This Winter the CalCAN team had the joy of visiting farms from Santa Rosa to Monterey and from Merced to Camarillo, CA to learn about how these farmers and ranchers are building soil health and on-farm ecosystems. Follow our blog and social media for updates as we ease into the warmer Spring months and busier farm season.
Farming principles to strive for
One of the highlights was our visit to Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, which was first planted in 1994 and now includes 135 acres of vines and another 145 acres covered in native grasslands and oak woodland habitat. Tablas Creek Viticulturist, Jordan Lonborg, led us on a tour of the vineyard highlighting their three main principles along the way:
1) a closed loop system with minimal offsite inputs
2) maximum biodiversity
3) reduced tillage
The foundation of their closed loop system is in the soil, which they protect by maintaining a cover crop in the entire vineyard year round. The cover crop currently includes a combination of the native grasses present in the landscape and a planted cover crop blend. Jordan is working to phase out the planted cover crop to minimize external inputs and to depend on the native cover as a resource already present in their farm ecosystem.
The many benefits of sheep
The cover crop not only provides pollinator habitat and adds to the biodiversity on their farm, but also provides food for the sheep they introduced in 2010. Since then they have rapidly scaled up from 50 sheep to 350 today. The sheep fertilize the vines while grazing in the winter months, and this practice enabled Tablas Creek to eliminate fertilizer application in 2017.
Jordan shared that while there are new management challenges presented by incorporating livestock among the vines, such as minor nibbling on the vines and irrigation, the benefits far outweigh the cost. In 2018, Jordan started noticing improved fruit quality and stronger virus resistance in the vines, which his team attributes to the sheep and their positive impacts on soil health. Between these holistic management practices and the high water holding capacity of the limestone and clay soils at Tablas Creek, they successfully dry farm 40% of their vineyard.
After the vine buds begin to emerge in the Spring, the sheep are moved to the oak understory so they don’t nibble on the tender shoots. The Tablas Creek team actively manages the woodland by selectively removing fallen branches and smaller trees to create more grazable space for their herd, which has the important benefit of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. To avoid burning the culled trees and releasing carbon into the atmosphere, they built a biochar kiln to experiment with the potential benefits. They add the biochar to grape skins and vineyard prunings to produce compost on site. The biochar, compost and sheep work together to nourish the cover crop and the vines.
Good working conditions, good results
Tablas Creek has been certified organic since 2003, was certified biodynamic in 2016 and became the first Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) vineyard in 2020. ROC builds on organic practices to include animal welfare standards and strong health, safety and wage standards for employees. The labor standards comply with the Equitable Food Initiative certification and wages are calculated based on the regional cost of living. “The higher wages have attracted the highest qualified, premium team of employees we’ve ever had, from around the region,” says Jordan.
Jordan shared that in his opinion the first step for other farmers to move towards the holistic farming system they have established at Tablas Creek is to introduce biodiversity in every corner of the farm and to ease off of dependence on synthetic herbicides and fertilizers.
Tablas Creek is working constantly to improve their systems, adapting to changing climate conditions and their specific context each year. Jordan stressed that we can never be dogmatic or stuck in a certain way of farming, but instead, we must continue to improve and incorporate new knowledge as it becomes available.