Gentler Farming in Wine Country
Air Date: Week of August 28, 1998
The heart of California's wine country is actually 75 miles southeast of the well known Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Down in the vast Central Valley, they grow grapes, and lots of them. In fact the area around the town of Lodi (LOW-dye) produces the largest share of premium varieties in the entire state. It is here in these vineyards that growers are mounting one of the largest efforts in the nation to move beyond the age of intensive chemicals into an era of more natural farming combining old-time wisdom and the latest technology. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson and host Steve Curwood visited the valley and made this report.
MAN: There are many differences in the wine, and within that sort of red, white categories, there's a big range of flavors and styles.
CURWOOD: Fine wine. It speaks of elegance, gentle fields, and ancestry. And it draws tourists by the thousands to the intimate vineyards of California's Napa and Sonoma valleys just north of San Francisco. To many people, these narrow valleys of brilliant green leaves, rich brown soil, and pure blue sky, are wine country.
MAN: Spring time you get bud bursts. Eight of these shoots will get 2 potential punches going.
CURWOOD: But the heart of California's wine country is an hour or 2 by car southeast from Napa and Sonoma, down in the vast central valley. It's grittier territory, with more truck stops than genteel inns. But they grow good grapes here, and a lot of them. In fact, the area around the town of Lodi produces the largest share of premium varieties in the entire state. And here in these vineyards, growers are mounting one of the largest efforts in the nation to move beyond the age of intensive chemicals into an era of more natural farming, combining old time wisdom and the latest technology.
(A radio bleeps)
LANGE: Okay, hey Jose, are you out there. (Jose answers)
CURWOOD: Brad Lange needs a high-tech digital pocket radio to keep in touch with workers spread out over 4,000 acres of vineyards that his family owns and manages in Lodi. He's standing in a flat grid of vine rows that stretches out in every direction to the horizon.
WORKER: ... inside the Cabernet by the north...
CURWOOD: Brad Lange's family business, Lange Twins Farms, is a big modern operation that grosses somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million a year. But instead of relying heavily on chemicals and machines to manage the health of their vineyards, the Lange Twins are relying more and more on what's called IPM: Integrated Pest Management, using other plants, animals, and insects. They're leapfrogging backwards.
LANGE: If we're looking at how our fathers farmed and then go back one more generation, our grandfathers really farmed in a more natural way. Because they simply didn't have the chemical inputs that go into their vineyards. In many ways we're going back to our roots.
CURWOOD: Brad pulls back a few broad spiky leaves to reveal tiny green Cabernet Sauvignon grapes just starting to emerge. The vines march in lockstep across the gently rolling ground. This is one of the Lange Twins' premiere tracks. But instead of bare open soil between the rows, Brad is up to his shins in silver-green grass.
LANGE: This is not the traditional vineyard that would be grown here in the Lodi area. As we're walking through this, we have grasses from vine to vine.
CURWOOD: Many farmers would call these grasses weeds. But for Brad and his brother Randy, these are cover crops, which help with the work of caring for the vines.
LANGE: We actually encourage these types of grasses. This is a California native mix that we're walking through. These grasses are very non-competitive with the vine for soil nutrients and soil moisture.
CURWOOD: Why have grass in your vineyard?
LANGE: Well, it gives us many advantages really. One and foremost is the root system of the grasses that are established keep the soil open, and so we get better water penetration. The other advantages to us is that it does provide a host for the spiders and for predators that will feed on our pests that we have in vineyards, namely mites and grape leaf hoppers.
CURWOOD: I'm looking at what I would call a ladybug, being an easterner.
LANGE: Oh yeah.
CURWOOD: Is that good news for you or bad news?
LANGE: That's good news.
LANGE: Yeah. They are predators and they will eat other eggs and insects that will feed on our leaves. In fact, there are companies that will sell ladybugs. But they're very expensive to introduce. What we're trying to do is not have to introduce them artificially. We're going to grow them on our own.
CURWOOD: The Langes have also planted French prune trees to provide a home for a tiny wasp which preys on the grape leaf hopper. But none of these changes would make any difference on the Lange's farm if they didn't do every day what Brad is doing now: walking the fields, checking the vines, watching for what pests are out there and at what levels. Experts say monitoring your fields is the key to integrated pest management, and deciding if and when to resort to chemical controls.
LANGE: I think what's different between us today and like my father, is that we're more reluctant to pull the trigger. We will stand more economic loss -- there's a snake, right there, going across.
CURWOOD: What kind of snake?
LANGE: It's just a common king snake type.
CURWOOD: It's got a big yellow stripe down it...
LANGE: Yeah. Everything comes full circle. If you have a healthier soil, you have organisms and insects and snakes and so on and so forth living in that environment. And that's what we're really trying to encourage.
(Footfalls. Fade to a motor turning over)
CURWOOD: Brad's gleaming new pickup sounds and feels more like a luxury car. He and his brother have clearly done well with the land handed down to them by their father and grandfather. Other farmers might be content to leave well enough alone, but the Lange twins grew up here. And they know that well enough really isn't well enough.
LANGE: We live in and amongst our vineyards. And most farmers do, particularly in this district. And we are also consumers. So we're very concerned about what we're doing to our environment. Not only to the air, to the land and to the water, but also what we're imparting onto the product itself. So that's been really the thrust. We consider ourselves natural farmers as opposed to organic. We like to view ourselves having all the tool box full of tools.
CURWOOD: The integrated pest management toolbox does include chemicals. Brad doesn't like to spray, but sometimes a certain bug gets out of hand or a fungus can't be controlled any other way. And when they have to go the chemical route, they use a lot less than they used to, and choose softer, more targeted compounds. In fact, reducing chemicals is so important to them that they've invented their own high-tech spraying system. It's so stingy that Brad says it's helped the vineyard cut its spray applications by more than half. He's eager to show it off.
LANGE: Okay, we're here, we'll go take a look.
(Door shuts, a rat-tat-tat sound. Hammering)
LANGE: This Acampo Machine Works, and he's a local blacksmith basically. The new blacksmith type.
CURWOOD: Funny looking horse.
LANGE: (Laughs) Yeah, right. And we got together, my brother and Craig got together, and actually figured out how they were going to engineer this and build this sprayer.
EDWARDS: We were sulfuring this morning. (Laughs) You know how that goes!
(Sounds of machinery)
CURWOOD: Craig Edwards built the one-of-a-kind rig, which Brad calls an electrostatic sprayer. It cost the Langes $75,000.
(Motor revs up)
CURWOOD: The electrostatic sprayer is hitched up to a massive yellow French tractor, almost 10 feet high. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie. It can straddle 3 vine rows at a time. The rig has special nozzles, which give whatever's being sprayed -- insecticides, fungicides, sulfur -- a small negative charge of static electricity that's the opposite of the natural charge on vegetation. So, instead of most of the spray just wafting off into the atmosphere and onto the ground, Craig says the spray from this rig is drawn to the vines, almost like a magnet.
EDWARDS: It's kind of like when you used to rub a balloon on your head and stick it to the TV and everybody went "wow!". It's the same kind of effect, that spray is attracted to the vine.
LANGE: The advantage to this machine is that instead of spraying 60 to 100 gallons of water with material mixed in it to the acre, we are going around 20 gallons of water. These chemicals are extremely expensive --
CURWOOD: How expensive are these chemicals?
LANGE: We buy them by the ounce, and some are very expensive, $20 to $40 an ounce on down.
CURWOOD: That's the price of perfume.
LANGE: Yeah. And that's kind of how we look at it, too, is that when we're putting it into a tank we're putting material by the ounce into the tank. With this sprayer, we're reducing the amount of chemical that we typically put out there. And by practicing some of our other IPM methods, we've actually gotten fields where we're not spraying them at all.
CURWOOD: There are obvious immediate benefits to the environment, and for the health and safety of Brad Lange's workers from this. Brad is also convinced that in time it will save money as well. The world is changing, he says, and farmers have to respond.
LANGE: But to change a practice, to make a radical change, even if it is 2 generations removed, it's really not unlike going to an edge of a cliff and taking a look out and taking a jump off that thing. And hope that you're going to land okay. Because every year you get one shot a year on raising good quality wine grapes. So we take a long view, and if we have to jump off that cliff we will.
CURWOOD: But they won't be jumping alone Brad Lange and his brother are sharing what they're learning about natural farming with any other growers who want to hear it. The lessons learned about cover crops and beneficial insects, about using compost instead of chemical fertilizer. They even want others to copy their electrostatic sprayer technology. In many ways, theirs is an experimental farm. There are no subsidies, but then they don't need them.
LANGE: We're not the largest grower, but we're one of the larger growers in this district. And because of that, we have the resources available to us to be able to take some of these chances. We try to take as much of a leadership role as we can, along with a whole lot of other folks in this area, to give us a network of growers that are willing to help each other.
OHMART: The purpose of this meeting literally is to get comfortable with the concept of IPM.
CURWOOD: In the shade of a mulberry tree, entymologist Cliff Ohmart leads a discussion of integrated pest management over a lunch of pizza and wine. The meeting is sponsored by the Lodi Woodbridge Wine Grape Commission, the organization through which Brad Lange and other local growers share information on integrated pest management. We're in the back yard of the old white farm house of the Pierano Estate Vineyards. Beyond the house, trucks speed along Highway 99. To the other side, the thick gnarled stalks of 100-year-old zinfandel vines.
OHMART: Any questions, any comments? It doesn't have to be a question.
FARMER: Did you say earlier that you consider vertebrate control in an IPM program, too?
FARMER: I never thought of it until I sat here as IPM. But one morning in our vineyard, which is up in the lower foothills, I drove up there early and counted 14 deer nipping, you know, on a recently new planted vineyard. And the first, you know, your first thought is get a depredation permit. Then you've got to explain to your wife who's going to divorce you...
(laughter from the others)
FARMER: And fortunately before we could do that, a lion moved into the area and the problem was solved.
CURWOOD: More than 400 growers have come to meetings like this. Some have a lot of experience with integrated pest management. Others, like Nancy Frank, are just starting out. She's planted 5 acres of zinfandel vines and is worried that if she doesn't spray when she sees pests, things will get out of hand.
FRANK: If the original aspects that you try to alleviate a problem don't work, what's the next step to go to, and how far do you let it go? And how do you make that distinction that's not going to take a toll on your vineyard? We're small time and we don't have a lot of money to lose. And so the less we lose the better off we're going to be.
CURWOOD: Nancy Frank and the other growers at the meeting go home with thick booklets on grapevine pests and natural controls. And an invitation to call any time for advice. The Wine Grape Commission is a state-sanctioned nonprofit group funded through mandatory assessments on the region's more than 600 growers. Director Mark Chandler says within a year after it began in 1991, it started an aggressive program to move its members toward more natural farming.
CHANDLER: We knew that regulations regarding agricultural chemicals were only going to get more burdensome, so we felt that it would serve the interests of our growers to prepare them for changes in ag chem use on a transitional basis, rather than just being surprised that the EPA took some certain chemical away. We believe firmly that this is the responsible way to farm. We are concerned that at some point in the future it may be the only way to farm.
CURWOOD: Mark Chandler says there's more demand for help in converting to integrated pest management than the Commission can meet. Still, the pace of change is slower than some here would like. Entymologist Cliff Ohmart says integrated pest management faces some strong institutional barriers.
OHMART: A very large portion of the growers get their pest management advice from people who sell chemicals. And that fact alone creates problems. If you sell a certain chemical, it might be easy to recommend that chemical. It's a system that definitely is part of the problem.
CURWOOD: But there's strong pressure the other way, too.
CURWOOD: At the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Winery just outside of Lodi, thousands of pale green bottles clank onto a conveyor belt. Out the other end flow case after case of chardonnay. There are acres of wine in this bottling plant stacked to the ceiling. Mondavi's a big player in the US wine industry, accounting for 10% of the total business. And Woodbridge produces most of the company's wine. Like some other California wineries, Robert Mondavi has been working with its growers here to reduce chemical inputs. Marilyn Wolf is Woodbridge's manager of grower relations.
WOLF: The Mondavis were willing to take a risk. They were willing to go out and say let's wait a little bit longer, let's watch this and see what happens. We'll work with you. If this vineyard gets into trouble we'll pick it early or we'll find some way of working around it, so that, you know, your crop is not totally at risk out there.
CURWOOD: It can cost more to farm with integrated pest management, at least at the start. And Mondavi doesn't pay more for grapes grown this way. But Marilyn Wolf says that because using fewer chemicals also means producing better grapes, it's in the interests of their growers to do it.
WOLF: One way of looking at it is that we keep every vineyard lot separate through the wine making process and taste it every year. And then we rank all the wines. So I think that's the incentive for a grower to keep improving his quality. He'll have a home.
LANGE: Hello, Felipe
FELIPE: Hello, Salvador.
LANGE: Are you glad to get off the sulfur rig?
FELIPE: It's better.
LANGE: Yeah, a lot better.
CURWOOD: These grapes are cabernet sauvignon?
CURWOOD: And you sell these to?
LANGE: Robert Mondavi.
CURWOOD: So if I go to the store and buy it, it would be called?
LANGE: Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon.
CURWOOD: Okay, what's the best year? You can tell us.
LANGE: Every year.
(They both laugh)
CURWOOD: Brad Lange says he's growing better grapes since he and his brother have cut back on chemicals. He says he's also seen his vineyards spring to life with crickets, birds, spiders, and deer.
(A motor turns over)
CURWOOD: As we drive back to the Lange Twins office, Brad points out owl boxes they've put up. Their cover crops attract gophers, so they use owls and hawks to keep them in check. We pass vineyards dotted by oak trees, unlike the treeless terrain of many other nearby vineyards.
LANGE: In the overall scheme of things of how we would like to live here, it's just not a monoculture, it's many things. It's the cows and the cattle to the right of us, the vineyard to the left of us, and the trees that are scattered throughout. And that is a decision really more of a quality of life decision as opposed to hard economics. And we feel that the indigenous oak trees and this, the valley oaks in this valley, some of these trees are 150 to 300 years old. That they need to be here, because they truly are a part of our heritage.
(A car door opens)
CURWOOD: Back at the Lange Twins office, the thermometers are already pushing 90. It's Saturday morning and Brad's still got most of the day in the fields ahead of him. When you live on your farm, it's hard to get away from work, and moving from chemical-intensive farming to integrated pest management means even more work for his family. In a business that's always demanding, Brad says not everyone is ready for this kind of challenge.
LANGE: We have growers that may always calendar spray. They may never plant a cover crop or a French prune tree, or actually more closely monitor their vineyards to establish a higher economic threshold to spray. What we think we're doing here, and what all agriculture is evolving to, is to raise the curve. We'll always have the ones that won't, and we'll always have the ones that are going to be at the leading edge.
CURWOOD: Brad Lange is comfortable at that leading edge. He's got the temperament, the imagination, and the capital to be an innovator. But here in Lodi, in the conservative central valley, he's also got support. An enlightened growers association. Strong backing from the wineries that buy his crops. And a similar commitment from a lot of his fellow farmers. It's easier to stand out from the crowd, when a lot of the crowd is coming right behind you.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: Our report on integrated pest management was produced by Living on Earth's Peter Thomson.
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