By Contributing Columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich
Most people understand the general concept of “organic,” especially as it applies to the food we eat. But lately in the Long Island wine community, the “buzz” is all about sustainability. The question on a lot of people’s minds is—what exactly does this mean?
The concept of sustainable agriculture grew out of the early organic movement and became fine tuned during the late 1980s. In 1989, the American Agronomy Society adopted the following definition for sustainable agriculture:
"A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long term, enhances environmental quality and the resource base on which agriculture depends; provides for basic human food and fiber needs; is economically viable; and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."
In a nutshell, sustainability is an activity that can be carried out (or sustained) successfully over a long period of time with minimal impact on the surrounding society and environment. In essence, it is a way of life and a pathway to long-term success—for everyone involved.
Simply put: sustainable agriculture utilizes practices that are economically viable, socially supportive and ecologically sound. The types of practices employed are dependent on the crops grown and on the place in which they are grown.
Sustainable agriculture actually transcends both organics and the strict ideology of biodynamics, as it understands that farms as well as people don’t operate in a vacuum.
It's a practical, research-based approach to the complexities and challenges of agriculture that encourages people to care about their environment, their neighbors and their crops using a system of localized “best practices.” These practices may include organic concepts but as is often the case with wine grapes in the Eastern United States, the climate along with the seasonal weather conditions usually require growers to manage outside of organic dogma to be economically successful.
But following sustainable agricultural practices is not just about insect and disease control. It's also about managing small farms in a way that can be sustained successfully over a long period of time in the community they're situated in.
Examples of unsustainable agriculture from the past include some of Long Island's duck and potato farms—both which contributed to water pollution in the region. This past winter we saw the results of large-scale organic lettuce and spinach operations—food that made many people ill and took the lives of others. Even though these operations were certified organic, they were, to say the least, not sustainable.
Larry Perrine, the CEO at Channing Daughters Winery is a long-time practitioner of sustainable agriculture. He defines it as a "combination of a concept, a philosophy and a web of interrelated actions." He goes on to say that “organics are not always the answer to grow crops successfully. The system is more complicated, especially with wine grapes since they’re a perennial crop and are exposed to the surrounding environment a long time before the crop is harvested."
Alice Wise, the Grape Research Program Leader at the Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, NY has worked on the issue of sustainability for Long Island vineyards for many years. She is one of leaders in writing the sustainable guidelines for New York State called VineBalance. Alice states that the VineBalance program is a set of self-assessment guidelines that encompasses all aspects of farm management. “Growers rate their practices in areas such as nutrient management, vineyard management and pest management,” said Alice. “Based on their results, growers can devise strategies for practices that need improvement. The goal is to not impose economic hardship or unreasonable expectations, but to work with growers in a creative and helpful manner to address the issues and challenges of grape growing.”
A website for the program, www.vinebalance.com, will launch next month.
What does this have to do with Long Island wine?
Long Island is all about sustainable wine growing. The concept is in full force here on the East End where the producers are small, environmentally minded and making handcrafted wines. Wine itself is a healthy beverage (in moderation) and on Long Island production is limited to small batches, with attention to detail that require little or no additives and truly represent our terroir. Vineyards are a long-term investment which preserve farmland and reduce soil depletion and erosion due to minimum tillage. Much of what is removed from the fields—prunings and processed fruit—are eventually returned to the soil. Long Island wine producers use a tremendous amount of hand labor for everything from pruning, leaf pulling, shoot positioning and harvesting, providing employment for many in the local community.
Is sustainable agriculture a perfect system? Of course not, but it is the best overall strategy for long-term success. Examples of unsustainable winemaking still dominate the marketplace. Mass-produced, mechanized, large scale, industrial-style wines, manipulated with additives and made with a minimum of hand labor are transported thousands of miles to consumers. Talk about a carbon footprint! This is clearly not a sustainable model.
Sustainability starts at home—with all of us. Recycling, conserving energy and supporting your local farms are all sustainable actions we can take on our own. We need to be open to buying products that give equal emphasis to the social, environmental and economic benefits of paying a fair price for locally grown products. More and more, consumers are learning about the impact of their food and wine choices on their total quality of life. So next time you’re looking to pull a cork, remember all that goes into your local wine—and think about sustainability.
It all begins with you.