||"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."
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 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
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
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
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
||"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 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.