Grower digs deep

By Country News

The key to enhancing the sustainability and productivity of Australia’s established vineyards lies in better soil management, according to Nuffield scholar and viticulturist Andy Clarke.

Yet it’s an approach that needs to involve people as much as it does plants, soil composition and farming techniques, said the 2015 scholarship recipient.

Mr Clarke was motivated to research approaches to soil management after experiencing first-hand the impact of increasingly extreme climatic conditions in his work as a viticulturist at Yering Station in Yarra Glen.

‘‘It’s my job to grow and deliver grapes to the winery in the best possible condition,’’ he said.

‘‘Events like the mid-2000s drought, extreme heat in 2009 and prolonged rainfall in 2011 all played a part in shaping the final wine in the bottle.

‘‘While we can’t control these events, we do know that resilient soils can help mitigate the risks they pose, and I was keen to better understand how we can build the health and resilience of soils in established vineyards.’’

With support from Wine Australia, Mr Clarke initially set out on his Nuffield research to focus on efficient uses of sub-soil in vineyards.

However, his project quickly expanded when experiences in France, Spain, Germany, Ireland and North America made it clear to him that soil science was as much about the people as it was about the dirt itself.

‘‘Despite the importance, many custodians are under financial and time pressure and it’s not always easy to prioritise the development and exploration of available industry networks and learning resources,’’ Mr Clarke said.

‘‘However, often the best improvements aren’t the most expensive, needing only a change in mindset.

‘‘Farmers are often quick to adopt a once bitten, twice shy mentality that sees them abandon alternative methods prematurely, or revert to conservative approaches to soil management.’’

Hearing first-hand from his peers, Mr Clarke said it helped to understand that improvement was often a lengthy process and there could be setbacks along the way.

‘‘As an industry, it’s vital that we are as quick to share our failures as we are our successes.

‘‘If we get better at collaborative learning and sharing, and highlighting the values of sustainable production through demonstrations, field walks and mentoring programs, then we all stand to benefit.’’