BC’s Sustainable Vineyards

Posted on Monday, 8 November 2021 under Supporting Farmers and Ranchers Feature

I look at it as I’m farming the soil and trying to preserve and regenerate it. There just happens to be vines on it. – Felix Egerer, Tantalus Vineyards

Felix Egerer from Tantalus Vineyards captures the necessity of concentrating efforts on building healthy soil on a vineyard. There are several climate-friendly initiatives that grape growers across British Columbia can adopt that support beneficial ecosystem health. For many growers, it starts with the health of the soil.

BC is home to over 1,000 vineyards, utilizing over 4,000 hectares of land to grow wine grapes. For many farmers, growing grapes involves stewarding the land and working with natural ecosystems. This is both beneficial for the farmer and our climate. In addition to taking a holistic approach to farming, grape growers adopt alternative forms of energy, reduce the use of chemical inputs, and invest in cover cropping and organic inputs. These approaches to farming result in positive outcomes for production and reduce climate impact.

Grape growers have faced some incredible challenges this past year, specifically with record high temperatures in areas around BC. Sustainable Winegrowing British Columbia Program Manager, Katie Pease, oversees the project out of the BC Wine Grape Council. Pease notes, “I’m not a grape grower myself but I would say, in my understanding, I think one of the biggest issues, even in the last few years, is variability in weather.”

Heat is essential for the growth of vines, but prolonged high temperatures can be damaging. Rick Thrussell from Sage Hills Vineyard says, “It’s not going to be business as usual 25 to 30 years from now. We have to start making changes or it’s going to hit our industry, as well as many others in the fruit growing industry, very hard.”

Increased fire activity is a huge challenge for vineyards. Pease says, “It’s not only the stress of potentially leaving a vineyard or a winery but also smoke taint is something that’s been becoming a big research topic in terms of how it affects wine grape quality.” Smoke taint refers to grapes being exposed to smoke for too long which causes unwanted tasting characteristics as the wine develops. Climate change creates major challenges for BC grape growers that will require key adaptation strategies and mitigation efforts moving forward. Pease says, “A lot is playing into this new reality of us all dealing with climate unpredictability.”

Increasing soil health and diversity results in a stronger, healthier ecosystem that is better equipped to withstand climate shocks. Share on X

In 2008, growers, winemakers, consultants, and other industry specialists came together to begin the development of Sustainable Winegrowing British Columbia. From the beginning, the goal of the program was to create a third-party verified sustainability program, overseen by industry members that represent all aspects of the industry. Pease admits, “It’s taken some time to get to this point. We just launched the program in November 2020.” Diverse industry members developed the program into what it is today. It offers sustainability certification and provides educational resources and training to help vineyards and wineries establish sustainable practices. Sustainable Winegrowing BC supports vineyards and wineries that promote the sustainability and longevity of the business and environment in which they operate, including social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The strategies that they assist with from a climate perspective include protecting and preserving the land, soil, water, plants, and animals that support vineyards; lessening the environmental impact of the farm by reducing the use of water, energy, fertilizers, pesticides, and packing and minimizing waste; and preventing pollution and enhancing carbon capture in vineyards. For their vineyard certification, they apply a specific set of standards to reduce environmental impact. Pease says, “On our vineyard standard we cover everything from a watershed-scale approach down to irrigation efficiency, soil nutrient management, and integrated pest management.” These approaches foster healthy environmental growth on the farm.

Soil health is a key marker of the sustainability certificate. Farmers are encouraged and trained to promote the development of healthy, living soil on the farm. Pease says, “We do put a lot of focus on building healthy soils. Part of that is increasing carbon content.” This can be achieved through cover cropping and compost application. The most important strategy is to keep the ground covered. “Everything we do is for the soil so we try to keep it covered as much as possible with dead and living plant material,” says Egerer. Another important consideration for vineyards is their chemical inputs. Excess chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides evaporate into the atmosphere and increase GHG emissions. The sustainability program works to educate growers on how to reduce chemical product inputs. Pease says, “We don’t prohibit them to the extent that an organic production would but we certainly would, through an IPM perspective, look at decreasing as a whole while at the same time increasing the health of the soil and the vines themselves.”

Increasing soil health and diversity results in a stronger, healthier ecosystem that is better equipped to withstand climate shocks. The key, says Pease, is “to increase diversity so that chemicals aren’t used for everything.” Overall, it is important to bring a holistic approach to growing grapes. Viewing the farm as an entire ecosystem will benefit its functionality. Sustainable Winegrowing BC incorporates this approach into their education programs. “We are trying to begin our education programs around how to generate a more holistic farm in general, starting with the soil and bringing back the bugs,” says Pease. “There are different things that will allow the ecosystem function to enhance the vineyard and work in favour of the vineyard owner.” Ultimately, these approaches reduce emissions coming off the farm and create a more sustainable environment. Many farmers across BC are already adopting an ecological approach to farming.

People are becoming more ecologically aware and putting the practices in place that allow them to create more holistic systems that can be managed with nature, says Pease

Practices like cover cropping, enhancing biodiversity, and reduced tillage look different on a vineyard than in other farming sectors. The permanent nature of the vines means there is less of a need to till the soil year after year. Farmers plant cover crops in between the rows of vines both for the winter and the summer. At Tantalus Vineyard, they incorporate cover crops into their crop planning. Egerer says, “We are already farming a monocrop of grapes so trying to break it up with as much diversity as possible is the goal. In winter we seed grain, and vetch and winter peas because it gets so cold here we only have some species that survive. And then in summer, in theory, we seeded 12-13 different varieties with worm castings mixed in and some inoculant.” It is best to leave cover crops growing as long as possible because they host several beneficial insects. On some vineyards, they go years unmowed or turned. Thrussell notes, “When you eliminate that undergrowth, now you have no natural defences from the predatory insects that live there.” This highlights some of the benefits of maintaining a naturally growing space.

BC vineyards and the wine they produce are celebrated around the world. Grape growers across the province demonstrate how climate change mitigation efforts start at the farm level. Considering the farm as an entire ecosystem and using holistic farming practices is a climate-friendly way for grape growers to also have success in production levels. Aside from the benefits that these strategies have to the production of the farm, many farmers are concerned about their impact and want to demonstrate leadership in the industry. Thrussell says, “It’s always been our philosophy that we are lucky enough to be here in this time, in this space, and we earn our living from growing our grapes but just because we own this land, I firmly believe, doesn’t mean we have the right to decimate the environment all for the sake of making a buck.”