Sustainability is word bantered about freely these days. Initially, sustainability referred to the degree a farming enterprise depended on off-farm resources. This is important because all agricultural ecosystems, unlike natural ecosystems, are inherently unstable and unsustainable without applied resources from external sources (Fig. 1). This is as true for winegrapes (Vitis vinifera) as it is for other crops.
Later, environmental and societal issues entered the sustainability discussion. Today, the concept of sustainability has different meanings for different people. In my experience, most of the environmental and social goals associated with sustainability are taken care of indirectly when grape growers design, develop, and manage their vineyards for long-term profitability. This occurs for a number of reasons.
Consistently profitable vineyard operations make good use of onsite resources, which limits their dependence on outside inputs. At the same time, when inputs are needed, they are carefully applied within the vineyard for optimum efficiency and return on investment, which minimizes off-site environmental impacts. These activities and others that affect long-term profitability depend on well-informed, competent managers and a well-trained, satisfied work force that have positive relations with grape buyers, suppliers of materials and support services, industry associations, neighbors, and others in the community.
If environmental stewardship and social responsibility are achieved indirectly by way of a well managed vineyard businesses, what then should the primary goal of sustainability be? I believe that sustainability is consistently growing fruit of the greatest possible value and ensuring crop value exceeds the cost of production. In other words, sustainability lies in the totality of efforts centered on long-term profitability.
Achieving long-term profitability entails thoughtful selection of materials and practices, as well as their application at the proper time and intensity. This goal also requires careful management of vineyard finances and assets, including vines, infrastructure, human resources, and natural resources. While not as obvious, strategic marketing efforts are a component of sustainability because they create a lasting and positive impression about a business, which has economic value. Most importantly, sustaining the profitability of a wine grape endeavor requires all these efforts be integrated into a long-term management plan, which serves as a guide.
The following are some thoughts regarding two focal points of sustainable vineyard management – natural resources and grapevines. Of the three natural resources – air, water, and land – the first two are fluids that flow through the vineyard. While they appear to be of temporary importance to a vineyard, their misuse can come back to haunt the careless grower (e.g. polluted ground water). In addition, they are of great importance to the community outside of the vineyard. Therefore, they should be used wisely and ethically.
Unlike air and water, land is a permanent feature and among the most costly long-term investments for vineyard businesses. As a result, return per unit land is critical to sustainability. Fortunately, grape growers can directly influence the well being of their land through soil management activities.
Among land factors, soil fertility and tilth are the most important for long-term profitability. Without management intervention, nutrient removal and loss of organic matter due to continuous cropping, and soil losses due to erosion will degrade both fertility and tilth. Therefore, sustainable soil management activities include regular nutrient and organic matter additions, and soil conservation measures, such as cover cropping and reduced tillage (Fig. 2).
The perennial nature of grapevines makes their health and productivity long-term concerns. These are determined in part when the vineyard is established. For example, soil preparation that substantially reduces soil borne pests and eliminates physical restrictions to root elongation greatly improves the prospects for sustainability. Similarly, disease-free grapevines on a rootstock appropriate for the site contribute considerably to consistent profitability. Finally, a spacing-training-trellising-pruning system that optimizes fruit production per unit land and per unit leaf area with minimum inputs is a cornerstone of vineyard sustainability (Fig. 3).
The long-term viability of grapevines also depends on continuing management activities after the vineyard is established. They must be protected from pests, diseases, and severe stresses that lead to vine decline and diminished profitability. Of these, canker diseases, such as Eutypa Dieback , is commonly the greatest concern.
In summary, sustainability is an intrinsic character of vineyard enterprises focused on long-term economic viability. Such an effort includes attentive care of natural resources and long lived assets, especially soils and grapevines.
This article was based upon the Mid Valley Agricultural Services’ December 2003 Viticulture Newsletter and was updated for this blog post.
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