The hands-off approach to viticulture

Darren Smith looks at the Fukuoka method of farming and asks whether it holds lessons for viticulture.

Nate Ready, owner, Hiyu Wine Farm, Oregon
Nate Ready, owner, Hiyu Wine Farm, Oregon

In the middle of the last century on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan, a disillusioned agricultural scientist named Masanobu Fukuoka moved to a remote hillside farm and launched a quiet farming revolution. He cultivated rice along with various other cereals and citruses as part of a polyculture, with no machines, no chemical pesticides or fertilisers, no tilling, no composting and very little weeding. He didn’t even hold water in his rice fields through the growing seasons as was, and still is, the norm for rice cultivation. 

Fukuoka, who died in 2008, called his way of working ‘natural farming’ and he was in effect one of the pioneers of permaculture – a “whole systems” method that aims to recreate patterns and relationships found in nature. His methods defied both traditional, tillage-based farming and the modern industrial methods that were transforming agriculture around the world. Yet Fukuoka eventually produced rice yields comparable to those of industrial farms. Before long, curious men in suits were trekking up the mountain to learn his secrets.

They weren’t the only ones. Around the world, as people began to question industrial methods and the damage to ecosystems and soil life occasioned by intensive farming, Fukuoka’s ideas spread. Farmers crossed continents to trek up the mountain and find out what this he was doing. Eventually, so too did a few winegrowers. 

The risks

As wine businesses look for ways to work more sustainably in the wake of climate change, it seems pertinent to ask whether Fukuoka-inspired, low-input methods – working by hand, using no chemical pesticides or fertilisers, no tilling, no composting, no irrigation, and minimal pruning and weeding – could have a wider application for the wine industry. Could Fukuoka’s success in defiance of modern agricultural methods hold important lessons?

A useful starting point is provided by Alison Ctercteko MW, an Australian with extensive experience of managing vineyards of varying size and according to different methods. Ctercteko established the 110ha conventionally farmed Monument Vineyard in the Central Ranges of New South Wales, and now owns a small vineyard in Huon Valley, Tasmania, which is “as organic and minimalist intervention as possible.” Ctercteko is convinced that a ‘natural farming’ approach is unworkable for most commercial wineries: there would be simply too much risk of disease, variability of crop quality, and yield. 

“In my experience, conventional farming produced the highest yields, the most consistent quality and the healthiest fruit,” she notes. “It could be operated with minimal staff, although chemicals and irrigation costs were high. These costs tend to be higher still for an organic vineyard – the biological control spray options are very expensive.”  She points out that no-intervention farming would lead to losses from fungal disease, insufficient moisture and competition from weeds, and “more manual work is required with greater risk in terms of successful crop.” 

These risks and limitations have not prevented a steady stream of winegrowers from putting Fukuoka’s ideas to the test. Since 2007, Rhône-based vigneron Eric Texier has kept a 2ha experimental vineyard, farmed according to Fukuoka principles. Essentially, this means he does no ploughing or animal composting and practices permaculture, planting food crops among the vines. “It is complicated to speak of the application of the Fukuoka principles to viticulture in the strict sense,” Texier says. “Fruit monoculture is not one of the hypotheses studied by Fukuoka. At best we could speak of natural agriculture based on no-tilling and the presence of a permanent plant cover. This is what I applied to 2ha of vines in the south of Beaujolais.”

After ten years, Texier’s yields from this ‘Fukuoka vineyard’ stabilised at an undeniably modest 1,500 bottles per hectare. As he acknowledges, this does not allow for commercial exploitation, though he does say that “the wines are remarkable in many ways.”

Yet Fukuoka’s ideas do, Texier believes, have practical applications for wine producers, even if they are not quite aligned to the priorities of most commercial wine businesses. The integration of the vine within the framework of a food polyculture, he says, would be an interesting and profitable application of these ideas. 

Polyculture

This is what Nate Ready of Hiyu Wine Farm has sought to establish in the Hood River Valley, Oregon. Ready has 5.6ha planted to vines on a 12ha farm. Describing his approach as a synthesis of Fukuoka, biodynamics and permaculture, Ready suggests the following practical applications of natural farming for a wine business: no tilling or using animals for tilling; no mowing, or using a roller crimper/animals for mowing; no pruning after winter hard pruning; no green harvest; no hedging or other canopy manipulations; seeding by hand/no-till drilling; no spraying, or only a probiotic spray program; and diverse polycultural plantings, such as growing vegetables and grains planted among the trees and vines.

This has worked at Hiyu Farm, whose vineyards yield an average of six tons per hectare per year – pretty much standard for high-quality grapes in Oregon. This has been achieved with less labour and fewer inputs than conventional farming, with the added benefit of non-grape related yields, including fruits and vegetables harvested from between the vine rows and served in the farm’s tasting room. 

Another intriguing case study is provided by Bruno Schloegel of Domaine Lissner in Alsace. Schloegel combines a sympathy for Fukuoka’s principles with a chartered accountant’s eye for figures. For nine years he was the director of CCFA 68, an administrative body with financial, legal and social responsibilities for agriculture and viticulture businesses in Alsace. 

Schloegel discovered Fukuoka in the 1980s. In 2001, when he took over the Lissner domain, he dedicated himself to pursuing techniques which use as few inputs as possible while retaining economic profitability. He prefers to call what he does ‘wild viticulture’.

Schloegel’s vineyard treatments are limited to minimal sulphur and copper applied in two to three tractor passes per year. Including harvest, he manages his 9ha with just four to five passes per year. This compares with up to 30 for organic production (Schloegel’s figures), which combine a variety of inputs, as well as tillage, to maintain maximum yields. 

In terms of direct costs for managing his vines, Schloegel spends just €800, which is basically the cost of sulphur and copper, plus around 200 litres of diesel per year. Schloegel estimates that he saves almost €50,000 ($55,000) and 500 hours of labour per year, while the benefits he enjoys include increased biodiversity, a vastly reduced carbon footprint, improved water storage, and improved soil life. 

Over time, Schloegel’s yields have stabilised at around 35hl per hectare on average, though in some plots yields easily reach 60hl per hectare. The Alsace average is around 68hl per hectare.

For many Fukuoka-curious wine businesses, the time factor could be a sticking point. Schloegel says around seven years are required to allow spontaneous flora and fauna to develop, and a further five years for the reconstituted soil reserves to be mobilised by the vines.

Individual approach

Other important considerations are the size of area being farmed by hand and the availability of affordable labour. Also, as Ctercteko observes, susceptibility to fungal disease means this approach would be unlikely to work for all grape varieties. Alsace white wines can work with a little botrytis; dry whites like Chardonnay, or red wines, cannot.

For Nate Ready, however, the biggest obstacles for people to overcome are aesthetic – “It looks different and that tends to upset people” – and cultural. “I think it’s workable [for commercial wineries], but it will require them to operate in a different way,” he says. “You can’t just stack permaculture or natural farming on top of a conventional business model. All elements of the farm have to be integrated. This includes finance, architecture, human resources and more.” 

As Ready explains it, these systems are not designed to be replicated. The idea behind them is to take into account all the elements on a site: soil, climate and topography, but also elements related to all the living beings within that system. In this context, wine is not the first priority, but one element of an integrated whole. 

“Permaculture-based systems are the opposite of monocultures in this regard because they are based on complex rather than simple yields,” he adds. “They end up being opposed to chemicals because the destruction they cause never comes close to being offset by any benefits. Our farm is a polycultural environment. There is no way to be focused on only vines or wine first and to do it properly.”

Does natural farming represent the future of viticulture? Probably not. But it would be short-sighted to dismiss natural farming as the exclusive preserve of crystal-necklaced eccentrics seeking some sort of viticultural nirvana. There is undoubtedly crossover here between natural farming and the priorities of commercial wineries seeking ways of working more sustainably. 

Eric Texier certainly sees important applications for the wider wine industry – albeit as part of more conventional agro-ecology system. This would include techniques such as microbiological management of soils through no-tilling, establishing plant cover adapted to local conditions, using grape varieties less susceptible to fungal diseases, and the use of push-pull techniques and hedge planting to deter pests. 

“They are the viticulture of the future,” he says, “which remains within the framework of a monoculture with a commercial aim.” 

Darren Smith

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.

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