Pennsylvania wine-grape grower pioneers sustainable vineyard management methods
The Roth family has been part of southern Pennsylvania's fruit world for four generations. Reigning patriarch Phil Roth—now in his seventh decade—is challenging himself and his fellow growers to cut back on chemicals

By Laura Sayre

Resources for organic viticulture

Lon Rombough, The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture (Chelsea Green, 2002)

Growing Organic Winegrapes: An Introductory Handbook for Growers (Fetzer Vineyards, 2003)

Wine East

Penn State's Practical Guide to the Application of Composts in Vineyards (2003)



"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 Biglerville.

For more information, please e-mail David Othmer at or Mark Chien at





























"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 Chardonnay—flourished.

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 Wine list.

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.

"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."
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.

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 second years.

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 Wine East (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, see "Compost 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.