||"I realized I was running myself
ragged, and I wasn't making any money. Guys with 30 acres
of trees had better net returns than I did."
Field day on sustainable viticulture
"Making the Shift to Sustainable Agriculture"
is the subject that scores of Pennsylvania, Maryland
and Virginia winegrowers will gather to discuss
on August 19th at Phil Roth's vineyard near the
town of Fairfield, in Adams County, Pennsylvania.
Presentations will include: Phil Roth on his
composting experiments, spray techniques, and
vineyard management generally; Paul Hepperly and
Matt Ryan on compost tea work at The Rodale Institute
and area vineyards; and Ed Boyce and Sarah O'Heron
of Black Ankle Vineyard on biodynamic viticulture.
In addition, a group of Penn State researchers
and educators will discuss common problems encountered
by wine-grape growers and sustainable approaches
to managing them. Jim Travis will talk on soil
microbiology, John Halbrendt on alternative weed
control, and Mark Chien on grapevine yellowing.
The day will conclude with a guided visit to FREC—Penn
State's Fruit Research and Extension Center at
For more information, please e-mail David Othmer
or Mark Chien at firstname.lastname@example.org.
||"The only reason more commercial
producers aren't using compost is because they can't get
it," Phil concludes. "Or, if they can, it's
made from biosolids, and you definitely don't want to
mess around with that stuff in a vineyard or orchard."
July 2, 2004: "We’re going to see
big changes in agriculture in the years to come," predicts
award-winning Pennsylvania wine-grape grower Phil Roth.
Roth's been in the business long enough to have earned forecasting
rights. Now in his mid-70s, he's been tending vines in Adams
County for 30 years, managed apple, peach, and cherry orchards
here before that, and grew up—"just over at the
base of that mountain there," as he puts it, pointing—the
son and grandson of local fruit processors.
If fruit growing runs in the blood of the Roths (Phil's granddaughtter
was recently named Pennsylvania Apple Queen), their family
history also tracks trends in modern agriculture. Roth started
farming here in 1962, and, through the early part of his career
he anticipated Earl Butz's advice to ‘get big or get
out.’ At the height of his expansion, he was managing
700 acres of orchards, including apples, peaches, sweet cherries
and sour cherries. He employed nine full-time people year-round
and had a harvest crew of 60 migrant laborers.
Then one day in the early 1980s, Roth says, "I realized
I was running myself ragged, and I wasn't making any money.
Guys with 30 acres of trees had better net returns than I
did." Gradually, he began selling off orchards and bringing
the farm down to its present size of 196 tillable acres, with
164 acres in apples, 8 acres in grapes, and a few acres in
peaches. By 1991, Roth was managing the place pretty much
by himself again. In 1998, in a token gesture toward retirement,
he rented out the last of his apple and peach acres to a neighboring
farmer and began focusing his energy on his wine grapes.
Roth had planted his first vines in 1973, in an effort to
diversify his fruit business and in step with a worldwide
resurgence of interest in viticulture. He trialed a half-dozen
varieties on a rocky, elevated field with poor soils and an
unpromising northeasterly aspect. A few of the cultivars promptly
died; others lived but yielded low-quality fruit. Just one—the
Roth grew only Chardonnay for twenty years; in 1993 he added
some Pinot Noir vines, but Chardonnay remains Roth Vineyard's
signature grape. Eric Miller, the winemaker at Chaddsford
Winery in the Brandywine Valley, where the bulk of Phil's
harvests go, is so impressed with their qualities that he's
put Roth's name on the bottle. "Chaddsford Winery Chardonnay
Philip Roth Vineyard" has been served at the White House
on at least one occasion, notes Phil; the 2001 vintage was
named to Food & Wine Magazine's Top 10 All-American
But Roth hasn't been resting on his laurels. Amidst the kudos,
he's been busy challenging himself and others to move Pennsylvania
wine-grape growing in a more sustainable direction by reducing
chemical use and experimenting with biologically-based management
strategies. And while he's happy to see support for organic
viticulture now on the rise, it visibly saddens him to know
that he may not be around long enough to see it triumph. "I
was born 25 years too early," he says, smiling ruefully.
Innovating from the ground up
Roth's experience illustrates, among other things, how hard
it can be for farmers with a large, fixed investment in perennial
crops to explore new production methods. "I've always
been interested in the organic approach," he comments,
looking back on his early farming years. "But I had so
much invested that I didn't know how to make the transition."
Eventually, however, Roth decided that "the soil was
the first thing that had to be addressed." He began reading
about soil biology, the relationship between soil microbial
activity and plant disease and the benefits of compost for
building soil organic matter. Unable to find a good local
source of prepared compost, in 1997 Roth rented a compost
windrower and started experimenting with various sources of
inexpensive organic materials, including waste hay, grape
pomace, sawdust and spent mushroom soil. Encouraged by the
results, the next year he bought his own windrowing machine;
and he's been composting ever since.
Roth says that when he first started applying composts in his
vineyards, "nobody had any data on its effects." Lacking
any guidelines and fearful of under-fertilizing his vines, he
started with what now seems like a huge application rate, 22
tons per acre for three consecutive years.
||"I've always been interested
in the organic approach — But I had so much invested
that I didn't know how to make the transition."
Before long, he discovered that the biggest risk when using
compost in the vineyard is not getting too little fertility
but getting too much. "You can over-stimulate a perennial,"
he points out. If you do, he says, the effects can be felt
for years. Since grapes often seem to thrive in poor soils,
moreover, too much fertility can have serious consequences.
From 1997 to 2000, Roth saw his soil nutrient levels slowly
rising but his production falling. So he cut back. "I
haven't used commercial fertilizer since 1995," he says.
"The difference with compost is that you get the residual
effect. With commercial fertilizer, it's shot and gone; but
with compost, you can't get rid of it. You've changed the
biological dynamics of the soil."
Perfecting the use of compost in vineyards
Roth's established fields are still coasting on those early
applications—2004 will be the third season he hasn't
applied any compost except to new vines in their first and
Today, Roth says he makes compost out of just about "anything
I can get for free," including municipal leaves from
Gettysburg (some 80 dump truck loads last fall) and grass
clippings and other yard waste from his neighbors. Recently,
an Asplundh crew came through the neighborhood, trimming trees
around the power lines, and he offered to let them park their
trucks on his property in exchange for a few loads of hardwood
chips. You don't want to have too many wood chips in your
compost, he cautions, but using some improves the composting
process by helping to aerate the pile.
With creative, resourceful methods like these, Roth says
composting is definitely economical. "I calculated it
all out, and I figure it costs me about $30 a ton to make
compost," he says. If he hadn't over-applied in the past,
he reckons that annual applications of 2-3 tons per acre—or
between $60 and $90 per acre—would be about right. (Growers
commonly spend $100 an acre on commercial fertilizers.) "The
only reason more commercial producers aren't using compost
is because they can't get it," Phil concludes. "Or,
if they can, it's made from biosolids, and you definitely
don't want to mess around with that stuff in a vineyard or
orchard." To spread compost in the vineyard, Roth recommends
a wet-lime spreader, which many growers already have.
Another benefit of compost, coincidentally, is its moderating
effect on pH: Roth's soils have gradually risen from pH 5.5
to 6.5, so he no longer has any need to apply lime. Viticulturists
are also beginning to recognize compost's disease-suppressive
effects. It seems to be particularly effective in treating
crown gall, a bacterial disease which can weaken or even girdle
vines. Roth reports that his Brix numbers (a measurement of
grams of sugar per 100 grams of liquid at 68°F) have dropped
a bit, from the low 20s to the high teens, although last year
his Pinot Noir came in at 25. But "there's more to good
wine than Brix," Roth emphasizes. Part of the appeal
of winemaking, after all, is that the precise relationship
between soil and taste remains a mystery.
Having learned the hard way himself, Roth's been keen to
spread the word about compost use to his fellow viticulturists.
In the past few years, he's contributed two articles on composting
and sustainable vineyard management to the producers' magazine
(they can be found in the May-June 2001 and May-June 2003
issues, respectively). He also worked closely with Penn State
plant pathologist Jim Travis on A Practical
Guide to the Application of Compost in Vineyards,
released in the fall of 2003.
Remaining challenges for sustainable viticulture
So if fertility is a no-brainer, what's next on the agenda
for building a more sustainable viticulture? Over the years,
Roth's been experimenting with weed management alternatives
to herbicides as well: He tried plastic mulch but found it
to be a huge mess; next he tried mulching with a flail chopper,
but that proved impractical as well. This season, Roth will
be participating in a mulching trial with Penn State researchers,
comparing spring-planted rye, buckwheat, hay, and wood chips
as cover cropping and mulching materials.
Insect pests in this area include the grape berry moth, grape
root borer, and (in some years) Japanese beetles. Bt (Bacillus
thuringiensis) products are effective against the grape
berry moth; some growers report success using milky spore
(Bacillus popillae) as a control for Japanese beetles
at the grub stage.
But the real challenge for organic grape growing in this
area is disease management. As with other types of fruit growing,
Eastern wine-grape growers face substantially tougher pest
pressures than their Western compatriots. Whereas conventional
California grape growers might spray three or four times a
season, Eastern growers typically get out the spray rig 12
or 15 times a year.
The only serious disease problem out West is powdery mildew
(which unlike most fungal diseases, thrives in hot, dry weather),
and that can be managed with sulfur. Eastern growers must
also contend with humidity-loving black rot, botrytis, downy
mildew, and phomopsis.
Prioritizing on-farm research collaborations
As an enthusiastic advocate of on-farm research, Roth's been
lending his accumulated expertise to these problems as well.
He's currently working with Rodale Institute researchers Matt
Ryan and Dave Wilson on a project examining the ability of compost
tea to suppress common plant pathogens. Funded by SARE,
the study is tracking disease incidence across three treatment
areas: one receiving weekly, foliar applications of brewed compost
tea; one receiving pesticide applications according to standard
recommendations; and one left unsprayed. (For more details,
tea research enters its second year" )
The trials are being replicated in potato and pumpkin fields
at The Rodale Institute, and in two other area vineyards. Here
at the Roth Vineyard, the test area is 1600 row-feet, or about
a third of an acre. This year, the trial rows are being laid
out in a section of the vineyard lying upwind of an adjacent
orchard, with the no-spray control on the outermost row so that
the disease spores coming off it will be less likely to spread
to other vines.
Although last year's results showed that compost tea can
have a strong impact on certain vineyard diseases, it's still
early days for judging the overall effects of compost tea
on vine health. Last season's CT treatment grapes were kept
separate from the rest of the harvest, and were sent to nearby
Adams County Winery for analysis. The results showed that,
while yields were up, quality fell a bit. Roth and the researchers
agree that the vines receiving CT applications were visibly
more vigorous last season but appeared to a bit behind in
growth this spring. All of which suggests what a delicate
business it is introducing a new, biologically-rich input
like compost tea into a perennial agro-ecosystem.
Laura Sayre is senior writer for The New Farm.