Towards zero input viticulture – L’EARL de la Pastorale de Larche

Bertrand de Trétaigne is a French winemaker and a member of the Vignerons de Buzet cooperative. He has cultivated 44 ha of vines with a sustainable soil conservation approach for 10 years. He is trying to use as few inputs (e.g. fertilisers and phytosanitary products) as possible with the objective to attain one day zero input.

Convinced that the key is observation and permanent questioning, he spends a lot of time in his vineyards observing and analysing in order to continuously improve his practices.

The farm        

The farm de la Pastorale de Larche is located in the south of France, in Lot-et-Garonne in the Pays d’Albret, which is characterized by an oceanic climate. The controlled designation of origin BUZET (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in French) is a normed label that gathers 27 municipalities over 2,116ha. The used grape varieties are sauvignon, sémillon, muscadelle, cabernet-franc, cabernet sauvignon, côt et merlot.

Bertrand took over the family farm in 2006. To the existing 34 ha of the total area, there were 22 ha for viticulture and 12 ha for cereals. In addition, he bought 22 ha of vines. Like his father, he is a member of the Vignerons de Buzet cooperative. He is also a member of the management board with three other farmers and is actively involved in the life of the cooperative and the experimentation of new practices. He is working with a soil conservation approach and towards a zero input agriculture. Two people are working full time on the farm: Bertrand and one employee.

Development paths               

Bertrand took over the family farm in 2006. Two conclusions emerged from the analysis of the farm situation:

  • A lot of savings had to be made, especially on the human resources (working force and labour organisation);
  • The available machines and human resources offered the possibility to cultivate more surface. The fixed costs have not changed much, which is why he decided to purchase 22 additional hectares.

During the first years, he worked a lot and invested cautiously to remain agile. In 2011, he started to test and implement innovative practices to reach its sustainable management farm goals: no input, increase of biodiversity within plots, increase of efficiency and production.

He also became involved in the management board of the cooperative to promote its vision and participate to collective experimentations.

At the beginning, he couldn’t take the risk to be organic, now he is considering it because financially he is stronger.

Business model                       

Bertrand is a member of the Vignerons de Buzet cooperative to which he sells his grape. Thus, he is not involved in the whole production and winemaking but focuses on viticulture. Even though not being part of the whole process can be frustrating sometimes, Bertrand finds that all the positive aspects of being in a cooperative compensate this one negative aspect. The positive aspects are for him the followings: not being alone when you start, having a technical support from the cooperative, focusing on the vine side because you cannot be competent in every domain (vine techniques, sales, marketing, etc.).

‘Other winemakers are there for you, to help you, give you advice, and this doesn’t have a price.’

When Bertrand took over the farm, he made a business plan for 10 years. It has fitted since regarding charges but not for the turnover. For the early years, he especially minimized the risks (insurance, small-scale experimentation). It took him three years to adapt his labour organization and adjust his working force to go from two employees to one remaining. It has been more complicated for the incomes. When he took over, the turnover was 7,000 €/ha, 4 years later it dropped at 3,500 €/ha. Since then, his management and technical decisions have increased this turnover to reach 6,000 €/ha for 57 hL/ha today. His entire grape production is sold to the Vignerons de Buzet cooperative.

With no training or specific knowledge, he made his business plan by himself, with the help of his father and experienced colleagues of the cooperative. He mainly he relies on talks with other farmers to cross information for both production and business plan management. He takes ideas here and there and put them together.

He receives CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) subsidies (direct payments) only for the cereals. On the vines, he received a grant for restructuring the vineyard and another for investing in machines. Those grants are important to develop his vineyard. Nevertheless, Bertrand draw attention on the fact that it remains a grant and should be considered as such, a farmer should not rely too much on them. ‘When you have a grant to buy a machine, once you have it, you still have to put a tractor in front of it and someone inside to drive it’.

Innovative practices                                         

Bertrand is testing or has implemented the following practices:

  • Mechanical management of the vine rows with an under-vine weeding system: the idea is to keep tillage at a minimum and reduce the tilled surface. The big question is the reaction of the vine in terms of vigour, yield and incomes. He has not a lot of hindsight on the technique so far.
  • Experimentation of an innovative vine conducting system that gathers sustainable practices and production increasing: a fruiting zone at one meter from the ground allowing a full sodding between rows and a more trellised vine that is machine pruned. It leads to vines with more buds per hectare and potentially more yield and less vigour pressures. However, a big constraint is that controlled designation of origin Buzet (or AOC) does not allow applying this technique for now.
  • No use of chemical fertilizer, CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotox) products, residual chemical weed killers, neonicotinoids or toxic insecticide.
  • Reduction of the index frequency treatment (IFT).
  • Implementation of a plant cover mix: faba beans, oats, vetch, rye, Brazilian oats, Chinese radish, forage radish, phacelia. He sows it in the autumn after the harvest.
  • Developing nesting boxes between plots and existing plantings, such as hedges, which he lets grow everywhere instead of planting new ones. This way of saving time and costs in a natural way fits perfectly with his concept. He only uses the crusher when it is necessary for maintenance.

He also took a close eye to collector panels: they are tools added to the spraying system and aim at collecting spraying products that do not reach the targeted plant. As Bertrand uses very few input products, the investment would not be profitable. Going through rows with those panels take almost twice the time than without, whereas spraying windows are very short: this lack of reactivity is neither efficient nor interesting.

The decision process of Bertrand for implementing new practices is the following: first, he looks at the regulatory aspects, then, financial ones, and finally technical feasibility. He is also doing his tests and experiments according to the available human resources. He is experimenting with all the young vines. This year he has made experiments on 4.5 ha of young vines with no glyphosate and 100 % mechanical management.

Bertrand is gathering new knowledge and information from all kinds of different sources, such as on the internet, talking with other farmers, agricultural company’s equipment demonstration, technical journals and mainly by a lot of observation.

Future                                        

Right now, his main challenge and focus is to adapt the upcoming regulation regarding glyphosate. Therefore, Bertrand has developed in recent years a soil conservation agriculture. This approach is based on non-tillage and limited use of herbicide to preserve soil life and fertility. Even though he is working towards a zero inputs approach, he has not yet found the solution to fully replace the glyphosate. He has tried and is still trying several methods.

In the light of the French government decision to forbid the use of glyphosate by the end of 2020, Bertrand main objective is to be able to do without glyphosate by then.  

This decision compromises his approach to soil conservation, because he has no solution today either to abandon herbicides or to abandon tillage.

Reducing chemical inputs asks for more knowledge, observations and experience. Climate variability and natural hazards are increasing over time, making it very difficult to have a clear idea of what is working or not because of the multiple factors. It is very difficult to say precisely whether this practice generates this effect. For instance, a neighbour told Bertrand ‘I’ve applied this fertilizer last year and I had a huge yield’. Bertrand had the same yield without applying any fertilizer that year.

‘We are currently in a system relying on readymade recipes: one problem, one product. However, there will be less and less ready-made recipes, we will need to adapt all the time depending on the plot and its characteristics. We won’t be able to simply follow a treatment and weeding schedule. The experience will thus be very important. The risk is growing and the uncertainty too, farmers will have to deal with this.’

Bertrand plans to undertake a training on staff management. It happens that a young farmer is trained for technical skills but not for management ones: he learned how to prune vines, harvest, etc. but not how to manage a team or recruit someone, which is an important skill that he wishes to acquire.

Tips for the learner                                           

  • Start small: start being a worker in a farm in order to get to know the system and learn all you can. It is crucial and it does not cost a lot, you get paid for it since you are an employee. It is not with one season that you will see everything but at least you will have an overview. Do not be too ambitious at the beginning: It could be a good solution to start by taking on a part-time job at the beginning.
  • Prepare your establishment: if you can, try to find a farmer that plans to retire and make a progressive transmission with 2 or 3 full seasons.
  • Anticipate as much as you can: ask yourself all possible questions and get to know the job before jumping into it.
  • Be aware of the administrative burden and complexity: it takes more time then you think!
  • Observe a lot and learn a lot: there is no ready-made recipe; you have to observe a lot, exchange with other farmers, join a winegrower network, etc. Do not hesitate or be afraid to ask; it is crucial to talk with other farmers and being in a cooperative helps doing so.
  • Be able to do everything: You have to be able to do every task that you ask your workers to do. It is very important when you take over a farm with employees to show them that you know how to do things and that you can do them at least as well as them.

Anything else?                         

According to Bertrand and its own experience, it is easier to acquire vines techniques on the field, working with other farmers and through internship than learning how to manage a company, employees, and other entrepreneurial skills. It is often underestimated in training programmes. If he had to start over, he would have first followed courses that are more general on farm management and then specialize in viticulture.

Authors: Marie-Anne PAULIN, Amélie COLLE