Why does Organic Farming Matter (lady bugs, spiders and bees – oh my!)?

Someone asked me recently about organic farming. They actually asked me something like twenty questions about organic farming and I quickly realized I was out of my depth and didn’t quite know enough about it. So I did a bit of research to try and answer as best I could, and I thought it would make an interesting blog post to share with all of you. But before we delve into this, remember I am no expert, and nothing I say should not be taken as the gospel truth. This is just my perspective on things from my personal experience and a couple of hours on google. Got it? Good.

Organic farming is the future. In my mind there is no question about it; organic farming is about to hit that economic milestone where it becomes affordable when compared to conventional and I think many growers in the Sonoma Coast will make the switch. Many small vineyards out here already use organic farming practices, but I think it’s just a matter of time before the big-time conventional farmers take the leap.

At Hillcrest, the estate Pinot Noir vineyard I manage, we try to do as much as we can organically. Gophers are manually trapped rather than poisoned, we do not spray insecticides at all because we have a healthy cover crop that attracts lady bugs and spiders, and we’re getting away from herbicides. I’ve spent plenty of hours out there with a hoe appreciating just how convenient herbicides are and wondering why we made that decision. For the planet people, for the planet.

The biggest threat to grapes out in the Sonoma Coast, however, is not gophers or bugs or weeds. It’s mildew. Powdery Mildew is the worst nightmare for a vineyard manager, and the Sonoma Coast is an ideal environment for it to take hold. The mildew will stunt growth and prevent ripening, and can even spread to your neighbor’s vineyard if you have a bad infection. For these reasons it tends to be a vineyard manager’s number one enemy.

And that’s where I run into trouble with organic farming. Organic fungicide sprays are not as effective as conventional sprays so you are taking a bigger risk when you use them. In addition, they must be sprayed more often, meaning vineyard equipment is run more frequently resulting in a larger carbon footprint for many organic vineyards. And just because something is labeled organic does not mean it’s not toxic. Many organic spray regimens include copper, a toxic heavy metal that can poison groundwater. These are some compelling reasons to at least take a close look before jumping on the organic bandwagon completely.

So take a closer look I did, and let me tell you why we’re going to jump on that bandwagon anyway in 2014. This probably isn’t news to anyone by now, but the world is experiencing an alarming decline in bee populations due to “colony collapse disorder.” There’s currently worry that there might not even be enough honey bees around to pollinate California’s almond crop this year and China has been pollinating apple orchards by hand for years¬†due to honey bee population collapse. I’ve been watching this in the news and have been appropriately alarmed, but it really hit home when a study published just this past January detected fungicides in dead honey bee colonies. Specifically Pristine, a fungicide that I use at Hillcrest.

I was shocked and perturbed that I may have contributed inadvertently to this dilemma, especially when the products I used were previously thought to be completely safe. This study is not assigning the blame entirely to fungicides, in fact they still aren’t entirely sure exactly what causes colony collapse disorder, but the popular theory seems to be a combination of factors of which fungicides is one. To me, the honey bee population decline is a serious enough issue that I’m willing to take the chance with organic fungicides and work a bit harder to try and keep our carbon footprint down in other areas to make Hillcrest as green as possible. As I said, organic farming is the future and I want to be a part of that future. Hopefully there will be bees. And flying cars, but bees are the really important issue here.

– Myles