Underwear Goes Underground

Iowa State viticulturist conducts 'undercover' project to gauge vineyard health

by Linda Jones McKee
wine vineyard research experiment iowa state
Two pair of underwear are buried in Grimes, Iowa, on March 29, 2017.

Indianola, Iowa—How healthy is the soil in your vineyard? Is there a difference in its health in the row middles compared to the soil under the vines? Mike White, viticulture specialist at Iowa State University, has an unusual way for grapegrowers to get a basic idea of the health of the soil in a vineyard: bury your underwear!

White went to the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, in late-August 2016 and saw a clothesline exhibit of “Soil-ed Pants” and “Dirt-y Drawers” that had been buried in different types of soil: no-till, no-till and cover crops, tillage, hayfields, corn tillage. Signs on the clothesline told the story: that “the healthiest, most productive soils with conservation are alive,” he said. “Healthy soils have living organisms such as plant roots, earthworms, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and more.”

On that clothesline display there was not much left of the underwear that had been buried in the healthiest soils. Often only the waistband remained of briefs buried in pasture or alfalfa, and more of the cotton was consumed in no-till crop fields than in fields that were tilled conventionally.

What had happened?
According to White, the cotton cellulose in the underwear has a high percentage of carbon, and living organisms consume carbon. “Tighty Whities underwear are like a Golden Corral Buffet to soil organisms. They have been finding out that the less the soil is disturbed with tillage and/or pesticides, the more of the underwear that is consumed.”

What would happen if the Tighty Whities soil health test was tried in some Iowa vineyards? White decided to see what the results would be in five vineyards with different soil types. From mid-February to late-March 2017 he buried two Fruit of the Loom 34-36-inch white briefs in each vineyard. One pair was buried in the grass aisle, and the second was interred under the wire where herbicides had been used to kill the weeds and most of the ground was bare. The length of time the underwear was buried varied from 122 to 159 days.

In the Aug. 26, 2017, issue of the Wine-Grower-News #365, published by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, White reported that “in all cases, 97% of all the cotton was devoured. All that remained was the elastic waistband and maybe some of the elastic leg bands. It did not matter if the underwear was in the grassy aisle or in the weed free zone under the wire. The soil organisms consumed all the cotton.”

White noted that all five vineyards were between five and 15 years old, and he suggested that perhaps older vineyards where the soil under the wire had been bare for a longer period of time might have different results. Similar experiments with other crops in no-till and conventional-tillage situations definitely showed variations in soil health conditions as demonstrated in the underwear “consumption” test. It is quite probable that vineyards in different regions with other soil types would also have a variety of results.

White summarized what he had learned from the project in six points:
1. “People thought I was crazy when I asked them if I could bury my underwear in their vineyard.”
2. “It does not cost much to do some ‘fun’ basic research in your vineyard.”
3. “Don’t bury your underwear in your vineyard if you expect to wear them later.”
4. “I do not think this research will qualify for a Nobel Prize.”
5. “Soiled underwear would probably be devoured sooner.”
6. “Research like this will not enhance your career or get you tenure at the university.”

The Tighty-Whities Underwear Project turned out to be a cheap, easy (and fun) way to get a basic idea about the soil health of a vineyard. White told Wines & Vines that the project was designed to promote the importance of soil health, and he used the project to demonstrate that “Soil Health Matters” at the “Wine Experience” display at the Iowa State Fair in August and the National Aronia Growers Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, in November. “We achieved our goal,” White said. “It got people talking!”


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