Investigating the Biodynamic Production of American Heritage Grapes

Progress report for FNC20-1217

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Vox Vineyards, Inc.
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Gerard Eisterhold
Vox Vineyards, Inc.
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Project Information

Description of operation:

The property consists of 86 acres, 61 were in the Conservation Reserve Program when we bought it in 1996. On the grassland, we conducted a burn and planted all but 14 acres to native grasses and forbs, converting 14 acres to vineyard.

Summary:

Vox Vineyards, Inc. (Kansas City, Missouri), grows over 40 different grape varietals bred from grapes native to North America. Compared to European varietals, these American Heritage grapes are better suited to production in the Midwest and Southeast United States. Cuttings from the vineyard's unique grapes have been planted in other vineyards in the region, including operations owned by Jim Borth, Brad Bergman, and Powell Gardens.

In 2019, Vox Vineyards began exploring biodynamic production practices for its 13-acre vineyard. Conversion to biodynamic production is a multi-step process that includes modification of both grape production and processing practices. As a first step to biodynamic conversion, Vox is evaluating biodynamic soil amendments and cover crops. Our hypothesis is that these soil management practices will improve overall soil health and productivity, and hence vine health, resistance to disease and insect threats, and thus quality.

This project evaluates the impact of biodynamic management practices on the production of two different American Heritage grape varietals, Norton and Wetumpka. Vox Vineyards and three collaborating vineyards are requesting $18,000 in funds for this research. Incorporating biodynamic production practices in the infancy of the expanding native grape industry could be critical for the industry's growth in the Midwest.

Project Objectives:
  1. Evaluate the impact of biodynamic soil amendments on soil health and grape yield.
  2. Evaluate the impact of two different annual cover crops on soil health and grape yield.
  3. Review overall viability of conversion to biodynamic grape production for native grapes with input from partner vineyards.
  4. Share results through industry presentations and posters.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jim Borth - Producer
  • Patrick Johnson - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

This study will evaluate the use of biodynamic treatments (soil amendments, cover cropping) on two different American Heritage grape varietals (Norton, Wetumpka). Upon award of the grant, further research will be undertaken on the specific types of soil amendments and cover crops to use. Ideally, we will be following guidance from another Demeter-certified vineyard, Jack Rabbit Hill Vineyard.

The Grapes. We have selected Norton grapes because of their broad use in the industry. Vox has been producing Norton since the vineyard’s inception and has won several awards for its wine made from these grapes. We have selected Wetumpka grapes because of their potential for commercial expansion.

Treatment A: Soil Amendment. Following Demeter guidelines, biodynamic soil amendments will be developed. The amendments will be applied several times over the growing season, April through September. Vox will evaluate using the biodynamic soil amendments on a treatment and control plot of both Norton and Wetumpka grapes. Four rows (3 Norton, 1 Wetumpka) will be treated with the amendment, and four without.

Treatment B: Cover Crop. Vox will plant annual cover crop between and under the rows of vines. The cover crop will be planted in the spring and summer. There are different strategies for the selection of cover crop, this will be reviewed prior to planting. Four rows will be planted with cover crops (2 Norton, 2 Wetumpka). Four rows will not be planted.

The Measurement: Organic soil components will be tested in the spring, in April, and again in October. Two samples from each of the 16 rows in the experiment will be tested.

Grape yield will be measured on both the control and the treatments, each of the 16 rows. Yield will be measured by pounds of grape per plant at the time of harvest.

Research results and discussion:

Attached is an analysis of our progress, results, and photos of our plot design, sampling methods. 2020 was a challenging year, and we are grateful for SARE support.

210330 BioDynamic at Vox

We presented the results to date on March 30, 2021 to Pat Johnson, and will follow up with Jim Borth and Haley Drake.  The overall results were certainly positive, and we intend to build on this strategy for the season ahead.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers
4 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The on-going COVID pandemic limited our capacity for travel and the number of viticulturists we initially set out to host at our vineyard. Throughout our project, however, our team members at Vox vineyards consulted with Lance Hansen with Rabbit Hill Farm (biodynamic viticulturalist from CO) for several days to exchange knowledge and ideas.

Outreach also consisted of travel and farmer to farmer exchanges with both Lance Hansen and Hugh Lovell, biodynamic viticultists for review of production protocols and cost. Toward the end of our study, we hosted a field day, presenting to 25 local growers and presented on our findings. Haley Drake (Powell Garden), Jim Borth Vineyards, Bergman (Bourgmont Vineyard), also shared insights on findings and potential for integrating biodynamic practices.

The SARE grant and general report are being incorporated into our standard presentation, website, and a graphic novel we are producing via a USDA VAPG grant to promote the broader story of biodynamic agriculture and the need to continually investigate sustainable practices.

Learning Outcomes

25 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Result Summary: We learned from the experiment the importance of nutrient availability, the "ethno-botanical" side of grape growing and the ecological impact that commercial grape growing plays in part with the other crops grown in our "ava". The experimental results demonstrated a lower requirement of spraying of fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. This also includes a reduction in carbon monoxide exposure to our environment.

 

A concern we had was the potential of losing our yield due to the bio-dynamic practices in this experiment. This was not the case. In fact, we found that our yield was equal to or higher than the control blocks. In addition, wine quality was excellent. We are in discussion internally about converting our entire west block to a bio-dynamic practices as well as introducing Bio-dynamic certified irrigation initiative.

 

The end result of the experiment post-harvest is a reduction on spraying the vineyard, saving us capital as well as promoting an environmentally friendly practice. The disadvantage is achieving true Demeter Certification, given the transfer spray drift from neighboring crops. Another element to this is combating Japanese beetles mid to early summer.

 

2020 Wetumka and Norton tasting evaluations exceeding our expectations. These new growing practices added another element to sales and marketing, giving our shoppers another avenue of wine and grape exploration.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
4 New working collaborations
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.