COMMENTARY

Grumbled with “Green”

Kevin Chambers

By Kevin Chambers

I’ve spent most of my life involved with “green” issues: environment, pollution, preservation of wilderness, human health, organics and Biodynamics. 

I’ve been asking and trying to answer questions about “green” issues since I was in middle school. Today, as the sustainability movement really seems to be gaining steam in popular culture, I find myself pulling back and saying, essentially, “The green emperor wears no clothes.” 

As a grapegrower, who was certified Biodynamic for many years and helped lead that effort in Oregon for several years, I feel well-qualified to comment about the topic of sustainability. 

I think much of what we celebrate as “green” or “sustainable” is “feel good” material with little or no substance behind it. Organic agriculture is totally focused on the “thou shalt not” list and process. Nowhere in that movement do we hear a discussion of the quality of the output from these lists and processes. We’re being sold notions, not substance, which I find alarming.

Perhaps most disconcerting to me is the notion among those in the organic movement that nothing “synthesized” by man is worthy or safe to use. I find myself asking leaders in the organic movement if they’d give their children antibiotics for a serious infection. I haven’t met one yet who said, “No.”

But those antibiotics are the product of man; they do not exist in nature. So, why do we limit use of man-made products in agriculture but accept them when it comes to human health? Isn’t that a convenient double standard?

I argue with those who use mechanical tillage rather than contact herbicides. Is it really more “green” than a 2-percent solution of glyphosate or glufosinate? Mechanical tillage burns fossil fuels, compacts soil, disturbs mycorrhizal fungi, causes explosions of bacteria, damages vine trunks and costs a great deal more than herbicide. Why is this approach superior to low rates of contact herbicides? I have yet to read reports — and I’ve read dozens — that conclusively demonstrates contact herbicides do any lasting damage to soil or soil organisms. 

What’s more, I’ve learned how to mitigate some of the negative responses to contact herbicides. Certainly, there are herbicides like atrazine and gramoxone, which I believe should not be used because there’s no doubt about their risks. But we have good tools like the ones I mentioned above that can be used safely and effectively. This is yet another example of the hypocrisy I see in what has become the holier-than-thou “green” movement.

The “green” movement embraces the repeated use of sulfur — the only agrichemical widely used in grapegrowing that requires workers to wear respiratory equipment — which clearly destroys the beneficial insect population in a vineyard and causes serious air pollution. The second best organic alternative is to spray highly-refined petroleum oil (Pure Spray Green or Stylet oil) repeatedly on your plants. However, I can’t use 2 ounces per acre of a strobilurin, like Flint, because of its synthesized chemistry, a product of man. I find it amazing people believe several pounds of sulfur per acre is a “greener” practice than 2 ounces of Flint. Wow!

Finally, virtually nowhere in the “green” movement do I see discussions of the sustainability of labor and economics. Virtually all the organically approved methods are labor intensive and don’t address the economic burden whatsoever. It’s as if people and their plight don’t factor into these discussions. 

To bring my economic point closer to home, late Monday afternoon I answered the phone at OVS and it was an independent grower from the southern Willamette Valley who said to me, “You guys (meaning OVS employees) should all be required to own a vineyard; then you’d understand what a horrible business this is for us.” Of course, I explained that I did own a vineyard and I understood his plight. 

The bottom line for the vast majority of Oregon’s independent wine grape growers is a loss. Most of them have banked on “appreciation of vineyard values” as their economic salvation, but the Great Recession laid waste to that notion. 

Kevin Chambers serves as chief marketing officer of Oregon Vineyard Supply and Results Partners; managing partner of Willamette Cross Flow; and co-owner of Resonance Vineyard outside of Carlton.

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