Dr Mary Retallack
Retallack VITICULTURE
Len Evans Award

Leaving the earth – and the winemaking industry – in a better form than she found it is the aim of our Lens Evans Award recipient, Dr Mary Retallack.

Scientist, agronomist, agroecologist and third-generation viticulturist, Dr Mary Retallack is challenging the conventions of viticulture by harnessing the power of native insectary plants and highlighting the benefits of biodiversity.

Retallack’s mantra is regeneration, rather than sustainability, stating that we “need to leave the earth and land in a better form than we found it, rather than just maintaining the land so that we can take and benefit from it”. A respected, progressive leader in her field, Retallack is a board director of Wine Australia and the Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia, as well as managing director of Retallack Viticulture. She’s a member of the Viticulture Commission of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, and the Food Agility CRC Strategic Investment Council. Her leadership, mentoring, and advisory work in the wider agricultural industry is extensive, and her biodiversity projects run locally and abroad.

Retallack has identified a range of Australian plants that provide nourishment and shelter to predatory arthropods and parasitoids, otherwise known as ‘good bugs’. These, in turn, provide biological control of damaging grapevine pests. Through a project called EcoVineyards, funded by the National Landcare Program, and in partnership with the Wine Grape Council of South Australia, Retallack works with more than 50 businesses to help growers establish native insectary plants and improve biodiversity in their vineyards. 

 “Working with strong characters forces you to push yourself, to learn more.”

She has an alternate vision of how a vineyard could look: native grasses and forbs in the mid-row; plants beside the posts; and low-growing perennial ground covers under vine. “When we have a really well-buffered system, we’re less likely to have pests, weeds and insects dominate,” she says. 

The presence of predatory arthropods, such as insects and spiders, attract higher-order predators like lizards, microbats and insectivorous birds. These are a food source for territorial raptors, which patrol the vineyard and help keep out some of the introduced bird species. Native plants, rather than introduced species, are the catalysts and once you link up vineyards with nature corridors, then local flora and fauna have a chance to regenerate.

Retallack estimates that some vineyard regions have less than 10 per cent of their original vegetation cover. Considering that you get species loss with less than 30 per cent, practice change is critically needed.

Her work is the culmination of a twenty-five-year vision of better land management. The impetus for undertaking her PhD in viticulture and plant protection came after new owners of a vineyard, where she was previously the vineyard manager, sprayed out the thousands of natives she had planted. She realised that she needed to provide the underpinning science on the efficacy of native plantings, specifically wallaby grasses, Christmas bush and prickly tea-tree, when it comes to natural pest control in vineyards.

In addition to the functionality of these plants, Retallack speaks of them as adding to Australia’s unique wine story in a crowded international marketplace. When questioned about traditional monoculture viticulture, Retallack explains how they are fragile systems. “We need to intervene much more regularly to maintain the balance.”

By doing things differently, or going ‘back to basics’, she says you can break the cycle of sprays, and enhance the biodiversity and resilience of the vineyard. Functional biodiversity can lead to natural weed suppression, fewer inputs and soil compaction, as well as erosion control. Soil water penetration and retention improve, and there is more nutrient cycling, organic carbon availability and biological activity. With time, there are lower running costs and less use of chemicals.

Retallack’s philosophies on land management, incorporating identified insectary plants into vineyards, can be implemented by the smallest of grape growers. They also hold appeal for other agricultural sectors. She talks about the need to have a flexible approach. “Any grower can start at any point. They don’t need to fit into an environmental stewardship model; they don’t have to be a member or be certified as organic or biodynamic.”

Retallack’s philosophies on land management, incorporating identified insectary plants into vineyards, can be implemented by the smallest of grape growers. They also hold appeal for other agricultural sectors. She talks about the need to have a flexible approach. “Any grower can start at any point. They don’t need to fit into an environmental stewardship model; they don’t have to be a member or be certified as organic or biodynamic.”

She empowers growers to share their knowledge with others, and have demonstration sites with locally adapted plants, identified from pre-European plant lists, to accelerate the practice change. However, philosophical change needs major input and it takes time. The whole chain needs to be involved, including providing a resource pool of manuals and fact sheets, and supporting suppliers of services and products. The need for commercial quantities of mixed native seeds is just one example.

Community engagement is an essential part of the EcoVineyards project, Ratallack believes. It leads to better outcomes and it influences the next generation, allowing the project to transcend the wine sector. Examples include local Rotary Clubs helping with the development of microbat boxes and high-school students with plant propagation. “It can be hard, trying to create meaningful change, challenge the status quo and change culture,” says Retallack. Though when working with nature, “we are just working smarter and not harder”. 

But she is quick to point out that “small steps lead to large change”, and praises industry pioneers such as Prue Henschke, Dan Falkenberg and ‘early adopter’ growers as the catalysts for change. It all fits in with having a longer-term view of the world. “We have this tremendous resource, which is the Australian flora, which looks spectacular and is naturally adapted to our dry Aussie conditions. It’s absolutely intuitive to me, and makes sense, that we should look to our own backyard for solutions."

Photography courtesy Dr Mary Retallack.