Going back to nature

Maureen Little finds her roots

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Let me take you back a few decades – a fraction over five, in fact – to when I was a child living in a small village in Sussex. My Dad had a modest market garden my sister and I were duty-bound to help with when we weren’t at school. 

Our market garden was one of a row surrounded by pasture which sustained two herds of Jersey and Guernsey dairy cows. These cows belonged to two farmers, Watkins and Brundle, whose farms were situated at either end of the row of market gardens.

My sister and I did have time off from helping, though, and an abiding memory I have is of one sunny afternoon after school in late spring, lying face up in one of the fields owned by Farmer Brundle looking at the clouds and surrounded by cows and cowslips – and bees. 

The sweet, honey perfume and butter-yellow colour of those fairy bells will stay with me forever; they are my ‘scent of memory’. My ‘sound of memory’ – the bees. 

Take a moment or two to think how many times in recent years you have seen a pasture covered in cowslips – or any other wildflower for that matter – and thrumming with bees? I’ll wait. So what’s changed? And what has this got to do with wine? 

My cowslip field was just one of Farmer Brundle’s pastures that nowadays we would say was managed organically (or at least ‘naturally). But back then there was no organic certification1. Farmer Brundle farmed the land as he had always done, fertilising the land with manure from the cows and keeping weeds and pests to a manageable level by maintaining a balanced eco-system. He “couldn’t be havin’ with all them new-fangled “erby-sides, pesky-sides and kiss-my-backsides”. 

Along with those synthetic ‘‘erby-sides and pesky-sides” that Farmer Brundle was none-too keen to adopt, artificial fertiliser was becoming de rigeur in the mid-20th century as the demand for food increased. The ‘old’ ways could no longer keep up with the demand, so it was deemed necessary to give Mother Nature a helping hand in the form of chemical intervention – something that Farmer Watkins, in contrast to Farmer Brundle, embraced wholeheartedly. 

These interventions undoubtedly increased productivity. By eliminating all pests and weeds the crops could have a field day: all competition could be eradicated, leaving the way open for the plants to grow unhindered. And those extra doses of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus in artificial fertiliser would enable the plant to grow even more efficiently and abundantly. A win-win situation, surely?

Not exactly. What was not recognised at the time was the impact that chemical interference would have on the wider environment. Pesticides kill pests (-cide from the Latin caedere - to kill) – but what if some of those ‘pests’ are actually beneficial insects? Herbicides kill weeds – but what if some of those ‘weeds’ are the foodstuff of beneficial insects and other creatures? 

And what happens to all the excess nutrients2 that have been added to the soil? Most of them end up in the air or water. In other words, although synthetic chemicals have allowed crops to flourish and therefore increase productivity, there has been a price to pay in terms of the environment and ecological balance. No more – or very few – cowslip-laden fields thrumming with bees to lie down in. Needless to say, for all his thriving crops, Farmer Watkins’s fields were barren in terms of wildflowers and insects.... 

Nowadays, however, it appears that more and more consumers are becoming aware of the impact that human activity is having on the planet and are turning back to the ‘old’ ways, to some degree. 

To take just one example, sales revenue of organic food and drink in the United Kingdom in 1999 was just £390 million, in 2019 it was £2,298 million3 – not a huge amount in the overall scheme of things, true, but the percentage increase is remarkable. 

This trend is being played out in the realm of viticulture too – ah! We’ve reached the ‘how it relates to wine’ bit, at last!

According to a report by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV)4, there has been a rising development since the end of the 20th Century in the growth of organic viticulture; in fact, according to the OIV, ‘between the years 2005 and 2019 the certified organic vineyard surface area [worldwide] increased by an average of 13% per year.’ This can be explained, the report says, ‘in large part by societal issues, particularly concerning consumer health and environmental protection’. 

Like any other form of organic agriculture, viticulture has to conform to certain rules. A wine producer cannot just label his or her wine ‘organic’ - it has to have been certified as such. To achieve organic status in any country is an achievement because it takes a minimum of three years, sometimes much longer, of adhering to strict methods and rigorous procedures set down by the particular certifying body. After that, there are regular inspections by the certifying body. In addition, there is an annual fee that has to be paid to the awarding body to be able to maintain certification. 

And then there’s bio-dynamic wine – to organic and beyond, to borrow a phrase from Buzz Lightyear

What of those winemakers, though, who choose not to be certified for whatever reason, and yet follow similar growing practices? You’ll often find these wines classified as ‘natural’ or ‘non- or minimal-intervention’ – a bit like Farmer Brundle who was using traditional methods, long before even the idea of certification was a twinkle in someone’s eye. 

These winemakers have an environmentally-focused eye not only on the end product – the wine – but on the way in which that end product is achieved: they are organic in all but name. 



You’ve probably realised by now that I am very much on Farmer Brundle and his successors’ wavelength. I am an advocate of organic husbandry in whatever form it takes. This no doubt harks back to my Dad’s market garden. He, like Farmer Brundle, grew things in the ‘old-fashioned’ way and I grew up not knowing any differently. Our ducks took care of slugs and the like and helped fertilise the ground; horses from the stable in the village supplied extra manure; our bees pollinated whatever crops bore fruit; birds and ladybirds ate the greenfly – you get the picture.

I am not, however, decrying all those who don’t agree with my standpoint. In order to fulfil the ever-increasing demands of the worldwide population, some sort of intervention is no doubt necessary – but it seems to me that we must be much more circumspect about the effects these interventions have on our planet.

Before I get even more carried away, though, what I will finally say is that we, as shoppers,

should be aware of where what we consume comes from, how it is produced and what impact it has on the environment – then we can make an informed choice. 

And this is true of what wine we buy too. So, whatever your wine, spare a thought as to who’s made it - and how it’s been made!



Footnotes

1 The first organic standards were published as guidelines by the Soil Association in 1967 and Soil Association Certification Ltd. was set up in 1973. In 1992 Organic Farmers and Growers became the first UK organic certification body to be approved by the Government and now certify over 30% of the UK organic sector.

2 It has been estimated that fertilizer use efficiencies are in the 30-45% range; sometimes more and sometimes less depending on the crop, soil and climatic conditions.

3 www.tinyurl.com/2s3pmnsd  

4 www.tinyurl.com/4da5kceh 


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