The Heat of the Season
By Doug Fabbioli
As all farmers know, one of the biggest elements of our business is free: sunshine! But it takes other, more costly components to allow us to capture that sun and turn it into a sellable product. We also need the rains to come at the right time to make all the growing happen. That magic balance we ask Mother Nature to provide is not always delivered in the way or with the timing we need. The rain and storms are usually the most unpredictable part this time of year. We can count on the sun coming up tomorrow and we even know what time it will rise, but the summer rains, the hail storms, and gully washers that can make or break a crop are harder to forecast as exactly.
We want some rain, but not too much, and we want it spread out enough so the plants have the moisture when they need it. In many winegrowing regions the weather patterns do not provide the summer rains we have here in the Mid-Atlantic. California is relatively dry from March into October, and farmers there rely on deep roots on their vines and drip irrigation to keep the vines in balance and get the fruit to the best condition for harvest. They have some control over the dry season only if they have access to the water they need when they need it.
Here on the East Coast most vineyards do not have irrigation. When a new vineyard is planted, we need moisture for those young roots to grow. Oftentimes we can count on those summer thunderstorms to bring the rain needed to get the vines off to a healthy start. Older vines have deeper roots and can handle some dry spells during the growing season. However, because those young vines may have grown up with frequent summer rains, they may have shallower roots because of the surface moisture, and they may need a growing season or two to develop the deep roots needed to see them through periods of drought.
Soil composition is an important factor too. Some soils drain well, some will retain some water, and some can be like a clay pot, holding that water as a puddle on the surface for days after a storm. Having good land to farm on has been critical since ancient cultures stopped wandering and started farming the land. We learned over time what and where the better soils were and acted on that knowledge. I have been fortunate to find a spot where the soils are good for grapes and for a lot of other crops too.
Growing a grapevine is no different than any other crop. Consistency and balance make things work better, but you have to be prepared for inconsistency and sometimes use man-made techniques to keep your crops healthy. Each crop is different in its needs. The hops we grow on the farm are very thirsty: they want a lot of water on a regular basis. The raspberries are thirsty too, especially just before harvest as those berries fill up with juice. Others are less demanding. We grow sunflowers, asparagus, blueberries, squash, garlic and other crops on our farm in addition to grapes. Some crops are more particular than others in their needs, and we have to know and pay attention to each one.
The summer sun, the staggered rainstorms, and the attentive farmer all come together to nurture the right crops in the right soils so the farm can have a successful season. We farmers accept that perfection is unattainable, but sometimes we get real close and that keeps us going year after year. Enjoy the fresh crops at your local farmers’ market or the preserved crops at your favorite local winery. After all, we grow it for you!