Ben Culver
 
May 23, 2017 | Ben Culver

Charla con Benja: Our Transition to Organic

I'd like to first take this opportunity to introduce myself. My name is Ben Culver (or “Benja” as I’m sometimes called down here in Chile), and I'm a fellow at Kingston Family Vineyards. I graduated from Princeton University last year with a degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and a certificate in Environmental Studies. The Kingston Family Fellowship is a year-long program working at the winery in Chile.  In addition to hosting our guests at the vineyard, fellows have the freedom to pursue independent projects related to our own unique interests. Around the time of my arrival we began our transition to an organic vineyard, and I instantly wanted to get involved. Over the past 10 months, I have served as an ambassador between the winery and vineyard teams, learning all about the organic transition, and supporting in any way I can.  I'd like to share here a little bit about what I’ve learned!

We officially started the transition of 50 of our total 140 hectares planted to organic farming in July 2016 (roughly 125 of 350 acres). You can see this transition area indicated on the vineyard map below.  (Thanks to Iliana, Eliana, and Amael for helping me lead the charge on the map.) The certification process is based on existing guidelines in the U.S. and the E.U..  To earn full certification there is a 3-year transition period. We are transitioning a little more than a third of our vineyards in this first round, and our goal is to be 100% organic in a decade.

The first area of our vineyards transitioning to organic is outlined in red.

The first question on your mind might be “Why organic?” After all, we’ve been producing some pretty great wine (in my opinion) for nearly 15 years. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? Well, this decision really stems from two major motivations. First of all, and arguably most importantly, we are determined to responsibly manage the Farm that has been in the family for almost a century. We feel a responsibility to manage this land in a way that will minimize its negative impacts on the environment and ensure its longevity for future generations. Secondly, we are convinced that organic farming in the long term will create a healthier, stronger vineyard that produces even higher-quality grapes for our Kingston Family wine.

Generally speaking, there is a different mindset in organic farming when compared to conventional farming. Conventional farming is a more reactive form of agriculture. If you have a problem with a pest or a weed, you throw a chemical on it and move on. Organic farming is more holistic. In organic farming, we try to work the problem into the larger interconnected system of which the grape vines are only a small part. Organic farming is more of a bottom-up approach. A major theme in organics is focusing more directly on soil health, creating a balanced ecosystem to cultivate strong, healthy plants. The idea is that these relatively stronger plants will be more capable of taking on diseases and pests without pesticides.

Our winemakers, Byron and Amael walking through the vineyards for an inspection with our vineyard manager Patricio and Ben.

In managing this transition to organic vineyards, we have to change some of the products that we still use in our conventionally farmed plots. In order to become organically certified, we are only allowed to use organically certified products. While there are some organically certified pesticides and fungicides, there are no organically certified herbicides or synthetic fertilizers.

Unfortunately weeds and the need for nutrients do not just magically go away when you transition to organic. Instead of using herbicides, we now have a big new machine that we attach to the back of a tractor that mechanically removes weeds from underneath the rows – kind of like a complex weed whacker. We are also learning to cope with a vineyard that looks a little more messy (because, after all, not all the weeds are bad weeds!). Instead of artificial fertilizer, we apply compost, sourced primarily from our dairy farm with some of the left over skins and stems from the vineyard harvest mixed in too. Next year, we will also be using cover crops between each row.

Cows at the Kingston lechería (dairy) produce the majority of our compost.

So how is this organic business going to make better grapes? It all circles back to the major theme of organic agriculture – soil health. Healthier soil will make healthier plants, which will more consistently produce better grapes. Compost acts as a soil builder, containing essential organic matter and microorganisms that will help to rebuild the soil, which was often depleted by herbicides. Our vines will gradually become less dependent on artificial chemicals and begin to strengthen their own immune systems. As a result, we expect our vines to be healthier and more resilient to variability in climate.  We also expect the lifetime of our vines to significantly increase. Generally speaking (although I will admit, this is quite nuanced, have a look at this article for more), older vines produce better wines.

Organic and sustainable agricultural techniques are really interesting. It's a rapidly growing industry and science and I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg with my experience here at Kingston Family Vineyards. If you’d like to hear a little more about our specific approach, please be sure to tune into my mini video series “Charla con Benja” on our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. The first video is here. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions you might have.  And thanks for your interest and support of what we're up to down in Chile's Casablanca Valley.