I thought this would be a question we’d be getting all the time. Yes, it’s more expensive. Yes, the vineyards have more weeds. Yes, we have to worry about weather patterns a bit more. No, I can’t tell anyone that you can taste the difference. So naturally, from a purely American business point of view of maximizing profits, I thought we’d be constantly answering why we chose to jump off the cliff and choose a natural way of farming.
Ironically, all we really hear is, “Good for you!”
As I’ve mentioned before, spring is the time of year when I, myself, question the whole organic notion in our vineyards. Our farming life has enough stresses and strains to worry about that adding in just one more thing, farming naturally, really can put me over the edge. The biggest concern this time of the year is weeds!
Recently as I drove down the road, heading into some of the most beautiful wine regions of California, I truly envied the pristine aspects of their vineyards. The vines were immaculately pruned, mustard flowering in the rows, and not a single weed under the vines. It’s a picture-perfect scene.
It’s this “lack of weeds” under the vines that I covet the most (I think the 12th Commandment is “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s vineyard!”). But I know that this three-foot swath of completely bare land under the vine comes at a cost. And if I ever get asked why we farm naturally, a portion is definitely this focus to farm without using herbicides!
Full disclosure, we used to use both Round Up (a contact herbicide) and Surflan (a pre-emergent herbicide) up to about 8 years ago. It was an inexpensive and successful way of dealing with the weeds.
It wasn’t until just after returning from our sabbatical in France that we had thought to revisit the use of herbicides. We had noticed while abroad that the vineyards in Alsace, where it often rains during the summer, were farming organically. And with our near perfect weather in California, with its dry summers, we thought, “If they can do it in Alsace, then we certainly can do it in the Sierra Foothills!”
But the real revelation for us came the next year in 2011 when Claude and Lydia Bouguignon visited our winery. We had met the Bourguignons in Cahors while we were there, not knowing that they are the preeminent soil scientists for vineyards in the world. They happened to be working on an expensive project in Napa and we invited them up to our humble vineyards in the Sierras.
They asked us to dig nine 8-foot pits next to different vines (and varieties) throughout our vineyards here in Camino and in Pleasant Valley (the Enyé and Sumu Kaw Vineyards). They started at Madroña, stepping down into the deep pit, testing the soil at each foot for pH, acidity, nutrients and bio-diversity as well as looking at the root structure of the vines. At Madroña with our 35+ year old vines, everything looked great. They were particularly impressed with the bio-diversity of the microbes in the top 1-2 feet of soil. (In all honesty, we had stopped strip spraying herbicides some 2-3 years earlier.)
Then, they headed out to our Pleasant Valley vineyards to do the same set of tests. The look of disbelief on their faces when they tested for the healthy microbes in the soil was memorable. I think the exact comment was, “It’s not like the soil is unhealthy, there just isn’t any bio-diversity in the top layers of soil. Nothing! What are you doing here? Strip spraying?”
And from that date on, we switched over to using a weed-knife, hoeing, weed-whacking and hand-pulling as our weed control. I’ll admit that it is definitely more expensive to farm this way. And I can attest that our vineyard rows look more “natural” (with weeds) than pristine and clean.
As they are now able to test for glyphosate (the ingredient in Round Up like herbicides) in finished wines, it makes me feel like we’re ahead of the curve. Ultimately, as they find other issues, i.e. bees and herbicides, my hope is that more growers will switch over to farming naturally/organically especially in the area of weed control.
So to answer the question, “Seriously, why are you farming organically?” Here’s the answer. We sleep better at night!
P.S. We farm entirely organically, but we made the decision not to seek certification (since that is more for marketing and it costs a lot to do). Certified Organic farmers ask that those who aren’t certified organic (but farm that way) use the term “naturally farmed” instead of organic. Thus I have mixed the terms above in the blog to wean people into the idea of “naturally farmed.”
P.P.S. Expect more blogs on this subject as we delve deeper into the world of farming and others (whether bio-dynamic, organic, naturally farmed or sustainable farmed) come on board. There’s a lot of learning to do out there, and we’re certainly adding to our knowledge each day.