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Vineyard sustainability: to measure is to manage

In our final article of 2021, Hutchinsons Rob Saunders and Chris Cooper consider what the drive to improve environmental sustainability means for vineyards.

November’s COP26 Summit in Glasgow once again pushed climate change and environmental sustainability up the public and political agenda, highlighting the need to address some significant challenges.

Pressure to cut emissions and improve biodiversity is affecting all sectors, so it is imperative vineyard managers assess what this means for individual sites and identify practical solutions to employ. That could be anything from managing soils differently to establishing nitrogen-fixing species or flower-rich mixes down alleyways or around the edges of vineyards.

As well as benefitting the environment, improving sustainability credentials makes commercial sense, as maximising output by using all inputs (including land) as efficiently as possible reduces the carbon footprint of each bottle produced. There are marketing advantages too, especially as buyers of English and Welsh wines are often more attuned to such principles.

Gaining recognition

Standards such as the Red Tractor and the LEAF marque have not been widely adopted in the vineyard sector, but the launch of the Sustainable Wines of GB Trade Mark two years ago can provide members with recognition for the beneficial measures they employ – indeed many vineyards (SWGB members and non-members) already follow a lot of the standards.

The certification scheme applies to both the winery and any vineyards supplying it – large or small – and focuses on several key areas. These include the protection/enhancement of soil health and biodiversity; reducing carbon footprint, energy and water use; and minimising fertiliser and plant protection product applications. Rather than prescriptive standards, it is based around the principles of “observe, measure, and record” with progress reviewed on a three-year cycle.

Start with soils

Improving soils is a big part of any sustainable land use for crops and is highlighted in the SWGB certification scheme, so is the perfect place to focus efforts given the interconnections between soil health, biodiversity, carbon capture and vineyard productivity.

However, before making any changes, it is vital to understand where you are starting from and what you are trying to achieve. This requires establishing a baseline of current soil condition by accurately assessing physical, chemical and biological properties.

Services such as Hutchinsons’s Healthy Soils and TerraMap high definition soil scanning are excellent ways of doing this, providing an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of soils and the causes of variability. The launch of TerraMap Carbon further gives a unique opportunity to map the organic and active carbon in soils, and use this data to create carbon maps within the Hutchinsons Omnia precision software to aid future soil management.

Organic matter is at the heart of healthy soil and carbon sequestration, however there is often a feeling that organic matter continues increasing if you simply keep doing the right things.

This is not the case though, as different soil types will eventually hit their own equilibrium, and some, such as light sandy soils, can struggle to retain organic matter longer-term. Advancing the situation further could require other approaches, such as the addition of biochar.

Biochar is a very stable form of carbon produced from pyrolising wood in an anaerobic atmosphere, similar to the production of charcoal. Unlike chipped prunings or other wood chips that rot down relatively quickly releasing carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere, biochar is very stable and resists breakdown, locking carbon away for longer. It can also be valuable for improving the cation exchange capacity, nutrient and buffering capacity of soil.

Measuring microbes

Soil microbiology is another aspect that is central to productive, healthy soils, but assessing it to establish a baseline is far more complex than for other soil parameters.

As an apex organism, earthworm counts provide a useful broad indicator of soil biology, however there is more happening beneath the surface, with a lot of unknowns about the interactions between soil microbes.

A range of methods are available for assessing soil microbiology in more detail, such as the CO2-Burst test used by many laboratories, the on-site microBIOMETER, or the Eurofins SoilLifeMonitor test. Hutchinsons is currently trialling a number of these methods to evaluate their effectiveness and reliability, but given the complexities of soil microbiology it is unlikely any one test will provide all the answers.

Talk to Rob, Chris or your local Hutchinsons agronomist to find out more about improving the sustainability of your vineyard and the tools available to help.

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