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Student-run organic vineyard a classroom for collaborative learning

Student Focus

By Andrea Elmore

Adjusting Bird Netting
Eric Shatt (left), Cornell Orchards farm manager and summer intern Joe Young '14, adjust bird netting to protect fruit in the organic vineyard adjacent to the Cornell campus.

For students in Sustainability and Organic Grape and Wine Production, collaboration is the key to success. Since the spring of 2011, students in the course have been working together to implement an organic vineyard at the Cornell Orchards. Recently, they reached a milestone when the block of 500 grapevines was certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York.

"Organic viticulture is growing quickly in the United States, but it's really taken off in Europe," said Justine Vanden Heuvel, associate professor of viticulture and co-instructor of Sustainability and Organic Grape and Wine Production. "The organic vineyard and the course are really helping our graduates to go out into the world with real experience with these practices, including our intern Molly Smith '12, who did the paperwork for organic certification as an independent study project in 2011."

The Toward Sustainability Foundation provided much of the financial support for the vineyard planting and management, including funds for a student employee each summer. In addition, each year students work in teams to develop and apply a management plan for the vineyard that meets the challenge of organic grape production at a site that is vulnerable to very cold winter temperatures.

"Students have directed every aspect of this vineyard and performed much of the physical work, from planting the vines to creating beneficial insect zones around the site," said Kathy Arnink, co-instructor of Sustainability and Organic Grape and Wine Production.

Attaching Vines to Trellis
Summer intern Joe Young attaches vines to trellis in the organic vineyard at Cornell Orchards.

Gillian Trimber, a senior double major in plant sciences and viticulture and enology, was a part of the process in spring 2011. Her specific project focused on alleyway management and cover-cropping for soil management and nutrient stability.

 "It was not just a theoretical project: My plan and those of my peers were made for an actual site and were intended to be implemented," Trimber said. "Perhaps most rewarding, though, was the collaboration that working with the organic vineyard required, and which I feel our small group achieved."

Trimber hopes that the vineyard is just the start for applied learning in organic viticulture at Cornell.

"I truly hope that the channels of discussion about what environmentally conscious agriculture is, and should become, remain open and new ideas continue to be developed," she said.

Dylan Beal, a senior entomology student, was also involved with managing the vineyard in 2011. He worked to identify the major insect pests at the site and the sustainable or organic methods that could be used to prevent and control outbreaks.

 "I was able to combine my interests in insect-plant interactions, viticulture, and biocontrol to be a part of a far larger and far reaching project," says Beal.

The organic grapes will continue to have positive impact on the enology and viticulture curriculum. Eventually, students in other enology classes will have the opportunity to taste wines made from organic and hybrid grapes. The vineyard will also allow students to conduct research with organic grapes, either independently or through the Undergraduate Enology and Viticulture Research Practices course.

In addition to fostering a collaborative learning environment, students and staff agree that the organic vineyard is a positive step toward sustainability in the wine industry.

"The organic grape plot allows our students to think deeply about sustainability and helps students to focus their knowledge towards helping to sustain and protect the environment," said Arnink. "Their coursework and practice in the organic vineyard will help prepare them to eventually step into leadership roles in this effort. Toasting your good environmental stewardship with a glass of wine… it doesn't get better than that, does it?"

Andrea Elmore is undergraduate coordinator for the Viticulture Enology program housed in the food science department at Cornell.