PIERCE — More than heat is killing the crops at Cuthills Vineyards near here.
The grapes at Nebraska’s first winery are suffering from the most extreme herbicide drift problems they have ever encountered, said Ed Swanson, who owns the vineyards with his wife, Holly.
In the past, there has always been some herbicide damage on the grapes, usually early in the growing season when people spray their pastures and lawns. But as long as this occurs early in the spring before the winery’s grapes bud or late in the fall after the grapes have been harvested, it usually is not a problem.
“We usually grow out of the damage on some varieties,” Swanson said.
This year, though, the damage is beyond repair on many of the vines.
“Our neighbors have been very good,” Swanson said. “They watch when they spray. The problem is the ones who are farther away. They don’t realize how easily the chemicals volatilize and move.”
Phenoxy-type herbicides — such as 2, 4-D — can travel a couple of miles up to two days after they are sprayed, Swanson said, and it does not take much to damage a grape.
Chemicals lower the crop size and delay fruit ripening. The grape clusters remain tight and packed and are more prone to disease.
Herbicides also affect the growing tips of the plant.
When herbicides land on a vine, the chloroplasts — or photosynthesis organs — in the leaf separate. If this occurs in every leaf on the vine, the plant has no way to turn the sun’s energy into energy to grow or produce grapes.
“They’re really kind of worthless leaves at that point,” Swanson said.
Vines will then use their stored energy to grow laterally. They will bush out, Swanson said, spreading in different directions. This growth encourages “leaf hoppers,” which are insects that jump from plant to plant and suck out the sap.
“It kind of just starts a problem that’s really hard to take care of,” Swanson said.
With the heat this summer, damage to the vines also has been severe. Even the summer laterals from the vines contain distorted leaves that are unable to effectively photosynthesize.
There is no way to ripen the fruit or store reserve energy for the plant without quality leaves, Swanson said. So, he is dropping fruit off of the vines and onto the ground to try to conserve the plants’ energy, hoping they will survive the year.
Grape vines normally can survive drought, Swanson said. His vines are watered only when they are first planted because when it is hot and the plants are searching for water, they will grow deeper roots. This makes a hardier plant, he added.
But the herbicide impact, coupled with the extreme heat and dry weather, is causing this year’s unusual stress on the grape vines.
“We’re seeing damage in vineyards that have never had damage before,” Swanson said.
He estimated this year they would only be able to harvest a fourth to a third of the normal grape crop.
If the weather does not turn around and there is an early freeze, many of the stressed vines could die. This would impact Swanson for years because a grape vine takes three to five years to reach peak production.
The harsh sunlight can burn grapes as well. Dappled sunlight is preferred by grape growers because it can improve the taste of the grape under optimal ripening. However, with the leaf damage this year, there is nothing to shade the grapes.
In addition, without the energy needed to grow, many of the grapes are a tenth of the size they should be this time of year, Swanson said.
The weather has caused more work for the Swansons. Every three or four days, he will walk through all of the vines looking for problems and dropping grapes. If he walks quickly, it takes a full day to walk the 4½ acres of vines he has in production.
“I can tell at a distance which vines I really need to spend time on,” Swanson said.
The silver lining on this year’s rough growing season, Swanson said, is his ability to test plants in his breeding program for both drought and herbicide resistance at the same time.
In 1996, Cuthills Vineyards began a breeding program. Now, there are 900 grape varieties in the program. A couple, Swanson said, are doing well this year, despite the herbicide and drought damage.
However, he will have to wait until they are mature to see what the grape quality is like. It takes five to seven years to create a new variety and another three to four years to test the wine quality from these grapes.
“Overall it will be 10 to 12 years before you know if you have anything worthwhile,” Swanson said.
The vineyard started the breeding program to find plants that work best in Northeast Nebraska’s climate and can handle problems like those the vineyard is experiencing this year.
“The end goal is to have something that will fit your climate and environmental issues,” Swanson said. Even with this advantage, though, it is hard to overlook the damage this year, he added. “It’s really been dry out.”
Fortunately, the grapes that are harvested will not taste any different than in years past, and Swanson said as long as there are no further problems, he should be able to make the same amount of wine because he also uses grapes from another grower — Nissen Wines near Hartington.
In the past, Nebraska grape growers have had surplus and sold their extra product out of state, Swanson said. This year, any surplus will stay in the state to help those growers who have lost crops. This should prevent wine prices from rising, he said.
“But ideally, it would be nice if it cooled off,” he added.
The grapes at Cuthills Vineyards are ripening fast. For the first time, harvest will begin two weeks ahead of schedule — at the end of July. As for next year, Swanson said, nothing is certain. Everything depends on if there is more damage this fall.