Action Research at Murdoch James Estate

Barbara Turner1, James Walker1, Josje Neerincx2, Esther Dijkstra2, Frank van Steensel2

1Murdoch James Estate, Dry River Road, Martinborough

2EcoAgriLogic, Moroa Road, PO Box 19 Greytown



In 2000 Barbara Turner, viticulturist at Murdoch James Estate (MJE), joined EcoAgriLogic’s NZQA organics course. This was the start of an interesting process based on a collegial co-operation between guidance and research centre and an innovative vineyard. Both on the road towards more sustainable development. To our own surprise, it turned into an interesting and innovative journey of ongoing Action Research (AR).


Barbara Turner and partner James Walker (viticulturist/winemaker at MJE) have both been pioneers into sustainable viticulture. Through their genuine interest in the subject, they managed to substitute the majority of the conventional inputs with more eco friendly products and methods. This was largely due to their great practical and observation skills, experience and especially their open attitude towards new developments and products.

Their open and inquisitive nature played an important role in the vineyards development. This was also the reason why Barbara joined the organics course. During the course, while gaining more knowledge in holistic development, ecology and soils, Barbara became increasingly more convinced that organic viticulture was a practical option. The course required an organic property management plan and this meant that the course participants, with holistic guidelines, needed to find solutions for practical situations. This forced them to search actively for practical solutions in the area of soil care, plant care and pest and disease management (more positively called microbe care). During this phase, it becomes apparent that for most cases alternative organic management methods are available. During the course, MJE decided to go “organic”, resulting in a new partnership of Action Research grew between MJE and EcoAgriLogic, as MJE discovered through the new insights gained in ecology and soil processes, that the normal subtition phase was already completed and that an increased efficiency and redesign was now possible.

About The Course

The course originated out of a need to further grow the organic skill base and market. Our experience within the EAL indicated that growers showed high levels of interest in sustainable and ecological growing but limited action. After some years of literature digging and experience, participants’ initial questions about ecological production nearly always were substitution and symptom based: Which organic product can I use to control black spot, peacock spot or any other pest or disease? Alternatively, which fertiliser can I use to increase early spring growth? For me as the guide it always meant hours of explaining that in the wider context of ecological systems one needs to take an integrated approach looking at factors and processes and that there are no silver bullets. This meant long sessions explaining processes (soil and ecological) and their advantages and disadvantages. An integrative approach requires several actions to improve the situation, not just the disease or deficiency, but the whole production system is under scrutiny and requires a re-design. The result was that unless the drive was big enough participants gave up because they did not have the time or resources to spend on our relationship. The only solution I could see was to design a course that educated the processes and the integrated approach. Offering systems oriented solutions on processes not just on goals. Furthermore, if one knows what goes wrong there is a real urge to address it. We all have something called moral obligations, something that is hard to ignore.

For me personally a completely new world opened up during the course. In the first few weeks a systems approach and thinking was discussed and there was a focus on the interactions of the different processes in production systems. The participants were required to design their management plan based on soil and plant requirements and this forced them to change substitution based questions into process oriented ones and so gradually changing their thinking towards process efficiency and even re-design of conventional systems. This resulted in remarkable discussions on how to practically incorporate the theoretical answers into practice and how one aspect influences the other.

During the third and final part of the course, serious topics like improved efficiency and re-design were addressed as the questions had evolved into that direction. The improved knowledge on soil and ecological processes meant that the questions had changed from specialist, analytical, substitution based towards more holistic processes and integrative oriented. Now all of a sudden diseases were placed in a total concept of soil plant and climate interactions. Finally, the interesting questions surfaced. How much nitrogen out of 10-ton compost? How does compost impact upon pest and diseases? What is the OPTIMUM soil organic matter level? Does it contain trichoderma? Questions that had practical value and needed to be answered but were never asked before.

The Vineyard

Murdoch James Estate is a vineyard with specific challenges. Of course, it had all the normal pests and diseases that vineyards have to deal with, but these were to a large extend already managed by acceptable ecological methods or substitution-based inputs. This can be contributed to the fact that the viticulturist and the winemaker had broad skill and experience base resulting in high local plant and disease knowledge. Most issues were manageable in a sustainable and ecological fashion.

The main issue, which was to a large extend site specific, related to ‘weed control’ and nutrient competition between crop and soil. Weed control happened in the past through cultivation and hoeing (swing arm) the vine row. Barbara and James were not happy about this. They were aware of the fact that their soil responded badly to cultivation especially under wet weather conditions.

During the course, soils were discussed to a large extend resulting in a better understanding of soil texture and structure. Barbara started to analyse her soils. Next to that, she gained a better understanding about ecological succession and nutrient dynamics in the soil. She started to question the widely recognised assumption that vines cannot compete with weeds or any other understorey growth. Once it became obvious that soil organic matter levels were high enough to support vine and understorey (grass) and once it became clear that through mowing the ‘weeds’ would disappear and nutrient dynamics could be guided, the vineyard acquired a swing arm mower and most blocks were from then onwards managed through mowing.

This completed the road towards organic certification but it was not the end of the developments. After the course EcoAgriLogic and MJE embarked on a road to improve efficiency and redesigning the vineyard.

After lengthy discussion and originally with the intention of joint funding with other growers the action research process already started become a recognised goal. Funding did not go ahead but EcoAgriLogic and MJE pursuit the option at the vineyard further within the financial means of MJE.

MJE commissioned a report to EcoAgriLogic, which would clarify a terroir identification (as part of the boarder terroir discussion in the area). At the same time, the report was used to benchmark and analyse the existing situation at MJE.

The result was a detailed insight into the soil and the processes involved.

Soils at Murdoch James Estate

Murdoch James Estate (MJE) is situated on a soil type classified as unsuitable for horticultural purpose due to some soil limitations. The soil at MJE is loess based on greywacke gravels. The thickness of the loess layer varies with a minimum depth of 1 metre. This loess layer has high slacking potential and high density. Loess soils are extremely vulnerable under cultivation, prone to compaction and erosion. Further research also confirmed an unconsolidated pan, which severely limited drainage.

Neither EcoAgriLogic nor MJE management could accept the conventional assumption that this soil was classified and confirmed unsuitable for horticultural purposes since the vineyard had been established for years and produced award-winning wines on a consistent basis.

During the winter-wet season, further research was instigated and several profile pits were dug around the perimeter of the vineyard blocks. It turned out to be an extremely prolonged wet winter and the pits filled up with water. The water reached levels range from 300 mm to 500 mm under the soil surface. The water levels remained stable for a prolonged period. With the exception of one pit, which drained to below the pan levels (pan levels was around 70-80 cm below surface). Closer inspection in this pit resulted in the discovery of old roots systems of gorse, which seemed to open the (unconsolidated pan) and therefore improved drainage locally. Since we did not have any pits in the vineyard and since over the years no real negative impact had occurred on the vines, we decided to dig a pit next to a vine. Again, there was no standing water on the pan and the roots of the vine seem to have improved the local drainage conditions.

Ecological succession recognises the fact that soil flora and fauna changes and develops soil properties. It was hypothesized that the vines improved the soil quality aspect with regards to drainage. This resulted in some theories.

Action Research project at MJE

MJE and EcoAgriLogic were keen to improve soil conditions over the whole block. The pan was seen as a disadvantage and risk factor. Furthermore, from an efficiency point of view it was concluded that the vineyard could gain from more organic matter (larger nutrient buffer and dynamics) in the soil divided over a deeper profile and at the same time break the pan with deep rooting plants.

A trial was set up to:

  1. Increase soil organic matter over a deeper profile to increase nutrient dynamics and efficiency.

  2. Penetrate and/or dissolve the unconsolidated pan by increased root activity and soil life.

Since this exercise needed to fit in with current practical management and in a tight budget several options occurred.

Trial 1

Ideally, the trial should not involve repeated cultivation since the soil does not have the properties to sustain intensive cultivation. This was part of the re-design strategy. This meant that a long-term understorey was the aim. The current developed understorey blends were based on annual sowing and cultivation. Besides that, annual based mixes do not compare favourably to long-term legume based mixes with regards to soil organic matter build up. Two major disadvantages for the MJE site.

Since grass clover based swards and understorey have a proven record of accomplishment to build up soil organic matter levels it was decided that this should be part of the research.

Here was a slight issue as the blocks had become completely grass based with certainly in the beginning few clover spots since the start of the new developments. Again, this could be explained through some further investigation.

The Ca/Mg ratio and levels were far from ideal for vines and for clover development. The first trial started to shape up as we decided as part of vine management to improve the cation base of the soil over the next few years. Consequently, this should result in improved clover levels.

This left another issue unaddressed, namely increased distribution of soil organic matter over the depth of the profile.

Regular mowing meant that the grass stayed short and this controlled and restricted deeper root development. No long grass meant no deep roots. An easy solution was to lower the mowing frequency and let the grass become bulky. (A technique used at the Wairarapa Eco Farm (WEF) since 1996 with great success. At WEF, the mowing regime has developed into a sophisticated fertiliser and mulching regime reducing fertiliser inputs).

This meant we had our first trial based on mowing the existing grass understorey with adjusting the Base Saturation (BS) to favour vine and clover development. The BS adjustment was started in 2003 and is aimed to be completed in 2005. MJE and EcoAgriLogic opted for a gradual change leading to a gradual new balance by which the existing mineral balance would not be changed too rapidly and thereby not upsetting soil biology.

Trial 2

Theorising about the trials resulted in further questions: would there be other legumes or herbs available that can be part of a long-term understorey that could do the job quicker. This resulted in trial number 2.

Four mixes were discussed upon their theoretical ecological merits. They had to be able to withstand regular mowing and the prevailing conditions be it soil, climatic or management factors. This would mean that they could be used within existing management structure even though it is gradually being redesigned. Since grasses quickly dominate the scene under mowing conditions, they were excluded from the mixture to prevent early competition. It is expected that over the years, grasses will come back and a balance will be found between the introduced species and the natural grasses. The four blend trails will be monitored on soil properties and community structure. The result will provide us with more information on the different species and their behaviour in a mix. This will give us the opportunity to select more appropriate species for specific locations and conditions.

Understorey blends

The primary goal of the understorey blends was to reduce the risk of prolonged water saturation and to increase the nutrient buffer and dynamics. For this reason the blends needed to raise organic matter levels through the whole profile, leading to improved structure drainage and nutrient reserves. Up until recently, soil profile development was restricted due to cultivation and frequently mown grass. This had resulted into a grass sward ‘sitting’ on top of the profile. The result was limited mixing of top and subsoil with good organic matter levels in the topsoil but lack of microbial activity and biogene structure development in the subsoil. It was observed however that deeper rooting plants (the vines) improved drainage. This determined the requirement of the mixes: deep rooting, building organic matter and stimulating biogene structure. To get quick responses in organic matter build up legumes were a priority. As legumes are not always deep rooting it was decided to include deep rooting perennials in the blend. Another aspect of legumes are that they can be slow to get established and it was seen as useful to include a quick establishing bulky annual that after mowing would make way for the developing legumes. Table 1 shows the make up of the four different mixes.

Overall, the mineral composition and the root structure of the mixes varies significantly from the former grass sward and therefore stimulate soil life. In theory, a more complex food web will be established therefor increasing the availability of physiological active substances (catalysed by broader availability of trace elements). Years of monotonous diet for soil life will be broken and an increased diversity of food source will invigorate soil life and increase food web complexity stimulating biogene structure forming, improved nutrient dynamics and storage.

Blend 1

Blend 2

Blend 3

Blend 4

23 kg/ha

26 kg/ha

26 kg/ha

23 kg/ha

10 kg oats

10 kg oats

10 kg oats

10 kg chewing fescue

2 kg chicory

2 kg chicory

2 kg chicory

2 kg chicory

6 kg lucerne

6 kg lucerne

6 kg lucerne

6 kg lucerne

5 kg buckwheat

2 kg subterranean clover

1 kg crimson clover

5 kg buckwheat


2 kg red clover

2 kg lotus clover



2 kg white clover

2 kg white clover



2 kg vetch

3 kg buckwheat


Table 1. Make up of the understorey blends(sponsored by Dionysus) as used in the trial.

Understorey blends

Oats was included in the mix to support establishment of slow establishing species like most legumes. It is a nurse crop that makes way for the other species after mowing. Besides that, oats are deep rooting and bulk up the blend, therefore producing biomass to stimulate soil life. Oats is also a nurse crop that according to organic literature indicates increased P contents. P availability in systems without animal inputs (most vineyards) tends to be a challenge. This is an obvious chance to improve our insights into this theory.

Chicory was the most likely candidate for a deep rooting herb. There are serious other candidates like comfrey, but considering the conditions, chicory was the safest bet. Chicory is a mineral rich, broadleaved, deep pen rooted plant doing well under mowing and grazing.

Lucerne is a well-suited legume for drier regions with a very deep and extensive rooting system. Lucerne and chicory are chosen to explore the subsoil. While establishment is slow, it will last for years (if mowing is not too short and grazing limited). Lucerne is probably the most functional soil improver. The disadvantage is that it cannot be used in every situation and it will die back in winter leaving the ground open. It is however the key component in the blends at MJE.

Buckwheat has many virtues but the main reason for its inclusion is its nurse crop potential.

In blend two and three we included a variety of legumes to see how they would develop in a blend. The aim is to find site-specific legumes that can withstand management influences. We want to find N fixers with proven capabilities ASAP since the need for them is on the rise. Besides free nitrogen, the legumes deliver the speediest development of soil organic matter in combination with grass.

Chewing fescue is included in mix four as a suggestion from DIONISUS. After having discussed the mix, they felt that oats would be too vigorous and would out-compete the other species. Chewing fescue is the filler, replacing the oats as a control for blend one.

The long-term view held is that through mowing the plant community will change, that grasses will be established, and that it will become a legume based grass sward building soil organic matter levels.

Regular mowing will be the main management of the understorey resulting into a succession that most likely will see some grasses re-establish, but the resulting understorey community will be more diverse for years to come.

An added bonus is that the increased flowering species will contribute towards a diversification (in time and space) of food supply for an increasingly complex insect population, and therefore theoretically reducing insect pest populations. Moreover, this AR will result in some good information about soil development and understorey succession under mowing conditions in vineyards easing the way for time and money saving options in the future.

This was in line with the experience of MJE staff. They have been looking for options to change the bare earth policy. With an increase in knowledge the bare earth policy was changed rapidly and a grass understorey was established by means of mowing and natural succession. Within 18 months, a grass understorey had been established through mowing.

The results so far

Observed advantages of the trials

  • At the end of the 2004-growing season, EcoAgriLogic has already observed a significant improvement in clover content, an increased number of worm counts, an impressive occurrence of mixing (soil not ‘sitting’ on top), and there are signs of increasing topsoil depth (see poster photos).

  • Barbara and James observed some changes involving Botrytis management for the 2004 season (see also box 3 on pest management). 2004 was considered by growers a high risk season with high instances of Botrytis discussed in the region, however, Botrytis was not present in the Murdoch James Estate vineyards up until the latest picks of mid May. Control to that date was canopy management, and two early season (bud burst) applications of JMS oil prior to full bloom and one application of copper at flowering. The incidents of climatic Botrytis in the Martinborough area increased due to the increase of humidity in April/May. Both James and Barbara attribute the low instances of Botrytis at MJE to the increased diversity of fauna and flora in the inter-row and understorey of all four organic vineyards.

  • It was also observed that the grass understorey acted as a blanket with the effect of decreased the wet weather splash of soil born Botrytis from bare earth to vines (‘blanket effect’).

  • Due to the increase in diversity of plant species in the trial area, more insect life was expected to be observed, but due to the climatic conditions this was not observed. In addition, an increase of leaf roller caterpillar observed in the later pick analyse was attributed to the requirements of the crop to hang for a longer period than expected. (Approx. one month in some cases to gain physiological ripeness). Past integrated and the present organic management regime have required one BT programme biannually.

  • There is an increased insect population in the blends in comparison to the grass sward. During one particular wet weather period in February/March large numbers of green frogs were found in the blends.

  • Worm counts seem to have increased in the grass sward over the last year, and tend to be even higher in the blends.

  • There are visual indications that soil mixing and depth development are on the increase under the grass sward.

  • Pen rooted plants (chicory, lucerne) are establishing themselves leading to increasing soil life to greater depth.

  • A decrease in machine cost per hectare in grass mowing was observed due to newly developed inter-row sward.

  • Furthermore, an increase in pasture species for over wintering stock in the vineyard areas was seen as a major advantage.

  • Last but not least, a visual point of difference from organic and conventional vineyard management, leading to an increase in interest from the public in the MJE vineyard tours. First question is why MJE does not mow. So, an introduction in organic production starts at this point focussing on soil health.

Pest management

Botrytis management seems to polarise opinions. Some consider it a mayor challenge for organic growers while others do not see it as a serious issue. It is widely recognised that Botrytis is season, region and variety depended. To generalise, experienced field managers seem convinced that it is manageable through a variety of actions like proper nutrition, canopy management and some accepted inputs like mineral oil or compost and milk based foliars. There is also recognition that the foliars are only as successful as the efficiency of the spray equipment as well as the skill of the applicant (process oriented approach). Desk managers however have a more goal-oriented approach and opt for high tech silver bullet approaches. The later will have more trouble entering the organic scene.

Observed disadvantages of the trails

Only one disadvantage was observed over the past 9 months; a slumping of the cultivated area.

Further results from Action Research

An important aspect of this exercise has been that EcoAgriLogic improved its understanding of practical ecological vine growing. This has resulted into two new programs we offer based on growing guidelines.

Next to our existing soil care and olive care programs, we now offer soil care and vine care programs for vineyards. The current grower guidelines have three different levels, namely 1) sustainable ecologic; 2) certified organic, and 3) biodynamic.

All can be integrated, which should result in improved performance, quantitatively as well as qualitatively.

We continue to offer courses, workshops and seminars (based on specific groups needs). Monitoring schemes and research options from a producer based perspective (like Action Research).

The speed of progress will largely be determined by the amount of participation and therefore our aim is to work with formalised groups/organisations in a collegial fashion. It would benefit all growers to collect more quantitative data from this site.

Action research or experiential learning

When we entered the process all involved realised that we where part of a new development. Turns out that we are part of a new approach into research and extension. EcoAgriLogic has always been investigating options to increase knowledge transfer and research efficiency, which resulted in promoting Participatory Technology Development, or short PTD. PTD is based on farmer participation, should be farmer driven, and as such the method described in this article could be classified as PTD. However there are certain characteristics that are new to PTD and give it an extra dimension. This dimension has been explored by one of our overseas contact organisations Louis Bolk Institute and is called experiential science. It is seen as a ‘natural’ R&D development supporting innovative farmers to support the self –regulating system finding site-specific solutions for challenges while maintaining a divers farming system that respects the integrity of life (widely recognised as the guiding principles of organic farming systems).

Experiential science has all the advantages of Action research methods like PTD.

It integrates intuitive learning and pattern recognition by farmers with experimental on-farm evaluation by scientific evidence (Baars, 2002) based upon a collegial or collaborative interaction. It is an R&D methodology that connects with the organic and pioneering producers’ worldview.

Producer scientist interactions are evolving from: Contractual: Scientists contract with farmers to provide land, animals or services; experiments are planned and evaluated by scientists. Consultative: scientists consult farmers about their problems, interpret the responses and then try to develop appropriate solutions. Collaborative: scientists and farmers collaborate as research partners in identifying research questions, planning experiments, and collecting and interpreting data jointly. Collegial: scientists work to strengthen producers’ informal research and development systems.

The last two are better equipped to service innovative and organic producers.

Other activities explored at MJE

The trials are just a part of the redesign at MJE. One other project is looking into capturing nutrients of the waste stream created in the vineyard and the winery. Currently EcoAgriLogic and MJE are discussing and designing an integrative approach around this issue.

Part of the solution will is the design of a wastewater treatment plant based (EcoAgriLogic design) on a wetland bio filter. The growth media and plant material produced in the wetland bio filter will be used for composting the solid organic wastes from the vineyard and winery. There are some major constrains in this project since the diversity of available compostable material does not lend itself for ideal composting. The material coming from the wetland bio filter is a serious improvement in the composition of compostable material available like grape mark and pruning. It is anticipated that over time more sources will become available like animal manure and understorey material from the vineyard. More action research is required here and the speed of the developments depends on other participants contributing to the action research development program. Further more other action research projects run by EcoAgriLogic like the compost trails at Riversun Nursery, Terracing and soil building in PakiPaki and mulch and compost trails in Martinboruogh all provide progressive and practical info for our other participants.

For more information on this Action Research Project, other work done by EcoAgriLogic, or to discuss your needs for improved sustainability, contact Frank van Steensel