Sustainable Viticulture for Midwestern Fruit Growers

Final Report for FNC98-241

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1998: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Gene Sigel
Chalet Debonne Vineyards
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Project Information


Our operation consists of 85 acres of 17 varieties of wine grapes. The grapes are processed through out winery and sold as wine in the state of Ohio. The vineyards are located in northeastern Ohio, about 8miles back from Lake Erie, and lie in an area of heavy, wet clay soils. The vineyards and winery operation have been family owned since 1916.

We have always employed various forms of sustainable agriculture. From an economic standpoint, we realized that to farm profitably we had to tap the nearby urban market in Cleveland. Sustainable farming meant developing a winery to market our grapes. But it also meant introducing new grape varieties, to make better wines. We grow native grapes like Concord, Niagara or Catawba, hybrid grapes, like Vincent, Rosette, or Baco, and old world vinifera varieties like Riesling and Chardonnay. In turn, planting new vineyards has forced us to become more sophisticated in drainage and soil conservation. Our rolling hills can be an erosion hazard during cultivation, and so we have used various cover crops along with hay mulches to build and hold topsoil. Underground, we have moved from little or no vineyard tile (30-40 years ago) to tilling every 40’ (1980-1995) and then to tiling every 9’ (present). The intensive tile draining adds oxygen to the soil while removing excess water. The vines are more productive, winter-hardy, and enter production more rapidly.

The goal of our project was to demonstrate that intensive tile drainage, every 9’ and 18’, combined with new hybrid grape varieties in demand by wineries can substantially increase net farm income over traditional Concord grape farming. By charting the progress of yields, we will demonstrate to area growers the costs and returns from drainage and varietal shift.

We began by selecting two hybrid varieties, Rosette and Vincent, grafting the vines on to a productive rootstock, and surveying 18 new grape rows. Each set of 9 rows was divided into a 9’ tile block and an 18’ tile block. Half of each variety of vines would grow in each tile regime. Our attempt in designing the project was to see if we saw vine responses over time in growth, yield, or winter hardiness from the closer spacing of tile. In September 1999 the field was tiled by Hofka Farm Drainage of Pierpont, Ohio. Hofka uses a tile plow made in Canada to plow in the 4” tile, for us 24-30” deep. The tiles were placed in the middle of the tractor rows, 4’6” of the planting rows. The vines were planted 6’ apart in 1200’ rows, trellised with vineyard posts and two wires, and staked to a steel rod for training. In August, the vines were “hilled up” or mounded with soil for insulation from winter cold, and cover crop of oats was planted in the field for erosion control. Overall, the vines grew from 12-48” tall this year, and will be pruned back to small shoots next spring.

The SARE grant was benefited by help from our Ohio research community considerably. Dave Free of OARDC/Ohio State Horticultural program in Wooster was quite helpful in designing the drainage trial, and his State Viticulturist Maurris Brown visited the site several times to make recommendations. Tod Mason of Mason Consulting performed our soil analyses prior to planting through Brookside Lab, and under his recommendations applications of lime, phosphorous, potash, boron, copper, and zinc.

As pointed out in our application, vineyards are a long term process. It is only in the third to fourth year that the vines bear fruit, and it is over a decade or more that they express their potential for yield and vigor consistency and wine quality. The results of the first year are average: all of the vines planted grew and are established on a trellis system, which next year they will fill. Further analysis will need several more years.

Our drainage study began in 1996. That fall, we had 10” of rain in September alone, and the year itself was also very wet. In our 10 acre field of 2-3 year old vines the soil seemed particularly wet, even with 40’ spaced tile. After an average winter, we found that in this wet field many of the vines appeared to have been randomly killed back to the ground. Other vines were alive, healthy, and quite large. As the year went on, and we flew over the field, we realized over the diagonal tiles were larger, were already into production, and had completely escaped any winter damage, while those farthest from the tiles were small, had no fruit, and had lost most of their buds to the winter kill. It was at that point that we realized that tile could not only improve the traffic ability of our fields, it can also improve their productivity.

In the spring of 1998 we planted our first fields with 9’ spacing of drainage tiles, running parallel to the grape rows – a tile line for each row of grapes. That was the system we had learned form the Canadian growers in Ontario. This four acre field was planted to Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc. The SARE field is the second of these plantings, a four acre field of Rosette and Vincent. In both fields we have constructed trials of tiling, soil preparation, and rootstocks. We have compared three rootstocks, two tile spacings – 9’ and 18’, and several deep ripping experiments. Finally, in the spring of 2000 we will be planting 13 acres of vines all tiled every 9’.

Over the last 3 years we have become increasingly more sophisticated about farm drainage. We have moved to closer spacing but also to new technology. Moving away from the old wheel digging units and towards tile plows mounted on bulldozers has dropped the cost of tiling by 30% in the last two years. SARE has been part of this project, and as a result we do have some tangible outcomes from the grant process overall. This educational experience has changed how much tile we place in our fields, how deep we put that tile, and what machines we use to install it. The results of this tiling our already confirmed from the pilot studies done by Ohio State University in 1997 and 1998 when these tile effects emerged: wood and fruit output of vines over the tile was 25-50% larger in the third growing year.

The SARE drainage project was directly discussed with growers in January, 1999 at the Heartland Grape Coalition presentations in Indianapolis sponsored by Indiana University and later in February at the Ohio Grape and Wine Short Course set up by Ohio State University. In March, the SARE project was outlined to winery and vineyard owners at Wineries Unlimited, an Industry trade show for the eastern industry. As the vines grow and have fruit in 2000-2001, the SARE vineyard will be part of an annual “Twilight Grape Tour” set up by our county agent. The overall drainage project, including the Ohio State research on soil oxygen and vine growth is currently being prepared as an article for Vineyard and Winery Management, but already portions of this research have appeared in American Fruit Grower and Practical Winery and Vineyard.


Participation Summary
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.