Agriculture is ugly. That was a thought going through my head as I cut the vines on a freezing cold Sunday morning, looking down onto a big human pile of sh… dropped right there. Funnily enough, the pictures in this blog are NICE pics from our first cutting session in the new vineyard, there is no ‘ugly’ picture of the encounter with the sh… on this blog. Nor are there pictures of big machines or, for example, a picture of the cleaning of a spraying machine in the vineyard. This is strange, since in the field is the only legal place to clean a spraying machine, yet it seems to outrage passersby so much, that I have been told they call the police.
Nice pictures on every vintner’s website, and on this blog, thus don’t reveal one big dilemma and potentially very emotional discussion: on the one side the strong ‘yeah, what else’-type argument that our surroundings (streams, drinking water, countryside) should be free of chemicals; on the other side the – well, also ‘yeah, what else’-type – argument from the farmers that they have to spray to protect their crop.
For me, it creats a deep unease about a process that should be the most obvious and natural: growing stuff. Obviously, wine isn’t essential, so you could get out of growing or drinking wine entirely and be done with that. But the big spraying machines covering several rows and the fog that they leave behind are equally used for essentials we eat every day.
In fact, if the latest technology is used, you won’t see a big cloud of fog and the sprayed chemical will have a better chance of landing on the plants and not on your skin if you walk past, but the substance is still there.
“Just go bio and be done with it”, I hear you say. We are, and are almost there, actually. Our very long and meandered search for a new vineyard where we can do bio (which has just come to an end, yippeh!) shows how difficult it is. But this does not change that you might be walking or cycling past a spraying machine and not know what’s being sprayed, bio or conventional. Or that you only have one or two bio farmers/vintners in your area and are thus likely to come into contact with whatever conventional farmers leave behind. Or that you feel uneasy about copper and sulphur, if that’s what your bio vintner uses.
Whatever effort you look at, it’s easy to rip it apart. The cost of bio-certification, for example, is prohibitive to small businesses. So, if it is so difficult to convince consumers to pay for the extra labour that goes into bio products, how smashing will the reception be, if you tell them: ‘well, it’s going to be even more expensive, because the certification itself costs so much’.
But if I had to suggest one additional effort, it would be ‘spreading the word’, maybe even ‘spraying the word’ :o). At the moment, a chemical’s leaflet that lists the side effects and is delivered with the substance is in the hand of the farmer mixing up what he is about to spray. It’s not printed on the side of the spraying machine in huge letters. If it was, would we see locals walking their dogs in full protective suit?
I was told that one vintner said that he cannot not sit on his spraying machine in full protective gear with mask, as advised by the local body, as he would lose his wine-buying customers, if they saw him. The sight of a farmer on his spraying machine in full protective gear could be one way of conveying the gist of the leaflet on side-effects. Could such information thrown out to anyone living in farming areas, or visiting them as tourists, be so explosive? Imagine waking up in your holiday flat in June or July, a peak time for spraying, only to find your host, a vintner, going off to work in a gas mask. Would you feel like you were missold?
By ‘spraying the word’, I mean that if a few basics were shared, those not in the business but affected by it (because they buy, because they live there) would know what to look out for:
1) Create an understanding for the main substances used. For example, if systemic herbicides are designed to get to the inside of a plant, what does it do, if that same product tries the same with your own skin?
2) Discuss in each village at the beginning of the spraying season what residue-levels in the water system should cause concerns and where updates will be published. Arrange an active monitoring of such levels.
3) Convey an understanding for best practice: (i) If the moths (LBAM) are killed when laying eggs, you might have less fungus to fight later on. (ii) if the calculation of the mixture is done correctly, the spraying mixture should come to an end as you reach your last vine, thus leaving no residue.
4) Convey an understanding for “PIWI”s, ie grape types that need less spraying, as well as resistancies to chemicals that have developed.
5) Have signs on the spraying machines or in the fields what is being sprayed and how often.
6) Present the information in a digestible way.
For the time being, it seems to me that the lack of ‘spreading the word’ suits those still applying conventional chemicals. If you speak to a vintner and find out that in June/July they are out spraying almost every day, you realise how big the impact on the environment could be.
If I had to summarise my learning curve, it would go as follows: Everyone out there trying to make a living in agriculture, or in wine more specifically, is fighting pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. That’s the little catapillars that lay their eggs and eat the grapes, any fungus that makes the grapes rot away, as well as the weeds that need to be removed in different ways, one being the chemical one. You would think that, if the chemicals used end up in our drinking water, alarm bells would go off, more so than if horse meat was found in lasagne. So I set off on an internet search, in an ideal world wanting to find information as specific as ‘in the months of x, y and z, village p reached leves above the legal limits in its water areas, due to the chemicals sprayed in that period’. I was surprised how difficult it was to find digestible information on the internet, on the damage left behind. See results from measurements in 2008/2009 (“PSM-Wirkstoffe in Oberflaechengewaesser” from authorities in this region, – unfort, the pdf does not link), these samples from 2012 and this information from 2002 (if you take into account that it’s old).
However, I think the much bigger impact on what vegs/fruits I will buy from now onwards (and that doesn’t even include looking at the drinking water and the immediate impact on your skin from whatever is currently sprayed) comes from throw-away comments from people in the business. One went like that: “A vintner has a chance that by the time the produce (ie the wine) is tested, some of the chemicals left on the grapes have disappeared, but anyone in the business of selling fresh fruits, when you can’t get the chemicals off through washing, – poor sods.” So, maybe an educated peek behind the scene, – travelling there, asking questions -, is what it takes to change one’s buying habits.
SPRAY THE WORD!