S1 EP0014 - In the Vineyard

The heat and rain the last two weeks are increasing disease pressure, including Powdery Mildew


Himrod Farm Supply is our local farm shop near the winery.  It’s run by some of our local Mennonites, and considering its rather small footprint, always seems to have everything we need for the vineyard and the winery.  Whenever you visit, you’re bound to run into someone you know.  Last week, I ran into a friend who is a vineyard manager, someone I hope to bring on the show in our second season, and we were discussing the vintage so far.  We shared the fact that with some varietals, we are well ahead of last year.  We also shared some of the frustrations with the increasing disease pressure, specifically powdery mildew.  Warm temperatures and high humidity are the key ingredients for its spread.  Powdery mildew is actually a fungus, and spread by spores that seek out the living tissue, generally the leaves this time of year, to spread and propagate.  Aptly named, powdery mildew leaves a white fungus on the leaves, and will ultimately damage the leaf tissue.  This is problematic, because it will inhibit photosynthesis and ultimately impact grape development.  The increase in pressure is giving some growers flashbacks to 2018, that most challenging of vintages, where heat and moisture were at record levels and resulted in an incredible amount of difficulty in the vineyards.  

Speaking of heat and growing degree day accumulation, as of July 5, we are currently at 1047.6 growing degree days. As usual, we try to put that in context by looking at some past vintages.  For the same date in 2020, we were at 990.1.  In 2019, we had only clocked 886, and in the warm dry vintage of 2016, we were also at 934.  Recalling the zombie apocalypse vintage of 2018, we were at 1105.  We continue to skew slightly warmer than usual.  Our ten day outlook is showing temperatures continuing to teeter between the mid 70’s and mid 80’s, but with increases in the number of days with rain.  

One thing I learned very quickly when I moved to the Finger Lakes from California, was the saying that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.  Oftentimes, forecasts for rain do not mean we will have precipitation all day.  Rather, storms will work their way through the region, dropping a quarter to a half an inch of rain and then returning to sunnier conditions.  This is one of the reasons drain tile is so important in the Finger Lakes.  To recap, drain tile is essentially perforated pipe, strategically placed throughout the vineyard and draining to a main line that then ejects the excess water into a naturally draining location.  Several things are important with regard to this.

First drain tile really helps evacuate that excess moisture, resulting in the ability to get back into the vineyard to work quickly.  In years like this, it is important that we are able to reenter the vineyard with a tractor as quickly as possible so that we can apply sprays to combat powdery mildew.  It’s also important for the vines, because, as we say, vines hate wet feet.

Consequently, drain tile must be installed in a manner that allows you to draw as much excess water out of the vineyard as possible.  In this shot from our vineyard, you can see how we installed the drain tile in a manner that helps the water drain at an angle, down hill, into the main line.  

As stewards of the land, we also must recognize that the water we drain from our vineyards will end up in Seneca Lake, as we are on the watershed for the lake.  This increases our responsibility to farm in a manner that is lake conscious, and considerate of our environment.  Excess nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, can contribute to nutrient imbalances in the lakes that will foster the growth of algaes that are dangerous for aquatic and human life.  Many people who live around the lake get their drinking water from the lake, and we always need to be sure we are protecting this resource.  

Like so many technologies, whether they be cement or aqueducts, the ancient Romans actually invented drain tile, but the knowledge wasn’t applied in the US until the 19th century.  A quick reference of the Wikipedia page on drain tile, note that Both Cato the Elder and Pliny the Elder reference drain tile for easing excess water on farmland as early as 200 BC.  It was introduced in the US in 1838, by John Johnston, not too far from here in Seneca County, where he laid 72 miles of clay tiling pipe on 350 acres.  His efforts increased his yield of wheat from 12 to 60 bushels per year, and became part of his three pronged rule for farming success, D-C-D, or dung, credit, and drainage.  

Drain tile is another feature of Finger Lakes grape growing that isn’t as common in warmer grape growing regions.  In my ten years in the Finger Lakes, there has only been one vintage where we were really concerned about drought.  Most of the time, the problem is excess water, and all the issues that stem from that.  Drain tile is one way to alleviate excess rainfall, and help us get back into the vineyard and address the other problems we face.  

If you like this podcast, please be sure to rate us 5 stars in Apple podcasts and like our videos on YouTube.  It really helps with the ratings and in introducing new folks to the show.  Be sure to tune in next week, where I speak with Derek and Stacey Edinger, founders of the newly established Brewery Ardennes in Geneva New York.  Brand new to the industry, they opened their Brewery on Memorial Day, 2021, and are already making a big splash in the region.  Their diverse experience and entrepreneurial drive are inspiring.  And if you missed it, check out our audio only special Fourth of July podcast, where I talk with Alex Robb of Rootstock Ciderworks about America’s original craft beverage, cider.