New Sustainability Program for Michigan?

USDA grant may help growers and winemakers create certification program

by Linda Jones McKee
Chateau Chantal winemaker Mark Johnson stands by a sign for the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which is looking to expand its reach beyond grapegrowing.
Lansing, Mich.—The concept of “sustainability” is not a new one for vineyards in Michigan. A coalition of agricultural, environmental and conservation groups came together in 1998 to form the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), based on the goal of assisting farmers “in taking a voluntary, proactive approach to reducing agricultural pollution while keeping their business operations sustainable.” A number of vineyards joined the program and, according to Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, 40 wineries now participate in MAEAP for the vineyard operation side of their business.

The impetus for extending the sustainability program to include the entire wine industry in the state—not just those growing grapes—came from 5 Lakes Energy, a consulting firm that helps clients develop pathways to “the adoption of clean energy technologies and sustainable practices.” Jones told Wines & Vines, “They approached the Council several years ago and wanted to work on sustainability in the wine industry. They got the support of the industry, and we wrote a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program in 2014.”

By October, the council was awarded a $75,000 specialty crop block grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to look into developing a sustainability certification program for the state’s vineyards and wineries. A steering committee, composed of representatives from vineyards and wineries, Michigan State University, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, MAEAP and the Grape and Wine Council, was established to guide the sustainability project.

The first step was to put out a contract for bids to find a company that could help the council conduct the necessary research and studies. The 5 Lakes Energy firm was hired, and in November began developing a survey for the grape and wine industry to determine what “sustainability” meant to the industry, what individual growers and wineries are currently doing (including participation in MAEAP) and how the concept of sustainability could be extended from grapegrowing to include wineries. The survey was available online for three months, and consultants from 5 Lakes distributed surveys at industry events in December through February.

According to Cam Brown, a consultant with 5 Lakes Energy, the survey was designed to look at the “big picture” of sustainability. In addition to the industry events, two roundtable discussion groups were held, one in southwest Michigan and one in the northwest, so that industry members could talk about the details of a potential certification program and 5 Lakes could answer questions and get feedback from those attending. Brown and Liesl Eichler Clark, a principal with 5 Lakes, also spoke at the Michigan Grape and Wine Conference in February to keep the industry informed about the design of the project, preliminary results from the online survey and next steps toward the goal of producing a comprehensive report about the feasibility of a sustainability certification program.

The next phase of the project will involve energy audits of 10 wineries that have volunteered to give benchmark data about their grapegrowing and winemaking operations. 5 Lakes has subcontracted the audits to another Michigan firm, Keen Technical Solutions of Traverse City. Keen will conduct half-day site visits and then compile a report about each winery. That information will be available to the winery involved and to 5 Lakes for inclusion in their final report. “Some wineries are well on their way toward being sustainable,” Brown told Wines & Vines. “They want to improve what they’re doing, grow better grapes and make better wine.”

As part of the sustainability project, the steering committee for the council and representatives from 5 Lakes Energy have undertaken “best practices” research about different sustainability programs. In February, Brown and three members of the steering committee went to California to meet with representatives of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), other sustainability groups in Lodi and Sonoma, and wineries with sustainability programs in place.

Another study trip to northern Oregon and southeast Washington is planned in late April. Among other topics, Brown is interested in learning more about Washington’s proposed program for wastewater discharge permits. “Michigan is focused on water,” Brown stated. “Our sustainability needs are different, since water is abundant, but many of our vineyards and wineries are part of important watersheds in the Great Lakes region. We have to learn about and apply information from other areas.”

Jones noted that the group will be meeting with wineries in Oregon and Washington, as well as with associations and programs such as Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE) and wineries active in WineryWise and VineWise.

A report summarizing all the data and research done by 5 Lakes Energy is expected to be finished by August. Brown anticipates that the report will include a lot of data, recommendations on every component of the project—vineyards, wineries and wine marketing—and also some challenges for the industry. (The industry members of the steering committee will be heavily involved in developing recommendations.)

The Council already is making plans for the next steps. Jones submitted a grant proposal this spring for Phase 2 of the project, which will focus on “education and engagement.” As part of the education component, the details of the research in the report by 5 Lakes will be posted on a website in a useful form for wineries. One aspect of outreach and engagement will be a one-on-one program where a person from 5 Lakes will meet with vineyards and wineries to discuss current programs that are available, such as the MAEAP for vineyards and grants for energy management. The ultimate goal of this phase of the project, according to Jones, is to determine “what the industry wants to have and how to organize for the future….This is a slow march in this direction; it has to be industry-driven for it to be successful. We’re working to assist the industry to gain understanding of these topics as we know that sustainability issues are important elements of the wine industry now and in the future.” 

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