What would you do if you’d just built a beautiful half-million-dollar house from the ground up and your new neighbor came over and burned it to the ground before you could even move in? This, essentially, has been my experience, though instead of a house, my vineyard was on the line, and instead of a fire, the threat was herbicide drift.
Maintaining a vineyard is challenging enough as it is, but the increasing problem of herbicide drift—the phenomenon of applied chemicals carrying through the air and damaging another growers’ crops—is a fight I never saw coming. Farmers trying to grow sustainably, particularly grape growers, can suffer unintended effects long after the chemicals have been applied to crops miles away, with little to no recourse.
Having been in the wine industry for more than half my life, growing classic Vitis vinifera varieties in north central Ohio, I know what it means to face relentless adversity. I have seen excessive heat, drought, hail, frost, precipitation, winters at 20 below zero, and incredibly high fungal loads and have had several fights with invasive species that felt they had more rights to my company’s crop than we did. Despite seemingly insurmountable hurdles, through tireless hard work, we have been able not only to maintain a healthy vineyard but also to make wine of a quality that goes far beyond the expectation of our current location.
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I am a co-owner and the winemaker of Ohio Vineyard Management (OVM), a company that has been growing since being founded in 2017, though our oldest winery, Vermilion Valley Vineyards, was opened in 2009. A full-service vineyard management and consulting company, OVM has planted more than 100 new acres since it launched, 70 of which are our own. We are spread over 40 miles from east to west, on five separate properties.
Physical factors like negotiating distance, managing employees, and moving equipment like tractors, harvesters, and excavators from site to site are challenging in themselves. Being so spread out also makes scouting for pests difficult—one site can be perfectly free of pest and disease, but another, 20 miles away, might have taken two inches of rain the week before and had a fungal outbreak. The benefits of having so many sites, though, include diversity in terroir and risk mitigation—a farm that has its entire planting on a single site puts a lot of eggs in one basket and risks being entirely wiped out by one of the aforementioned hurdles.
In spring 2018, we planted 16 acres of grapes at our tasting room, The Winerie, in Sandusky, Ohio. We planted Lemberger, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Moscato Giallo, and Albariño on flat, sandy soil that sits in the middle of tens of thousands of Midwest rotation crop acres. The vines exploded through budbreak and grew several feet within weeks—they clearly loved their new home on the south shores of Lake Erie.
I spend a lot of time in the vineyards but because of our expansion I haven’t been as intimate with each individual vine as I once was. In late June 2018, I was alerted by one of my vineyard laborers to what they thought was a fungus attacking some of our vines. After a quick look, I realized that the damage to the vines was caused not by fungi but by herbicide drift, the movement of weed killer to an off-target area. Upon a much closer inspection, I realized that almost every vine over the entire 16 acres was showing signs of damage, some vines more so than others.
Though our experience with herbicide damage in 2018 would be our first, it would not be our last. Fast-forward to 2019, and every vineyard that we own or consult on—one of which is certified organic—has shown signs of damage from volatilization, a type of herbicide drift that occurs when the chemical becomes a gas and travels through the air. The severity of the current damage remains unknown. Some of the vines are incredibly stunted, and it’s questionable whether they will go into the upcoming season with enough carbohydrate reserves to withstand our typical brutal north central Ohio winters.
How Herbicides Function in Modern Agriculture
Herbicides are used in almost every aspect of cultivated plant life: residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural. They are used to kill unwanted grass or broadleaf species in both animal pasture and crop ground, since weed pressure is the biggest threat to crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans. Weeds can quickly outcompete crops for water, nutrients, and sunlight.
Herbicides are most heavily used by farmers in agriculture—to maintain maximum profitability from a healthy stand of row crops, it’s imperative for farmers to reduce this competition for resources. For millennia this was done through manual or mechanical cultivation, but around the time of World War II, herbicides were developed for use in fields to “burn down” any vegetation ahead of planting.
The Threat of Herbicide Drift
Monsanto started developing Roundup Ready soybeans in the early 1980s. The goal was to take a set of genes from a bacterium resistant to the effects of Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer and splice them into soybeans. This would allow farmers to apply Roundup directly over the soybeans, killing weeds but not harming the crop. Roundup Ready beans were released to the public in 1996, followed by Roundup Ready corn, sugar beets, alfalfa, and cotton. Though Roundup has received some bad press as of late because of possible carcinogenic effects, it is safe in terms of off-target herbicide drift.
Drift from Roundup can only occur through the movement of the pesticide through the air (typically by wind) to an off-target area during application. So only the crop in direct contact with the weed killer is affected, leading to localized damage. The active chemical in Roundup, glyphosate, is an amino acid inhibitor that has very little translocation effect on plants—only the green tissue of a vine that has been directly hit by the spray will show signs of damage, which is typically superficial as there are no long-term effects. The vine can quickly grow out of the damage.
With years of Roundup use, however, weeds have become resistant to it. The agricultural industry’s response has been to recommission 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), a chemical that was created over 70 years ago and is widely known for its role in the chemical cocktail Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed over the jungles during the Vietnam War and believed to have caused significant illness in millions of survivors.
Similar to the genetic modification of Roundup Ready plants, crops have now been engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and the closely related chemical dicamba. Unlike Roundup, 2,4-D and dicamba drift through volatilization, the transformation of the material from a liquid to a gas hours or days after application—essentially, the chemicals evaporate into the air after application. The airborne chemicals can be carried for miles, leading to widespread damage—they act as systemic inhibitors of plant growth, with severe effects. The entire vine will exhibit damage such as a curling elongation of leaves and, ultimately, the failure of the root system to take up nutrients, leading to mortality.
How Grape Growers Can Prevent Damage
Vineyard growers can take steps to reduce the risk of drift. The most important thing growers can do is to get out into their farm community and have conversations with their neighboring farms about the risk of volatilization. When it comes to volatilization, even responsible farmers can create off-target damage.
The reality, though, is that growers can’t possibly have contact with every farmer within miles of their vineyards, so they should consider signing up with a sensitive-crop registry—this is a directory in which growers can highlight their crop’s location and sensitivities. Beyond grapes, other sensitive crops are experiencing the effects of volatilization, such as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and even typical field crops like soybeans, cotton, and corn that don’t carry the herbicide-resistant genes. The registry helps other farmers to know of a grower’s existence and to be concerned about their well-being—to acknowledge the existence of a sensitive crop is to care for your neighbor’s crops, their livelihood, and the quality of their land. You can register on a site like FieldWatch, which maps the location, size, and distance of your vineyards from other farms. Registries can make area farmers aware of your presence and could help persuade them to use a lower-risk herbicide.
If a grower is unlucky enough to feel the effects of 2,4-D and dicamba drift, there is little that can be done to mitigate the damage. Some thought should be put into dropping the fruit for the season so the vine can focus 100 percent of its energy into growth, without expending energy on ripening. Herbicide drift should also be reported immediately to your state’s Department of Agriculture, which should send inspectors to survey the damage and conduct an investigation in an effort to track down the offender. It’s proven difficult, however, to find culprits because so many farmers are using the same formulations, and herbicides can travel great distances. If loss of vines or crops occurs and a violator is recognized, the grower would need to file a lawsuit against that farmer in hopes of receiving compensation.
Where Does the Grape Industry Go from Here?
“Though 2,4-D and dicamba may be the demise of wine grape production in the Midwest, there is almost no funding available to do research on this topic,” says Doug Doohan, Ph.D., a professor and weed expert in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University in Columbus. “The grape industry in big [agriculture] country should prepare for the situation to get worse before it gets better.” Without proper research being conducted, and with no new herbicides set to replace 2,4-D or dicamba on the market anytime soon, education and lawsuits that hurt a farmer’s bottom line will be the only real way to break the cycle of damage caused by these herbicides.
Though the future looks bleak, OVM and I are heavily invested in the wine-grape industry and will not be tapping out anytime soon. However, something has to give, and that may be the varieties grape growers choose to plant. Andy Timmons, the managing partner of Lost Draw Cellars in Fredericksburg, Texas, says he is “surrounded by millions of acres of 2,4-D and dicamba resistant cotton and [gets] hit every year [by herbicide drift]. Many varieties, like Trebbiano, Tempranillo, and Cabernet Sauvignon, seem to be much more resistant. However, if varieties like Pinot, Merlot, and Syrah sniff it in the air, they will fold.” There may come a time when OVM and other grape growers will no longer try to fit a variety to a specific site based on terroir and will instead plant herbicide-resistant vines out of the fear that our neighbors may destroy our livelihoods.
Speaking as a grape grower, I and my company can deal with cold winters and excessive rain, but we can’t stand for the hardships caused by herbicide drift. To have a neighbor destroy all your hard work, causing heartache and financial loss, is infuriating. Something needs to change.