Take a quick look at these two maps, paying special attention to the Texas Panhandle:
(I couldn’t find a map of Texas vineyards, but the placement of wineries gives a general idea.)
See how the Panhandle falls into the ideal latitudes for wine grape growing, but how there is only one winery in that region? Anyone wonder why that is?
Your answer: 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, a broadleaf herbicide, invented during World War II.
I met with Monty Dixon, owner of that lone winery in the Texas Panhandle, BarZ, for an interview and asked if he grew any of his own grapes. He said he used to, but surrendered the effort after three 2,4-D attacks on his vineyards. I had to ask a lot more questions to understand what that means and here’s what I learned (and later confirmed through further research):
– 2,4-D is used for weed control on plants like wheat, rice and corn. The crops are cereals and remain unaffected while the herbicide kills all broadleaf plants in the field. It’s also used in domestic lawn weed killers, since it doesn’t affect grasses.
– It has a half-life of somewhere between 2 and 16 days; it persists in the environment in measurable amounts for some 2-3 months after being sprayed.
– In cool weather, it sinks in the air and remains on the plants and the soil.
– In hotter weather (I couldn’t find exact temperature, but it seems to be in the 90’s F), it rises up, as Monty said, “Like something in a Jonny Quest episode” and floats on the wind until the air becomes cool again. It then lands and will continue to affect any plant it settles upon. That could be a rose plant, pecan tree, or a vineyard.
– 2,4-D affects a plant in three ways. It increases the plasticity of cell walls, protein growth and the amount of ethylene in the plant. In other words, the plant grows itself to death. One can detect the presence of of 2,4-D poisoning in a vineyard by the deformed leaves, crinkled strangely, and no good fruit that year. But the effects are deeper too. A grapevine holds the next two years of growth in its wood and the little thoughts of those next harvests are ruined as well. A 2,4-D attack can affect a vineyard for three years, or longer.
The top crops in the Texas Panhandle are wheat and corn and 2,4-D is used liberally. Since it was invented in the 1940’s all its patents are expired and anyone can make it, inexpensively. As Monty, who comes from a farming and ranching family, empathetically explained, 2,4-D can be applied to a field for $2-5 an acre, whereas safer alternatives are $11-13 an acre. In this economy, and when you are caring for hundreds or thousands of acres, this is a significant financial decision. He convinced his father to stop using it on their wheat years ago, but there are so many farmers who still do.
If a vineyard is affected by 2,4-D, there is practically no way to know from where it came. The Texas Department of Agriculture has tried by looking for damage trails, but with the substance being airborn, there is really no way. Or almost no way. Martin Vineyards, with the help of Bobby Cox, found their offending source and sued for crop damage. It’s a long story of intrigue, illegal activities and a pecan orchard. If you ever get the chance to ask Bobby, Martin Vineyards or Monty, I am sure they would be happy to tell you.
And Texas is certainly not the only state with this struggle. Colorado, Illinois, and even Oregon are all fighting against its drift. As Monty explained, the Panhandle is an optimal place to grow vines otherwise: ideal latitude, no Pierce’s disease, and no humidity/fungal problems, it could really produce beautiful fruit. But 2,4-D makes it impossible.
Monty makes rich and powerful wines, sourcing his grapes from the lovely and well-adjusted vineyards in the High Plains, also ideal for growing vines: relatively high altitude (over 3000 feet), iron rich soil, no Pierces disease, no humidity, and surrounded by cotton fields, which are currently also affected by 2,4-D. But Monty said there are rumors of a 2,4-D resistant cotton that has not yet been released on the market. If it is, and is planted around Lubbock, Plains and Brownfield, this would surely mean a serious blow to, or the even death of, the Texas wine industry.
No grapes, no wine.
That’s serious business.
For more information on 2,4-D, its effects on vineyards and potential effects beyond, click on the hyperlinks above, or visit: