Airborne chemical drift threatens grapes on the vines at Ohio wineries

Right now, baby grapes are popping up on vines across Ohio as wineries in the Buckeye State also continue pop — from 13 wineries in 1975, when the Ohio Wine Producers Association was founded to 400 this year.

“The explosion has grown for a variety of reasons,” said Donniella Winchell with the Ohio Wine Producers Association(OWPA).

She said the first factor contributing to the growth is that wine has grown in popularity. The second factor is that obtaining a license to create and grow a winery is fairly easy.

“Thirdly, we’ve got a strong program at Ohio State University and at the Ohio Department of Agriculture and our office too that is helping to guide folks to make good wine and reasonable quantity to support a family,” Winchell said.

Approximately four years ago, the Ohio Department of Agriculture through the Ohio Grape Industries program created a vine grant program to help those wishing to start a vineyard by growing their own grapes. The program provides critically important information, guidance and perhaps more helpful hands-on inspections to insure even the ground in which a future farmer wants to plant is suitable for the vines.

“Maria Smith is out there talking on a regular basis. And she will inspect the property where the wine was grown, where they hope to grow the grapes. And then these folks submit the plan. Once the plan is submitted Maria and the team reviews it again. And then they finally apply for this vine grants, they put some wine, grapes, and wine grapes into the ground. And then Ohio State sort of guides them along the way to make sure that they’re doing what they need to do to keep them viable,” Winchell explained.

Down a quiet country road in Brown County, Ohio sits Meranda-Nixon Winery.

“I’m grateful for what we have and way it is now,” said Seth Meranda.

Utilizing his longtime family farm and his food science degree Seth Meranda switched the fields over from tobacco to grape vines in 2003 with his late wife.

Now remarried, he and his wife Maura have grown to over 15-and-a-half acres and are currently planting a new field of Grüner Veltliner vines and have received high honors for the quality of the wines they’re producing.

“We can grow world class stuff here,” Meranda said. “Our wine our cabs, chardonnays have been compared to the lower region of France.”

Growing a vineyard and a business has had its challenges. First, there’s the always unpredictability of the weather. Seth Meranda says he’s fortunate to have the farm on top of a hill which prevents heavy flooding issues and when cold moist air settles it slides to the valley farms below. That said, it doesn’t mean mother nature has always been kind to Seth and Maura.

“Polar vortex ‘14 & ‘15 were just devastating,” Maura Meranda recalled. “In ‘17 we had that big hurricane coming up from New Orleans.”

However, their real concerns go much further when it comes to protecting their investment.

“Our biggest threat now is not winter injury, it’s not spring injury, it’s GMOs and commercial applicators of herbicides. They’re spraying more 2, 4-D and Dicamba which grapes are really sensitive to — it gives them cancer. So that’s our biggest threat here,” Meranda said.

The signs from vine exposure can take days or weeks to show and when it does seven years of hard work is gone.

“There’s too much investment these vines by the time you get them shipped in here are almost five dollars a plant. So, it’s $15,000 to $25,000 an acre to establish a vineyard,” Meranda said. “The Dicamba is horrible it was disapproved by US EPA, re-approved, that’s our number one threat.”

There were 3,500 reported incidents of chemical drift across the United States in 2021, according to a report from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ohio had 34 reported incidents affecting 2,207 acres of land. Some of the crops impacted include peppers, pumpkins, tomato, and squash.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture said there are no current conversations regarding changing the regulations and use of Dicamba or 2, 4-D herbicides. They say while the issue of banning such products is at the federal and state level the US EPA is usually the driver of those changes.

That’s due in part to the fact the issue of chemical herbicide drift isn’t just in Ohio.

“In Texas hill country, there’s a big problem because they use it for cotton, in addition to beans,” said Donniella Winchell. “The farmer is not doing it intentionally, the soybean grower, he’s just protecting his crop. So, it’s hard to point to the who caused the problem.”

While lawsuits and filings continue to go after the Environmental Protection Agency and the manufacturers of Dicamba and other herbicides the Meranda family continues to grow their grapes with a passion. They host tastings on a regular basis and Seth says they’re open to showing anyone who visits how they’re turning out their award-winning wines.

You can find out more about the vineyard by going to Meranda-Nixon Wineries website.

This story originally was published by WCPO-9, a content partner of Cox First Media.

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