A Clash Between Cotton and Cabernet?

Texas vintners say drifting pesticides are killing their vines
A Clash Between Cotton and Cabernet?
Vines impacted by Dicamba, like this Viognier in Texas, have curled up leaves, lower yields and odd-tasting grapes. (Courtesy Texas A&M University)
Sep 21, 2018

The Texas High Plains has the potential to be a grapegrower's paradise. This plateau near the New Mexico border is now home to nearly 5,000 acres planted to wine grapes. Summer delivers warm days and cool nights, and dry winds make fungal diseases a non-issue.

This is traditionally cotton country, yet with recent drought conditions and a growing recognition of the economic possibilities of wine, vine plantings in the region have exploded over the past 10 years. The second-largest appellation in the state, the Texas High Plains AVA supplies approximately 80 percent of the grapes used by Texas wineries.

But now there's a conflict between cotton and grapes. Many Texas High Plains growers say they've been hit by "pesticide drift"—strong chemicals are being sprayed on neighbors' cotton fields, then carried by wind into their vineyards. The resulting damage can be devastating. According to Pierre Helwi, Texas A&M University AgriLife viticulture specialist, farmers are experiencing deformed leaves, reduced crop yield and even dying vines.

"It's huge," said Bobby Cox, vineyard consultant and winegrower at Pheasant Ridge Winery in Lubbock. "It's the biggest threat that I've seen and I've been farming grapes here for over 40 years."

Drifting trouble

The conflict between cotton and wine is rooted in current conventional cotton farming methods. Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences have developed pesticide-resistant corn and cotton seeds that farmers purchase in tandem with very heavy-duty chemicals such as Monsanto's Roundup. The idea is that farmers can plant resistant crop varieties and then spray their fields with the appropriate chemicals, killing all troublesome weeds and insects, but sparing the resistant plants.

Unfortunately, the weeds have grown resistant to Roundup and other sprays. Agricultural companies have responded with herbicides that pack a bigger punch, including Monsanto's Dicamba and Dow's 2,4-D. But those more powerful sprays appear to be impacting vines too, drifting into neighboring fields. Numerous grapegrowers have reported damaged vines. Dicamba makes leaves curl up, while 2,4-D makes leaves fan out at an awkward angle and develop odd bumps. Either way, it saps the plant and the ripening fruit of needed energy.

"Dicamba damage even affects fermentation and the way the wines taste," said Cox, who had many vines damaged from pesticide drift in 2016. "They're not exactly bad, they are just different in a very definitive way. All of the winemakers I've worked with could easily make that identification. It doesn't take a supertaster to recognize them."

Pesticide drift is by no means confined to Texas. In 2004, California vintners Chuck McMinn of Vineyard 29 and Larry Turley of Turley Wine Cellars claimed that sprays being used in a state park caused widespread damage to their vineyards, killing vines and spoiling fruit, and ultimately causing as much as $500,000 in loss of small-production wines. Turley claimed that "drift from the spray came down the highway, obliterated fruit from my vines and nuked the crop off my olive trees. It killed the vegetable garden at my house, my hydrangeas, privet, roses and anything that's fast-growing."

While state parks officials admitted to a massive spraying, they denied any wrongdoing, claiming that park employees applied the product strictly according to instructions on the product label. Ultimately the Napa County Department of Agriculture levied a $4,000 fine upon the California State Department of Parks and Recreation and recommended that Turley and McMinn "drop fruit and seek compensation," which amounted to pennies on the dollar.

A report published last month by the University of Missouri, suggests that drift of Dicamba this year has damaged over 1 million acres of vulnerable crops across the country. When asked how big a threat pesticide drift is to wine grapes in Texas, Helwi, who monitors vineyards throughout the region, says he's seen drift damage in 90 percent to 95 percent of the vineyards in the region.

Collaboration over confrontation

Katy Jane Seaton is executive director of the High Plains Winegrape Growers Association, and like many grape growers in the region, she also grows cotton. She says that this is "not necessarily a farmer-on-farmer issue. The railroad and the Texas State Department of Transportation regularly spray 2,4-D, as do private venues, city and county agencies, and landscape companies to name a few. We haven't had a chemical inspector in Terry County for more than a year."

Culpability in pesticide drift cases is often hard to prove. "We've got 5 million acres of cotton and just 5,000 acres of grapes," said Seaton. "Chemical companies have us outgunned financially, legally and legislatively. I think they have a responsibility in this that they aren't quite claiming yet. We need to encourage discussion about how we're gonna make it work for all of us."

Some authorities believe that the problem lies not so much with the pesticides themselves, but in improper application methods. "Texas A&M has done many trainings in the proper application of herbicides," said Helwi. "We've got high winds here, so it's especially important to observe label directions when applying pesticides." Texas A&M's "Hit the Target" program allows farmers to register the location of their fields, the type of crops being grown in them, and any particular pesticide sensitivities so that others can avoid accidentally damaging a neighbor's crops while spraying.

"We are all trying to be the best stewards that we can," said Seaton. "Nobody gets up in the morning wanting to harm their own crop, their neighbor's crop or make a negative impact on the environment."

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