A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.-Franklin D. Roosevelt
This past year marks a historic point in our vineyard and farm management. After years of experimentation we have successfully integrated mixed cover crops and livestock into our vineyards and fields.
Ed, our vineyard manager and past pulse crop grower, suggested a few years back that we try lentils in the vineyard as they are a legume, fix nitrogen, and are drought tolerant. After repeated trials we have developed a system of planting a variety of winter lentils under the vines in early September that emerge in the fall, go dormant in the winter and then start growth early in the spring. After three seasons of replications we have significantly reduced various weed species, fixed enough nitrogen to grow a grape crop, and most importantly reduced our tillage from 5-7 passes per season to 0-1. This is huge, as going to no-till will allow us to accelerate the building of soil carbon, increase microbial activity in the soil, increase moisture holding capacity, further reduce disease and insect damage, provide habitat for pollinators and predator species, and reduce the fossil fuel use.
This sounds great, but does it make better wine? Short answer: Yes. Long answer is still being worked out, but the highlights are that diverse populations of soil micro and macro organisms develop two way symbiotic relationships with plants to provide micro nutrients and metabolites that strengthen and protect plants. Healthy plants have the resources to produce all the complex aromatic and phenolic compounds that we strive for in great wines. In fact, this applies to all plants and animals. For further reading check out:http://kris-systems.com/
Many guests to the farm asked us how we were going to harvest the lentils under the grapes. We had only really considered just letting them reseed and not worry about it. But as we thought more about it, the plants were producing 10 times more seed than we needed, so it could be harvested, but we needed to find a economical solution. Having also planted a 10 species of cover crop north of the vineyard to attract pollinators and predators, we developed a plan to put 200 boiler chickens in half of the cover crops and a 1.5 acre block of Merlot after harvest. We had some losses to coyotes, hawks, and eagles, but still took 165 birds to the butcher. It was quite amazing to see all those chickens in the vineyard. We learned a lot in those six weeks and hope by next fall to have organic pasture chickens available for sale. (watch for our next post on “Raised on Range”)
2019 is going to be exciting as we are working with researches from the Summerland Research Station and students from Okanagan Collage to investigate the long term potential of these and other cover crop programs.