Spring 2016 was the season for getting bogged in the vineyard. In some regions the access issues overlapped the important early-season spray application window. But help was available in the form of a helicopter. Nathan Gogoll reports.

FRANK NICHOLLS, from O’Connor Vineyard Services, based at Sevenhill in the Clare Valley, said he remembered an old image on the wall of one of the local ag supply stores of a helicopter in action on Christmas Day 1992.
And when he couldn’t get his usual spray units into the vineyards after heavy September rain, he started connecting the dots.
“I’m also the vice president of the local flying group, so I knew we were lucky enough to have a helicopter based in the region,” Nicholls said.
“Ashley Dickson from County Helicopters was already set up to do some spraying of vegetables around Virginia, so it was just a matter of a phone call to see if he was available and work out the details.”

Nicholls ended up covering about 100 hectares of his clients’ vineyards across the Clare Valley and other wine companies based in the region followed suit, another vineyard in Langhorne Creek also made use of the County Helicopter service.
“We put on sulfur and Mancozeb and it went on really well,” Nicholls said.
“The calibration is just like any other spray unit, but the helicopter moves a lot quicker.
“The concentration rate goes right up. We were putting out 4.8kg of sulfur and 2.4kg of Mancozeb per hectare and that was going into 50 litres of water.”

Nicholls said there was a ground crew following the helicopter, which enabled it to land close to the vineyard to re-fill the spray tank and minimise the turnaround time.
The only extra process involved was providing a decent map of the vineyard that included all of the obstacles – powerlines, for example – the pilot needed to steer around.
“The cost was pretty reasonable, our ground rigs operate at $50-$55 per hectare and the aerial work was around $63,” Nicholls said. “Given it was the helicopter or nothing, no protection, it was a pretty easy decision.
“I think it provided us with about one-third to a half as good as the coverage as the ground rig. From my point-of-view it was a pretty good job. It was the right call at the time – and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”

Nicholls said the helicopter spray application attracted a fair bit of interest throughout the Clare region and once the image was featured in the local newspaper (The Northern Argus) the word started to spread.
But there was one question from other grapegrowers about the aerial application, ‘did the products have approval for aerial application in a vineyard?’.
Those familiar with chemical labels would recognise there is very rarely any mention of aerial application… essentially because it is not common practice.
Some products such as Macozeb do have aerial application approval for use in other crops – which does suggest that permission for use in a vineyard setting could be obtained.
However, as growers and vineyard managers know, the label is legally binding – which could mean a permit is required before carrying out anything that departs from the label.

Marcel Essling, the senior viticulturist at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), said he recently received some advice from Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA) to clarify the situation in South Australia.
If a label has directions for aerial spraying and the product is registered for viticulture then the permission extends, from what I understand, to viticulture as well,” Essling said. “In some cases the label is specific about which crops the aerial spraying applies to.
“In Victoria they take a similar position but in NSW unless the label provides directions for aerial spraying then it is not permitted. The APVMA leave it up to the states.”

The specific advice:
In general, aerial application of an agrochemical such as elemental sulphur (e.g. Thiovit Jet) is permitted in South Australia unless the label specifically prohibits aerial use.
For any product, the user should check the label to determine whether aerial application, instead of ground application, will result in the contravention of any mandatory instructions on the product label (see definition below).
Contravention of a mandatory instruction on a product label is an offence under the Agricultural and Veterinary Products (Control of Use) Act.
A check of the Thiovit label, as an example, indicates aerial application does not obviously contravene any mandatory instructions on the label.

Specific mandatory instructions:
(1) For the purposes of the definition of mandatory instruction in section 3(1) of the Act, an instruction on an approved label for containers for a registered agricultural chemical product or a registered veterinary chemical product is a mandatory instruction if—
(a) it uses the words “must”, “must not”, “may not”, “do not”, “not to be used”, “not for use” or “use only”; or
(b) it contains a statement that the product is for use only by a person who has specified qualifications.

The photo (featured here in this article as well as on the cover of our November edition) was taken at the Hughes family Riesling vineyard at White Hutt, north of Clare.
“They are some of my clients, I had rung them to let them know this was the option I was recommending and, like most of our customers, they were pretty understanding of how important it was,” Nicholls said.
“Some of the vineyards we cover have had four spray applications before flowering, but most have seen three – including the initial one from the helicopter. So I’m pretty confident we’ve got a good handle on our fungicide application.”

There’s certainly no worries from the clients, with winemaker John Hughes already looking forward to getting access to great quality fruit from his parents White Flat vineyard.
“Crops definitely look up, I’m seeing three bunches per spur,” Hughes said. “But I think it will be a later season which, if anything, should improve the quality through an extended ripening period.”
For the Riesling Freak winemaker, this has him contemplating the sort of autumn you might experience in Germany – a long ripening period to draw out all the delicate fruit expression in the Riesling.

This article first appeared in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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