Ulupalakua, Upcountry Maui, Hawaii
Maui Wine, Ltd.
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, and raised in the Pacific Northwest, my husband Roger and I moved to Hawaii in 1980. My husband was raised on the Island of Oahu and returning to Hawaii after college was our goal. In 1990, we moved back to Maui after spending 6 years on Kauai, and settled with our three sons in Upcountry Maui. I began working for Tedeschi Vineyards at that time and took on the position of president in 1995. Tedeschi Vineyards, which is now known as Maui Wine, Ltd. was started in 1974 and was the only commercial vineyard and winery in the state. Today the company is comprised of a 25-acre vineyard, a 30,000-case production facility, and a tasting room and visitor center which welcomes over 100,000 guests annually.
Our operation is farming wine grapes (Vitis vinifera). We farm them in a vertical trellis, which turns the operation more into a row-crop farm, with each plant getting about 55 square feet of soil. Currently, 16 of the 25 productive acres are planted and producing. The vineyard has been in constant evolution. Wine grapes are not easily grown in tropical climates, and we are the only vineyard operation on the Island. Our soil is primarily made up of volcanic cinder and quite rocky. The vineyard is located on the southwest slopes of Haleakala, a dormant volcano.
Soil Health Practices
The farm includes and is surrounded by fallow land covered in perennial grasses that are used to prevent soil erosion and for livestock feed in the off-season. Soil health is a very important component of growing wine grapes because naturally vines take up a large soil volume with a low root volume, so we have to make sure the little soil-to-root interaction that we have is optimal for our site. Cover-crop rotation in the inter-row portions of our farm is essential, but we also have to be sure to not over-till the soil, which can lead to smaller and smaller particle size, making nutrient uptake harder at our low soil pH. We are moving from a permanent grass cover crop to a rotation of legumes, mustard, buckwheat and grass. The rotation between the different crops, with different root patterns, helps to aerate our soil and promote health of our soil microbe population and eases the vines’ paths through the soil. We only have 16-18 inches of topsoil in most blocks, so we need to give the vines every chance to explore the soil. Nitrogen-fixing cover crops also help us with soil nutrition and ultimately vine health. The new cover-crop program is being implemented this off-season. We are taking it slowly because there have been 40 years of soil compaction and little previous rotation.
Our crop is a perennial-deciduous plant in an environment where it never goes dormant, so it is constantly working and depleting soil nutrients. The food supply for our vines is always on empty, which is a good and bad situation. We need the vines to be stressed so they will produce fruit, but they also need to have proper nutrition for critical early-season growth. Aeration for a healthy soil microbe population as well as the added nutrition from nitrogen-fixing cover crops is our primary focus. We have to be careful in creating soil aeration to not over-till. Over-tilling can lead to top soil loss and nutrient fixation in small soil particles.
During an extended drought from 2006-2013, we allowed the grass to grow to choke out an aggressive weed seed bed, and to reduce dust and herbicide use. A Bermuda grass took over and eventually competed for nutrients and water with the vines. However, we learned ways to manage the timing of strip sprays, the height of the grass and irrigation to work with this. After about five years, the amount of topsoil has increased, dust has decreased, we have little runoff during heavy rains and the vines and grapes have sometimes benefitted from the stress caused by the competition. Moving now to more specific cover crops will be more purposeful, but getting them established without irrigation and competition of perennial grasses will be difficult.
Chickens have been introduced to reduce pests and loosen soil; and sheep and goats to help manage the open, rough access areas around the vineyard. Compost is hand-applied to specific areas.
Due to the year-round growing season on Maui, our soils are always working to sustain whatever is growing. It is difficult to have a rest period for the soil unless it is kept out of production. That is not possible for a vineyard, nor many of the types of farm crops we have here on Maui.
Our continual obstacle is regarding managing and affording the resources and time to physically perform the work required for a viable vineyard operation. The infrastructure needed to implement an active soil program takes financial and labor commitments. As the only vineyard here, we are continually learning and must adapt. The vineyard began a replanting new varietals in 2000 and we are still adding additional acreage. Decisions regarding infrastructure, layout plans, equipment and varietals are decided with a huge emphasis on how we can best manage the work load and get the fruit quality needed in a costly environment. Our ongoing work to improve the vineyard operation is a strong commitment to our soil and its health.
Isolation is a big challenge. We are the largest vineyard operation in the state of Hawaii, and almost all of the equipment needed for proper vineyard soil management is specific. This adds further costs as well as logistical issues when it comes to repair and maintenance. Also, our environment is very unique for wine grapes. It is because of this we have to look at our soil management different than other agriculture operations on the island. We have to take “baby steps” in our implementation because otherwise the vine could easily go into a vegetative cycle and we’ll have a very vigorous, pretty shrub. Over-tilling is probably our biggest challenge. Our soil is fairly granular and is an essential factor on why we are able to get fruit. With tilling, the implementation of green manure into our soil will help to keep our soil granular as well as feed our microbes and vines.