The most sustainable crop protection is not needing protection

Doing agriculture in the mountains, almost 1000 meters above the sea level, has never been easy especially if we don’t want to use any kind of chemical product. In my region, in the middle of the Alps, this could not be more true. I am from Romeno, a little town near the border between North Italy and Austria where the winters are long and very cold and the summers are short and fresh. In these conditions it seems like it is very difficult to make something grow, but mountain people, during the centuries, have learned how to cultivate crops  with such difficult condition. In the last centuries, also thanks to the climate changes, the crops that were cultivated in this region changed a lot ; from the potatoes to the pears to the actual queen of our mountains: the apple !

As we know intensive fruit-growing has some serious side effects on the environment and on the health of the population (especially if not managed in the correct way) mainly because of the big number of chemical treatments that are requests to make a good harvest. This big problem is even bigger in a mountain environment because the fields and the town are very close due to the small amount of soil that is not too steep to be used.

In these conditions my idea is to start growing up Solaris, a grapevine variety created in 1975 in Germany by crossing a fungus resistant American grapevine with some high-quality grape producer European grapevine. Because of his American origin the Solaris variety does not need any chemical treatment to protect the yield from the main fungal disease of the grapevine (Plasmopara Viticola e Uncinula Necator) so it is perfect to be grown in the fields near the houses, the schools, and every public space.

Solaris is a very early variety (it has to be harvested 10 days before Chardonnay) so it is perfect for a mountain environment because it has time to slowly accumulate sugar with the shy sun of September that allows to maintain a high level of acidity that is impossible to have at lower altitude because of the strength of the sun and the higher temperatures. Other reasons why Solaris is a perfect match with mountains is that, during the winter, it can survive at very low temperatures (up to -20 °C) and in the spring it  starts to vegetate medium-late reducing the risk of late frost.

I think my idea will have a very big socio-economic impact: in the social side I hope that growing up Solaris near the houses and the public spaces will solve many of the actual controversial between the farmers and most of the population that is against all the chemical products that have been used during the season. In my opinion growing up Solaris has even a big economical impact on the farm because it is a diversification  of the production and can allow the farmer to distribute the work better during the season saving a lot of money on the external workers.

I have already started to cultivate Solaris in Romeno back in 2016 with very good results: until now I never did a chemical treatment and I have always harvested perfectly healthy and ripened grapevine. This result is even bigger if we consider that 2016 will be remembered as a very difficult year for the viticulture in all North Italy due to a very rainy spring that created a lot of problems with Plasmopara Viticola.

In the last couple of years I brought the grapevine to a vinery and I can assure that the resulting wine is very good: we have made a very fresh and flavourful white wine and in my opinion, because of his low acidity, the aged wine can only become better.

I think that this idea can be applied not only in my little town but in all the Alpine Regions and I would like to make a sort of experimental centre for the cultivation of Solaris in the mountains trying different types of rootstock, different types of  training system and see which are the perfect moments to execute the agronomic interventions such as the de-leafing and the topping. With all this different experience I think I can suggest to each farmer the best way to grow up Solaris in his farm and maximize his profit and maybe, in the years, we can select some new clones even more mountain-friendly than the actual.

As I said in the title of this little paper I think that the most sustainable crop protection is to avoid needing protection and the fungus resistant variety is in my opinion the best solution to do this but we need a lot of studies to be able to suggest to the different farmers of the different mountain environments of all Europe the best way to avoid the use of chemicals and simultaneously, increase the profit of their farms. This is a win-win-win innovation : is better for the environment, for the human health and for the profit of the mountain farms.

In the two photos that you find attached you can see my experimental field near the houses in the flowering time and a couple of day before the harvest.

Michele Zucal

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