July 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

Grapegrower Interview


by Laurie Daniel
Glenn Proctor
Amigo Bob Cantisano takes a moment to reflect at Skipstone Ranch, where he collaborated with winery and vineyard staff to achieve CCOF certification for the estate above Alexander Valley.
PHOTO:Skipstone Ranch
Amigo Bob Cantisano, a ninth - generation Californian, is widely regarded as one of the state's most important proponents of organic farming. He's been farming organically in the Sierra Foothills since 1974; his current operation, Heaven and Earth Farm, is in Nevada County. But it's in his work as an adviser that his influence has been most keenly felt. A co - founder of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the nation's oldest organic certification organization, Cantisano founded Organic Ag Advisers in 1987. Since then, he's consulted with more than 600 farmers who grow winegrapes, vegetables, fruits, grains and other crops. He's even shared his expertise with the World Bank, the government of Costa Rica and the California Department of Transportation. Cantisano goes by the nickname Amigo, a nickname given to him in high school.

Wines & Vines: What is the most important aspect of organic farming?

Amigo Bob Cantisano: Soil management is primary in my mind. The healthier a soil becomes, with regard to ecological stability and biological diversity, the less problems with growing the crop--including less problems with fertility, pests, diseases, weeds, water availability and weather hardiness.

It's most common that, when I get hired by a client, the first place they ask me to work is the vineyard or the block that has not responded to conventional farming. It's going down to disease pressure or nematode pressure or some other thing. I had one client who purchased a piece of property with a vineyard, and it was sold for bare ground prices because the expected vineyard life had expired, and they were ready to remove the vineyard. The new owner didn't have the finances to be able to renovate the entire vineyard right away, so the task we set upon was: How can we keep this vineyard alive as long as possible while they started a replanting project on portions of it?

The problems in that vineyard were phylloxera and nematodes, which were damaging the roots. So we took out all the toxins. There had been a lot of herbicide use, and herbicides are toxic to soil fungi, and soil fungi are the natural biological control for nematodes and phylloxera.

Then we put a whole lot of effort into soil improvement and health of the soil, which included a lot of compost made specifically high in fungal activity, so that it would quickly re-colonize the soil with beneficial fungi. We grew cover crops that were toxic to the nematodes and the phylloxera--like mustard and radish and a couple of others.

Then we changed the farm to minimal irrigation, so it became virtually dry-farmed, which forces the plant to develop a deeper root system and, in the case of phylloxera, that's deeper than the phylloxera can survive. The grapevine redevelops a new root system and outgrows its competition.

We also introduced a microbial culture of fungi and bacteria that are bio-controls to nematodes. Fertigation the first couple of years to add both nutrients and extra biology to the soil. We foliar-fed them in order to keep enough nutrition in the leaves that were still present. It was a whole bunch of things.

The upshot is that the vineyard that was purchased for bare land prices continued to produce grapes and, in fact, brought back most of its vigor--back to yields that were comparable to before the phylloxera and the nematodes were taking them down. It was noticeably improved the second year, but by the third and fourth year, it was back close to normal. That vineyard produced for another 15 years, and the only reason it was removed was because the client wanted to change varieties.

Also important is a change of thinking to look at the crop in a more holistic way. Typically, agriculture basically looks at a pest and then reacts to it. In a more holistic fashion, you have to ask the question: What's actually creating the environment for the pest? Is the plant compromised? Is the environment around the plant compromised? Why is the plant succumbing to the pest? And then from that process, figure out what other actions the farm could be taking that might be effective.

W&V: You didn't start out with grapes. How did you get into working with vineyards?

Cantisano: I have worked in more than 60 different crops, starting in the mid-'70s. I was invited to work in table grapes in the late 1970s in the southern San Joaquin Valley by a friend of mine, Steve Pavich, who at the time was the only large-scale organic grape farmer in the world. My experience in table grapes for about 15 vineyard clients led me to be introduced to winegrape growers in the mid-'80s.

W&V: Let's talk specifically about a couple of pests that California growers have to battle. How do you combat mealybugs and leafhoppers?

Cantisano: The grape mealybug is a pest that thrives in the presence of ants, so we spend a tremendous amount of effort at ant management, one. Two, we learned that grape mealybug does better in environments that have been strip-sprayed; that is, if there is no vegetation under the grapevines. It prefers that sunny, warm climate. We found that we could actually reduce their activity by cultivation, or by allowing plants to grow underneath.

Also, we found that mealybug has a number of things that will attack it. If we take the ants out of the equation as much as possible, the biological controls will have an opportunity to attack the mealybugs. We also introduced two different parasites that are active on the mealybugs, as well as a predator.

We also use pheromone confusion. We isolate the environment and make sure that we are not moving the mealybug around physically. It's quite a few different things, some of which are commonly used and some of which are not. We've just integrated the whole approach.

Oh, and then if we have a major outbreak, we might use an organic insecticide to kill back the mealybug in an area. The difference between organic farming and conventional farming is we're not just relying on a pesticide. Sometimes this requires more work and more money. Vine mealybug, organically, is more expensive to manage than chemically.

With leafhoppers also, it's a number of things. One thing we found early on is that nutrition has a big effect on this. When vines are more luxuriant, they are preferential food for the leafhopper. As a result of that, the leafhopper both feeds on them more rapidly and multiplies more rapidly and gets a larger population.

One of the things we found was to change the fertility program to ensure that the plants weren't super-luxuriant, particularly in nitrogen. Also, change the irrigation program so the plant wasn't particularly luxuriant. And in some cases, put a competitive cover crop in the field to reduce the vigor of the plant so that it wasn't as attractive.

Second is biological control. There are numerous species of insects and spiders that attack leafhoppers. Often in conventional fields. Those have been eradicated by regular pesticide applications. In some situations, we plant what are known as insectary glens, plants that are grown to attract and feed the beneficial insects. In some cases, we plant them on the borders of the field, sometimes they're inter-crossed in the field.

Then we also bring in beneficial insects. We purchase them from insectaries and apply them into the field as a preventative. So we're kind of overwhelming the field with beneficial insects in an effort to attack the over-wintering leafhoppers. We use monitoring to determine when they're at their most susceptible stage, which is the nymph stage in spring. Typically, we use some type of oil spray that would suffocate the leafhopper nymph.

And in severe situations--I haven't had to do this in years--we've also used traps. Sticky yellow traps have been put around the borders of fields to prevent migration. We've also introduced houses for bats and bluebirds, both of which feed on leafhoppers.

W&V: How does the cost of farming organically compare with the cost of farming conventionally?

Cantisano: With regard to winegrapes, that varies widely, depending on the site. For example, coastal grapes grown on relatively flat ground can be farmed organically for the same or slightly more (10%-15%) than conventional, whereas hillside vineyards may be significantly more expensive due to increased weed-control costs. That said, in the Central Valley, many of my clients farm considerably cheaper than conventional growers due to lower pest control, disease control and nematode control costs.

Also, it is important to not look only at the short-term costs of organic farming. I have worked on many vineyards where we have extended the expected field life of the vineyard by many years--sometimes multiple decades--over what is typical with conventionally farmed grapes. The costs of re-establishing a vineyard are very high, and often greatly outweigh any short-term economic advantages of conventional farming methods.

Then it is necessary to look at the other costs. Erosion, environmental degradation, environmental cleanup, water pollution, farmer and farmworker health and safety; pesticide manufacture, application and disposal; pesticide applicator training; government agencies engaged in regulation and monitoring of pesticides, and more.

W&V: California's water shortages have been in the news. Are you able to help your clients decrease their water use?

Cantisano: Generally, yes. As they increase the water-holding capacity of the soil, the need for irrigation decreases. We try to increase the organic matter. We choose a specific cover crop that's appropriate to that soil type in that vineyard, which would add enough organic matter to absorb more water when it's incorporated.

We often plant deep-rooted plants that will open the soil up, which allows better water penetration. One of the common ones we use is daikon radish. Compost is another source of organic matter to hold water. We change the tillage systems wherever possible to something that's a deeper kind of tillage. We use spading machines in certain situations, discs in others.

I also teach people how to irrigate plants so that they develop deeper root systems, which reduces water stress during heat spells and allows less frequent irrigation. Often, growers have been on a very frequent irrigation regime. They're watering once or twice a week, and they're putting on a small amount of water each time.

What we encourage them to do is first, start irrigating as late as possible in the spring. We use a combination of visual observation and pressure bombs to determine when the plant is starting to get stressed from lack of water. The later you wait into the spring to irrigate, the deeper the root system is going to develop.

Then going to a program where we water less frequently but for longer periods of time. You might meet someone who's irrigating once a week for four hours or six hours, and we might change that to once every 10 days or two weeks, but we might put on eight or 10 or 12 or 14 hours of water. It now fills the water profile much deeper, but also there's a longer period of time between irrigations, so the plant develops roots to move down into that lower area.

When the air gets hot, the soil temperature near the surface goes up, and the shallow roots stress. You get a plant that's deeper-rooted, down in moister, cooler soil, it doesn't stress as much.

W&V: Are there practices or products that are permitted in organic agriculture that you won't use?

Cantisano: There are hundreds of products that are legal for organic farming that are not worth the money, or have better alternatives that work as well or better for less expense. Just because it qualifies for organic does not make it a viable product. Many are a waste of money, or don't work well, especially with regard to their cost.

There's a whole bunch of these liquid organic fertilizer products out there that are basically designed to be able to mimic what you do with chemicals. The vast majority of those are extremely expensive and unnecessary, because you can get that fertility, the same exact nutrients out of the soil, either from what's inherently in that soil--by making the soil more biologically active, it releases those minerals--or from soil-applied rock mineral forms of these things, which require biological activity to break them down. But that's what we're creating--this high biologically active environment.

The other thing is it creates a mentality with farmers--we call it input substitution--where, "Oh, I was using X fertilizer chemically, so I'm just going to use X fertilizer organically." Instead of looking at the holistic picture of how to make that soil biologically active and release the nutrients, they're just looking for a substitute input that meets organic standards. That doesn't get to the heart of good organic farming.

Getting creative with the GWSS

A new pest presents a particular challenge for organic growers. When you can't simply spray a chemical, sometimes you have to get creative. Such was the case for Amigo Bob Cantisano and his clients with the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

Cantisano says he created a "multi-pronged strategy," which started with increased monitoring.

He planted a mix of native California plants, such as ceanothus and hollyleaf cherry, and non-natives, like celery, cilantro and dill, on the borders of the vineyards. Sharpshooters migrate to grapevines because they're lush and succulent, he says. "We put a border in between the riparian or other problem area and the vineyard that is equally or more succulent, so that there's no reason for them to migrate to the vineyard," Cantisano says. "Altogether in some of those fields we put almost 40 different species of plants around them." The border plantings also attract parasitic wasps and other insects and spiders that prey on GWSS. (Similar strategies also work for the blue-green sharpshooter, he says.)

He also applied repellent materials, such as kaolin clay (Surround), on the borders of the vineyard. By turning the plant white, he says, Surround makes it less attractive to the sharpshooter. Other strategies included managing the vigor of the vine, which also makes it less attractive to the pest, and changing fertilization practices to create a hardier vine. He applies organic insecticides only as a last resort.

 "I wish one of them would do the whole job," Cantisano says. "You have to combine all of these things to get an effect."


A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.
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