The Drought and Midwest Soil Conditions
Grape growers across the Midwest are preparing for another growing season. After several years of drought and the driest conditions in living memory last year, soil conditions are a concern for many growers. Despite some recent precipitation, US Drought Monitor says about 50% of the region is still in drought. Even if precipitation falls at average levels this year, some experts say it could take many months for the soil to recover.
Midwest Wine Press spoke with grape growers from Missouri to Minnesota, to get an idea of the soil situation across the region. These interviews were done at the recent Midwest Grape & Wine Conference in St Charles, Missouri, and last month’s Kansas Grape Growers and Winemakers Association Conference in Topeka.
The well at the four acre Heinrichshaus Vineyards and Winery in St James, Missouri has been dry since last summer.
Winemaker Heinrich Grohe summarizes the soil issues facing drought struck vineyards in his part of the Midwest: ‘We don’t have any soil. We have dirt,” he says.
‘A straight line from Hermann to St James, that marks where the soil peters out,” he explains. ‘The big problem is too much magnesium. Magnesium tightens up the ground.”
He says the drought has exacerbated the tightness of the soil so ‘any rainfall doesn’t really sink into the soil. Fifty years ago there was more frequent rainfall and so things were okay.”
‘We don’t have any soil. We have dirt.”
Heinrich Grohe, Heinrichshaus Vineyards and Winery
Grohe says the remedy is to offset the magnesium with high calcium lime. He also recommends planting lots of cover crops, starting in the spring with buckwheat, radish and legumes and in the fall with vegetables and rye. ‘Create bacterial life in the soil and from what you add, things will improve.” He’s quite emphatic. ‘Either that or quit” he says.
‘There’s another thing,” he continues, ‘we have, if I’m not mistaken, all the way from here to the
Missouri river, what’s called a fratchy pad, it’s a layer like concrete. It’s like somebody poured concrete and then put some soil over it.” This is also increasing the impact of the drought. ‘It’s almost impervious to water penetration and root penetration.”
But he’s confident the soil and drought issues can be solved long term. ‘I always say, we’ve got problems but we can do something about it.”
In Kansas, David Sollo of Grace Hill Winery says the drought is only one aspect of his soil problem. ‘They put on herbicides and pesticides for years and so the soil is sterile! There are no microorganisms to help your nutrients be absorbed by the plant.”
‘We’ve had people fall in the cracks!”
David Sollo, Grace Hill Winery
Sollo says the Rosehill and Erwin clay soils are so dry, ‘We’ve had people fall in the cracks!” But they did have some good rains during August and September: ‘We had like a Charlie Brown cloud right over our vineyard!” he said.
Sollo is not very positive about 2013. Last year he saw varieties known for their hardiness struggle to survive. ‘I think 2010 will be our last good year for a while,” he adds ruefully. ‘The high pH, the drought and the heat and the clay have been rough on the Norton.” He also expects some of his Norton vines to die from herbicide drift damage received last year.
In well-drained soils in Missouri’s Ozarks highland region, Edg-Clif Farms & Vineyard has been drip irrigating 7 acres of grapes including Chambourcin, Vignoles and Vidal Blanc. Owner and horticulturalist Steffie Littlefield says many trees and deeper rooted plants have suffered during the drought so any vines that were not irrigated last year will probably be set back quite a bit.
They learned their lesson in 2011 when their vines did get heat stressed. Last year Edg-Clif Farms kept the irrigation going for longer periods and also sought advice from a professional consultant. As a result, their new planting of Vidal Blanc held its foliage until the fall frosts came.
Littlefield also added an organic supplement to the soil that helps establish roots systems and says it may have helped protect her young vines during the drought.
Back in Kansas, at Prairie Fire Winery in the Flint Hills, Bob DesRuisseaux, vice president of the Kansas Grape Growers Association is very concerned about his younger vines.
DesRuisseaux, says water problems on their 60 acre property really started in 2012. ‘Our springs that were still running and the water that we had in the pond – that was gone by the end of May.”
To reduce the impact of sun and wind evaporation on their 3 acres of young Chambourcin and Vignoles, they installed a subsurface micro-irrigation system in the center of the rows about a foot below ground.
“It’s lose the fruit this year or lose the plant forever.”
Bob DesRuisseaux, Prairie Fire Winery
‘The question for us at this point is how many years before they produce,” he says. ‘If this year’s weather is like last year, we’ll have to cut all the fruit off in order for the vines to survive and we’ll lose all of it. It’s lose the fruit this year or lose the plant forever.”
Also in Kansas, but south of Topeka, where the soil profiles range from heavy clay to rich alluvial, Mike Steinert’s well also dried up last summer. He’s only half joking when he suggests praying for rain.
Steinert, owner of Glacier’s Edge Vineyard says even daily drip irrigation couldn’t moisten soil that’s still dry four-and-a-half feet underground.
‘We’re getting some moisture now but we still need a substantial amount,” he adds.
Much further north, Howard Krosch is more optimistic. He’s part of the Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative, that runs a vineyard in Stillwater. Krosch says there hasn’t been a drop of rain since August but there’s still water in the wells.
‘One year way back when we had one summer that was dry as the Dickens and that probably was our best because grapes put roots down deep and if you have a short-term dry spell it doesn’t bother then a bit.” Diseases like mildew are less prevalent and Krosch is positive about this year’s prospects.
Tony Jacobson is director of fermentation at Sleepy Creek Vineyards in east central Illinois. While digging post holes last summer, the soil was so desiccated he says, ‘the clay soil just ran through our fingers like sand.”
Here too, the drought has added to other soil issues. ‘It was basically farmed to death,” says Jacobson, referring to land where they’ve planted 10 acres of vines include Marechal Foch, La Crescent and Vignoles.
Sleepy Creek has been fortunate – they don’t have an irrigation system but their wells haven’t run out of water. And during the last few weeks there has been some rain. ‘So hopefully that might help us come out of the winter a little more ahead than we were in fall.”
Back in Kansas, Marc Rowe is the owner of the 5 acre, Rowe Ridge Winery. ‘We’re not watering for the grapes themselves, you’re just watering to keep the plants alive through the winter,” he says.
The vineyard is connected up to local town water which helped save the vines during the hottest period last year – but they had to water 24 hours a day. Rowe says this was costing up to $1200 per month.
Rowe is continuing to water, partly to ensure his soils remain closely packed around the vines’ root
systems to stop gaps forming that could later fill with water and freeze, injuring or killing the roots.
He says this year’s prospects depend on how cold it gets in the coming weeks. ‘If it doesn’t get any colder than what it’s been I think we’ll be alright. I think if it gets severely cold then, yes, there are a lot of us in trouble.”
For current drought conditions see: US Drought Monitor
Great article Danny! Thanks for taking the time and effort to travel and meet some many of us. We appreciate your hardwork and dedication!