steep, stony Mosel vineyards—framed assemblies of hollow bamboo canes, sticks and hollowed-out bricks where beneficial insects can nest, breed and multiply.
Susanna and James Forbes run the Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery in Herefordshire, England, where they produce organic cider from English heirloom apple varieties.
“We have four varieties of apple: Ellis Bitter, Harry Masters Jersey, Dabinett and one highly prized bitter-sharp variety called Foxwhelp,” says Susanna. “Apples, unlike grapevines, do not self-pollinate. Since Foxwhelp flowers earlier than the other varieties, we realised that we needed some help.”
Beneficial insects like bees are an integral part of intelligent farming—they can even be ordered online. That’s how Little Pomona Orchard & Cidery got a box of about 300 native British bumblebees (Bombus terrestris audax) to help pollinate their Foxwhelp trees.
“They are small, relatively docile species,” says James, of the bees. “They get inside the flower and waggle their bottoms.”
In Tuscany, Italy, Giulio Carmassi, agronomist at Antico Podere Gagliole, has made use of the voracious appetite of tiny predatory phytoseiidae mites to control vineyard pests. They devour red and yellow spider mites (tetranychidae) that feed on the sap of vines, which damages leaves and shoots, and also severely inhibits photosynthesis. This allows Carmassi to avoid the use of insecticides in his vineyard.
Carmassi initially had to buy the mites, which were sold in little paper bags.
“Two years after introducing phytoseiidae in our vineyards, we no longer have to purchase them, because they have become the dominant species,” says Carmassi. “I try to preserve as complex an ecosystem as possible in the vineyard, through maintaining spontaneous inter-row cover cropping, cutting the grass on alternate rows, and avoiding cutting the grass when in flower, so that they will enjoy a habitat ideal for their survival.”
“Each chicken will eat between 20 to 30 weevils a day. Each of these would create up to five generations of bugs, so the accumulated effect would be enormous. That’s why we have chickens on every vineyard and no longer need any chemicals to control the weevils.” —Andrés Gillmore, global sales director, Emiliana Vineyards
Rémy Gresser, who grows grapes in Andlau, Alsace, in northeastern France, has employed trichogramma, or “killer” wasps, instead of insecticides in his vineyards since the 1980s. These tiny wasps lay their eggs into the eggs of other insects that are harmful to crops, and kill them before they can hatch. Amongst these pests are grape moths, whose larvae feed on vine buds and leaves and cause huge damage.
Gresser says the wasps have become a communal effort throughout the local valley. All vine and fruit growers now avoid insecticides that would kill bugs, regardless of whether they’re beneficial or not.
“In fact, our valley polyculture of apples, plums, cherries, grapes as well as hedgerows and meadows supports a continuous population of the trichogramma,” says Gresser. “They are now part of our biological cycle.”
Chickens & Roosters
“We started integrating wildlife into our vineyards when we started with biodynamics in the early 2000s,” says Andrés Gillmore, global sales director at Emiliana Vineyards in Chile. “We started with cows and horses to use their manure, but we only realized how effective chickens were in controlling one particular bug once we had introduced them.”
The bug, burrito de la vid, or vine weevil, is a real pest. Its larvae feed on vine roots, and once they hatch, they climb into the vine and devour the shoots. “The chickens are very good at eating both larvae and weevils,” says Gillmore.
It’s proved so successful that Emiliana now has mobile chicken coops in all of its vineyards. The chickens are released in the morning and roam freely throughout the day.
“Each chicken will eat between 20 to 30 weevils a day,” he says. “Each of these would create up to five generations of bugs, so the accumulated effect would be enormous. That’s why we have chickens on every vineyard and no longer need any chemicals to control the weevils.”
The chickens have been joined recently by flocks of geese and guineafowl. The workers make sure the chickens return to the coop every night so they won’t fall prey to foxes. In return, the chickens produce fresh eggs.
While the benefits of insects like ladybugs are well known—a single one of those helpful critters can devour around 5,000 aphids in its 2–3 year lifespan—four-legged animals can also prove useful.
The Maboroshi Vineyard in Sonoma County, California (one of the designated Pinot Noir vineyards at DeLoach in the Boisset Collection), has been home to Babydoll Southdown sheep since 2010.
“In late winter and early spring, they roam through the rows of vines and munch down the cover crop,” says Megan Long, communications manager for the Boisset Collection. “They contribute by eating weeds, providing natural fertilization and being part of the general holistic biodynamic farming.”
The vineyards of Nyetimber in England also get an annual visit from flocks of Romney sheep, borrowed from local farmers. “They keep the grass and weeds low and replenish valuable nutrients,” says winemaker Brad Greatrix.
“Meanwhile the farmers we partner with get a chance to rest their fields over the winter so there is benefit in both directions. Apart from that it’s joyful seeing the sheep roaming about the vineyards. By now they’ve returned to their farms for lambing season.”
The approach to farming taken by all these wineries makes sense, financially and ecologically and the pleasure of making such decisions is an enrichment in itself.