Eco-friendly Farming Practices at Featherstone Estate Winery

Grapes are gently raised, and hand-harvested at Featherstone Estate Winery

David Johnson and Louise Engel live where they farm. Their goal is to serve as stewards of the land, just as other families lived and farmed this land before them. Featherstone has been insecticide free since 1999 and is committed to environmentally sustainable winegrowing.

Respect for the land is at the heart of making wine that is true to its soil and its site. In the give-and-take relationship between living soil organisms and plants, nutrients and minerals are exchanged and transformed. In a mutually beneficial circle, the soil nourishes the vine and Featherstone's farming practices nurture the soil.

The dirt on dirt

We are as concerned with what we can't see as with what we can. Soil structure affects the ability of water to drain and of vines to root deeply. At Featherstone we have soils that range from very fine clay to gravel and we want to encourage deep- rooting vines as they are more drought resistant and they will draw greater minerality and flavour into the grapes.

Soil teems with life on both a bacterial and fungal level. In a vineyard, it is the fungal life that is paramount and so we feed our soil fungi. A carbon-molasses spray (think of it as a chocolate bar for soil microbes) is applied to feed the micro-flora on the ground surface to sustain them and encourage them to travel into the soil.

Cover it up

Sheep like the rye grass as well

The sheep seem to like the cover crops as well.

Cover crops are planted between each row of grapes, leaving no soil exposed to erode by wind or water and reducing the opportunity for invasive weed seeds to blow in and establish themselves. These inter-row, planted crops are called 'cover crops' and we use the following mix: Legumes 25%, Brassica 25%, Rye grass 50 %

Legumes: Whereas most plants consume nitrogen, legumes return or 'fix' nitrogen. Their roots contain swellings, or nodes, that make nitrogen available to the vines. The presence of legumes in the vineyard reduces the need for the addition of chemical fertilizers.

Brassica: These crops include mustard and oil-seed radish and have a soil fumigant effect. They are effective against soil parasites (nematodes) and at the same time help to promote soil fungal growth.

Rye grass: These grasses grow all season and are mowed occasionally during the summer. The clippings are left in the vineyard to return organic matter to the soil. As well, the grasses compete with the vine on the ground surface for moisture and this encourages the vines to root deeply.

Leaf it alone

Above ground, we use a number of organic compounds to control mould and mildew on the vine leaf and grape clusters most notably elemental copper and sulphur. We are also looking at using 'tea' made from horsetail plants (genus: equisetum) as a fungicide.

Bugs don't bug us

Featherstone has been insecticide free since 1999 and we have a number of tricks in our bag to deal with small critters that want to eat our vines. A particular favourite in our arsenal is diatomaceous earth (DE). DiatomDE is essentially a big organic molecule with lots of rough edges and this makes it abrasive and irritating to the plates and armour of an insect's external skeleton. We don't actually kill our bugs, we just piss them off and they leave.

Right: a diatom, a fossil of hard-shelled algae

We also bring in beneficial predatory insects, ie lacewings and indigenous ladybugs, to eat the bad guys. Lady bugs,Ladybird beetle, the bane of aphids bless their little hearts, are carnivorous at every stage of their life cycle and are born wanting to eat sap-sucking aphids and mites. You go girl.

Pheromones which disturb the mating cycles of the grape berry moth (GBM) are also tremendously effective. The males are attracted to fake perfume clouds that are distributed throughout the vineyard and these 'clouds' smell just like really hot female GBM's. While the boys are out messing around with the decoys, the female GBM's sit at home alone and lay infertile eggs.

But wait, there's more.

Perhaps the most significant and eco-friendly thing that we have done was to buy a new sprayer. Please understand that ALL farmers spray their grapes-even if the farmer is certified organic, biodynamic or just a garden variety, oldschool supporter of Monsanto. Everybody sprays, the difference between farmers is what they put in the sprayer's tank.

In 2008 we bought a Recycle Sprayer which captures and re-uses any spray that doesn't adhere to the vine. With this system, there is no spray drift and no broadcast of spray into the environment. The alternative style of sprayer is an air-blast model that propels water and spray chemical into the vines and the air at great pressure.

After switching from an air-blast sprayer to a recycle sprayer, the reduction that we have seen in the volume of spray needed in the vineyard has been shocking. These sprayers don't come cheap and its purchase was partially subsidized by our Environmental Farm Plan. This is a provincial government initiative to encourage farmers to invest in more environmentally friendly practices and equipment.

Recyling sprayer

The recycle sprayer: more eco-friendly to the vines and most everything else found in the vineyard.