December 12 2016: Murrumbateman Region Spray Drift Impact on Vineyards: Pesticides: 2,4-D, MCPA

A blow to the health and income of Canberra Region vintners

Murrumbateman winemaker Ken Helm says he fears massive crop loss after reports of illegal weedicide spraying.  Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Murrumbateman winemaker Ken Helm says he fears massive crop loss after reports of illegal weedicide spraying. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Canberra Region wineries are fearful of massive crop and income loss after reports of illegal weedicide spraying in November this year.

Reports of vine damage from the vineyards has come to light in the last two weeks, from the deforming weedicides 24D and MCPA.

The chemicals, which have links to Agent Orange used in the Vietnamese war, can cause major loss of crop and deformities in the growth of the vines which can continue in the plant for two years.

According to pioneer winemaker and ex CSIRO biologist, Ken Helm of Murrumbateman, it’s not just the Yass Valley’s biggest tourism driver that is at risk, but also the health of the broader community.

“People have to by law control their weeds, for things such as serrated tussock and thistles, but this all has to be done before October 1,” he said. “This is before the vines start to form and no damage can be done.”

“Reports of a helicopter spraying in the Hall district and vine damage is particularly worrying as the spray can drift for kilometres. On November 14 there were also reports on Dog Trap Road of aerial spraying.”

By law, persons spraying herbicides are liable for damage, should the herbicides drift and damage neighbouring crops.

“There have been a number of cases where persons and authorities had to pay compensation to neighbours for crop damage caused by herbicide drift from weed spraying machines,” he said.

This year the late and illegal spraying has caused deformities in the leaves of the vines spreading from Hall in the ACT, to around the Murrumbateman area. The weedicide spray drift can threaten crops, vine health, and the farmers livelihood, as well as the farmers health and the health of their neighbours.

“Aside from harming our crops, the other issue which should be addressed is the health issues of the community who have the spray drift settle on them and on the roofs of their houses and then is washed into their rainwater tanks,” he said.

The leaf deformities due to weedicide spraying means the grapes won’t grow on the vines. Although the extent of the damage won’t be known for another two weeks, Mr Helm says he believes the damage is extensive.

Damage: A vine taken from Mr Helm's vineyard showing 24D damage in December, next to one of his healthy vines. Photo: Supplied.

Damage: A vine taken from Mr Helm’s vineyard showing 24D damage in December, next to one of his healthy vines. Photo: Supplied.

While he assured the chemicals in the weedicides cannot contaminate the grape or the wine, the loss of crops will result in thousands of dollars of income loss.

“Out of a tonne of grapes we can expect around 60 cases of wines, which you would expect around $300 for. In a season we will pick around 80 tonnes of grapes,” he said. “We can put up with the weather but we can’t put up with irresponsible attitudes.”

Mr Helm, who has been growing grapes for 40 years in the Canberra district, says it is frustrating that people are illegally spraying weeds and allowing the spray to escape their property, causing damage to other people’s income.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority spoke with Mr Helm last week and is investigating the incidents. The EPA says herbicides must be used responsibly to avoid environmental damage and costs to farmers.

“The misuse or mishandling of these chemicals can pose a danger to the community and impact on the surrounding environment, including damaging native vegetation and non-target crops, such as cotton, grapes and tomatoes,” a spokesperson said. “Failing to meet any of the requirements on use can result in regulatory action.”

Anyone with information should contact the Environment Line on 131 555. Mr Helm says he is making representations to identify the people responsible, so legal action can be taken.