By Contributing Columnist Richard Olsen-Harbich
Most people understand the general concept of “organic,” especially as it applies to the food we eat. But lately in the Long Island wine community, the “buzz” is all about sustainability. The question on a lot of people’s minds is—what exactly does this mean?
The concept of sustainable agriculture grew out of the early organic movement and became fine tuned during the late 1980s. In 1989, the American Agronomy Society adopted the following definition for sustainable agriculture:
"A sustainable agriculture is one that, over the long term, enhances environmental quality and the resource base on which agriculture depends; provides for basic human food and fiber needs; is economically viable; and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole."
In a nutshell, sustainability is an activity that can be carried out (or sustained) successfully over a long period of time with minimal impact on the surrounding society and environment. In essence, it is a way of life and a pathway to long-term success—for everyone involved.
Simply put: sustainable agriculture utilizes practices that are economically viable, socially supportive and ecologically sound. The types of practices employed are dependent on the crops grown and on the place in which they are grown.
Sustainable agriculture actually transcends both organics and the
strict ideology of biodynamics, as it understands that farms as well as
people don’t operate in a vacuum.
It’s a practical, research-based approach to the complexities and
challenges of agriculture that encourages people to care about their
environment, their neighbors and their crops using a system of
localized “best practices.” These practices may include organic
concepts but as is often the case with wine grapes in the Eastern
United States, the climate along with the seasonal weather conditions
usually require growers to manage outside of organic dogma to be
But following sustainable agricultural practices is not just about
insect and disease control. It’s also about managing small farms in a
way that can be sustained successfully over a long period of time in
the community they’re situated in.
Examples of unsustainable agriculture from the past include some of
Long Island’s duck and potato farms—both which contributed to water
pollution in the region. This past winter we saw the results of
large-scale organic lettuce and spinach operations—food that made many
people ill and took the lives of others. Even though these operations
were certified organic, they were, to say the least, not sustainable.
Larry Perrine, the CEO at Channing Daughters Winery
is a long-time practitioner of sustainable agriculture. He defines it
as a "combination of a concept, a philosophy and a web of interrelated
actions." He goes on to say that “organics are not always the answer to
grow crops successfully. The system is more complicated, especially
with wine grapes since they’re a perennial crop and are exposed to the
surrounding environment a long time before the crop is harvested."
Alice Wise, the Grape Research Program Leader at the Long Island
Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, NY has worked
on the issue of sustainability for Long Island vineyards for many
years. She is one of leaders in writing the sustainable guidelines for
New York State called VineBalance. Alice states that the VineBalance
program is a set of self-assessment guidelines that encompasses all
aspects of farm management. “Growers rate their practices in areas such
as nutrient management, vineyard management and pest management,” said
Alice. “Based on their results, growers can devise strategies for
practices that need improvement. The goal is to not impose economic
hardship or unreasonable expectations, but to work with growers in a
creative and helpful manner to address the issues and challenges of
A website for the program, www.vinebalance.com, will launch next month.
What does this have to do with Long Island wine?
Long Island is all about sustainable wine growing. The concept is in
full force here on the East End where the producers are small,
environmentally minded and making handcrafted wines. Wine itself is a
healthy beverage (in moderation) and on Long Island production is
limited to small batches, with attention to detail that require little
or no additives and truly represent our terroir. Vineyards are a
long-term investment which preserve farmland and reduce soil depletion
and erosion due to minimum tillage. Much of what is removed from the
fields—prunings and processed fruit—are eventually returned to the
soil. Long Island wine producers use a tremendous amount of hand labor
for everything from pruning, leaf pulling, shoot positioning and
harvesting, providing employment for many in the local community.
Is sustainable agriculture a perfect system? Of course not, but it
is the best overall strategy for long-term success. Examples of
unsustainable winemaking still dominate the marketplace. Mass-produced,
mechanized, large scale, industrial-style wines, manipulated with
additives and made with a minimum of hand labor are transported
thousands of miles to consumers. Talk about a carbon footprint! This is
clearly not a sustainable model.
Sustainability starts at home—with all of us. Recycling, conserving
energy and supporting your local farms are all sustainable actions we
can take on our own. We need to be open to buying products that give
equal emphasis to the social, environmental and economic benefits of
paying a fair price for locally grown products. More and more,
consumers are learning about the impact of their food and wine choices
on their total quality of life. So next time you’re looking to pull a
cork, remember all that goes into your local wine—and think about
It all begins with you.