Vineyards might not be the first agrarian landscape to spring to mind when you think about Wisconsin, but a thriving wine and grape juice industry is emerging in the Badger State.
The problem is that a lot of the corn and soy grown nearby is genetically engineered to withstand herbicides. As Wisconsin’s farmers douse their crops with chemicals such as dicamba and 2,4-D, a lot of those herbicides are blowing over neighboring vineyards — a problem called pesticide drift.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports that the number of grape farms in the state has doubled since 2005. There are now more than 100 commercial vineyards in Wisconsin, which generate $100 million a year in sales and farm work. But those drifting herbicides are a serious problem for the viniculturists:
Herbicides that are used to kill weeds in crops such as corn and soybeans can be deadly to other plants, including grapes. Food or wine grape vines exposed to the chemicals may shrivel up, turn colors and grow strange, elongated new leaves.
“It just becomes a bizarre, distorted structure,” said Judy Reith-Rozelle, a consultant and horticulture researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The grape farmers are real worried.” …
Ryan Prellwitz, president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, said he frequently hears complaints from grape farmers.
“It’s a problem that, if not dealt with, could cause a significant economic impact to the vineyards and wineries around the state,” Prellwitz said.
The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is attempting to help the grape growers, mostly by trying to convince nearby corn and soy farmers to change their ways. It’s not just vineyards that are at risk — beekeepers, fruit farmers, hop growers, and organic farmers are also suffering because of herbicide drift.
But Wisconsin authorities aren’t actually cracking down. Out of 58 complaints involving alleged drift between 2007 and 2011, only one led to a criminal complaint.