Sustainable wine: punting the pests 

click to flip through (4) PHOTO SUBMITTED - Tantalus vineyard
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In these days of scary, unregulated pesticide use, and the disappearance of many animal species important to ecosystem health, it's refreshing to find a commercial business devoted to both sustainable farming and the support of surrounding ecosystems. Recently, I heard of such a place on the eastern slopes of the Okanagan above Kelowna, and had to find out what it was all about.

On a sunny September day, Jane Hatch, General Operations and Sales Manager for Tantalus Vineyards, met me on the back deck of an airy tasting room that offered a sweeping view over vines sloping down toward distant Okanagan Lake. I was there to talk birds and bugs; Jane likes to chat vines and wines. Since these topics overlap, we had a fruitful conversation.

To start, as the Okanagan's first LEED certified winery, Tantalus is the region's de facto leader in sustainable, organic viticulture. In addition to hand-tended vines and no use of pesticides or herbicides, the vineyard is moving toward a fully biodynamic system (Rudolph Steiner's rediscovered ideal of ever-increasing ecological self-sufficiency that views any farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system). Not employing chemicals is unusual in this high-stakes industry, rare enough to be shared with less than 10 of B.C.'s some 200 wineries. In another first for a B.C. winery, Tantalus' wastewater treatment system processes 100 per cent of effluent and domestic sewage with zero reliance on municipal or private providers.

Tantalus augments its farming sensibilities by acknowledging the importance of local biodiversity. Splitting the property is a natural 10-acre dry land forest, habitat and forage for native flora and fauna that variously hosts great horned owls, four species of hawk, and a range of other indigenous critters. The 53 beehives on the property are a partnership with nearby Arlo's Honey Farm (see "Range Rover," in Pique, Sept. 25) and, interestingly, aren't here for the wine. Grapevines aren't reliant on bees for pollination, but other plants and crops are, so in addition to maintaining health and robustness of the natural ecosystem, these hives ensure that surrounding orchard, soft fruit, and vegetable farms remain productive in the face of viticulture.

With various degrees of success (after all, everything is an experiment) Tantalus is also providing nesting boxes for useful birds as a primary means of insect control. Both sparrows and Western bluebird are helpful in keeping insects to a minimum. Whatever arthropods birds can't control are left to the grape-growers to deal with. On a farm focusing on sustainable practices that can be a tractable problem. Leafhoppers, for instance, are common pests. Tantalus uses pheromone cards to attract them and, if an infestation gets really testy, a type of soap. "If you get to (the leafhoppers) early enough, their numbers are usually OK," says Jane.

The biggest issue for growers to deal with here, however, is starlings.

In a now infamously hubristic error, the American Acclimatization Society released 100 European starlings into New York's Central Park between 1890 and 1891, part of its goal to establish all of the birds featured in Shakespeare's plays into North America. Smart, adaptable generalists, the species quickly spread across the continent, establishing in the Okanagan by the early 1950s. Starlings are aggressive competitors and relentless in taking over nesting cavities and driving native birds from their territory — a big reason they're on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of the World's 100 Worst Invasive Species. Because certain dotty old ladies cry foul when you slag any bird, it's important to understand why starlings are dangerous pests: in addition to damaging all fruit crops, their dense populations spread diseases like Salmonellosis, Chlamydiosis, avian tuberculosis and histoplasmosis. Starlings cause an estimated $800 million in damage annually to agricultural crops in North America, with conservative estimates of damage in the Okanagan Similkameen at over four million dollars annually.

Paralleling the Okanagan's growth and globally acknowledged status as one of North America's top wine regions, the unwanted starling numbers here are now astronomical, their sky-darkening flocks a familiar late-summer scourge. There are more here simply because there is more food. More food equals more happy starlings having more babies than they normally would (they're already prolific, for birds, with up to three broods a year from which each breeding pair average eight surviving fledglings). Ergo, wine success has equaled starling success. The dry land forest at Tantalus offers perches for raptors that keep the starlings nervous — but it also offers perches for starlings. To even keep their population at a level that can be termed "obnoxious" requires more than the natural fear thrown into them by the raptors on the property. Thus, like other wineries Tantalus employs protective nets over the vines, propane cannons, and recorded bird distress calls — standard fare throughout the industry. In addition, and more broadly effective, the British Columbia Grapegrowers' Association runs a collective starling control program in the Okanagan that wineries voluntarily contribute to: starlings are netted and gassed up and down the Okanagan in numbers that run five figures annually (the high was 88,290 in 2010).

The starlings — some from as far afield as Grand Forks and Quesnel — show up when the grapes are just starting to build up their Brix Degrees (the universal measurement of sugar content employed by oenologists) in early fall, and drunk on the prospects of a free-for-all grape-and-fruit bacchanalia, proceed to become very aggressive. Which explains the cannon explosions I hear every few minutes from the adjacent vineyards.

"Robins and flickers can be problems to a lesser extent and they're actually cheekier — you look at them when they're sneaking a grape and they look back like they've been caught in the act. So there's an affinity with them, and we pluck them out of the nets when they get caught and turn them loose," says Jane. "Should we value one species over another? Well, we don't even let starlings flounder to death if they get caught up in protective netting but... we do pay the fee for eradication efforts. I guess eradication isn't a good word — control."

The fact that she checked herself on that harks back to the freighted nature of all language we use around alien introduced species. But that's a topic for another day. In the meantime, physically controlling disease-carrying, crop-destroying invasives is not inviolate of sustainability, and the general approach here represents a big advance for an area that had been conventionally farmed since the 1920s. With table grapes on the vine since 1927, that makes Tantalus (née Pioneer Vineyards) not only the province's oldest continuous producing vineyard, but centerpiece of a growing regional hotbed of sustainable farming.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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