Wine Water Rights and Water Wrongs ....

At present, those wine producers resisting dry farming argue that the greatest deterrent to adopting or transiting to dry farming, is the loss of profit due to the lower yields. Yet dry farmers tell us that these can be greatly offset by the long-term savings afforded by dry farming. Dry-farmed vineyards incur vastly lower costs, both in terms of start-up and maintenance. Irrigated vineyards require the extra costs of the irrigation system, the trellising system, the water, as well as all maintenance. Not to mention, licence fees and applications. Dry farmers will only have the cost of watering the vines for the first years. CAFF data reports that dry-farmed vineyards average $6000 per acre as opposed to $30,000 per acre for an irrigated vineyard (CAFF 2018).

How much water is saved due to dry farming is a grey area. There does not exist sufficient quantitative research, and data thus far is on a case-by-case basis. TWACCI was going to commission a study on this topic but we realised that it would be a waste of time – the water savings is simply the reverse figure, more or less, of the amount of water used to irrigate … so it would be much easier to find those figures working in the converse.

Another deterrent is the fear of not achieving required economic yields.

When the Australian dry farmers I spoke to resort to irrigation (rescue irrigation) at the end of the growing season, or if a producer in Bordeaux abandons their organic farming methods at the end of a disastrous vintage, they do so to “save their crop”. But this does not mean that their vines were not producing any crop; it means that their vines were risking not producing enough crop to meet their anticipated yields. It is not an ecological construct, but an economic one. Presently, it is only those wine producers who are voluntarily engaging in sustainability practices who are taking the largest risks for the industry. If they are forced to abandon these practices at the final hurdle due to competition from their non-practising peers, then this poses an enormous inequity and retards the advancement of the adoption of sustainable farming practices. There needs to be a level playing field. We have to create a market place and a mindset that allows 1 ton per acre yields to be economically viable and desirable.

Water is also a legal issue – a rights issue. in the same instance that sustainable farming programmes are voluntary, water laws are being enacted and enforced on both national and local levels across the globe. An example of this is the South African Water Act of 1998 that is only now enacting and quasi-enforcing water allocation certificates. Water is being rationed, even if a producer could afford the increasing costs. VinPro, a non-profit company which represents 2,500 South African wine producers, states that the majority of areas in the Western Cape have seen their water rights cut in half, forcing producers in the north of the region to select which vineyards to save.

And over the last decade, grape growers in SE South Australia have had their water entitlements converted to volumetric allocations; have experienced a reduction in annual rainfall, and have seen a rise in the salinity of irrigation groundwater.  Most wine producers have shifted from flood and sprinkler irrigation, which was still widely used in the last decade, to precision drip-irrigation (Stevens et al. 2012). Still, thousands of grape growers have not been able to afford their water bills and have had to cease their production.

In Australia’s Riverina wine region, severe drought conditions have forced more than 10,000 families, mostly sheep and wheat farmers, off their land.. The creeks and streams of the Murray-Darling river system are dry. Many vineyards have been abandoned to soil salinity, unable to grow any crop at all (Johnson-Bell 2017).  In the recent past, winemakers were faring better than other farmers because their business was deemed so “important to the local economy that it had been guaranteed water” (Mercer 2008). Chardonnay was put before wheat and livestock. This preferential treatment is no longer physically possible. Thank god.

From this debate over water rights, the role of the educated consumer comes into force. Increasingly, the consumer IS making the link between wine and agriculture. Consumers want eggs to be free-range, chicken to be corn-fed and vegetables, organic. The provenance of foodstuff is now a key market leader and there is evidence that this demand has translated into the drinks industry. Unilever claims that “over a third of consumers are now actively seeking out brands and companies based on their social, environmental and ethical impact and behaviour. And Nielsen research shows that “75% of millennials are prepared to spend more for a sustainable product, up from 50% in 2014”. Great news. But we have to be better at explaining to the consumer why they are paying for these “risks” - and even better, we have to eliminate these perceived risks for the producers.

There are more hurdles …For example, instead of insurance being used as an incentive to farmers to conserve water, it has become an important “last-ditch” adaptation tool: a safety net. One of the key elements, in the US  ‘‘Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018’’ is crop insurance which helps protect farmer income in times of volatile production when crops are damaged by droughts or floods (House Committee on Agriculture, 2018).

But “crop insurance is good for farmers, but not always for the environment” (Fullerton et al 2018). Studies have shown that crop insurance encourages overuse of resources, particularly water, and makes the agricultural system less resilient in the face of climate change. An example of this are the policies offered many of the world’s wine producers. Drought insurance is cost prohibitive and often not issued if the wine producer does not have an irrigation system in place, thus encouraging irrigation as opposed to supporting water conservation. And worse, Californian wine producers are encouraged to rely upon their crop insurance policies as their primary backup method of drought management, with such advice as “growers have several options for addressing risks through the purchase of crop insurance, an important sustainability tool” (California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance 2018).  Drought insurance cannot be considered a sustainability tool. Period.