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Sonoma County's Agricultural Roots

Columnist: Richard L. Thomas
October, 2014 Issue

Richard L. Thomas
All articles by columnist

As we started to host programs and seminars with industry people, growers finally began to show some interest and thought maybe I wasn’t crazy after all.

Our harvest issue is always exciting. Everyone can feel the electricity in the air, see the fruit flies flying and smell pomace all around town—at least if you live in Healdsburg, since we’re a town full of wineries. I never did like history in school, but now that I’m becoming history myself, I have a greater appreciation for it.
What’s happened over the last 45 years to our wonderful county? Back in the early ’70s, when I first started teaching at Santa Rosa Junior College, the agriculture department was just getting started. In 1973, Charlie Belden (dean of vocational education) and Steve Olson (agriculture department chairman) had the foresight to see that viticulture might just be an up-and-coming field that should be added to the curriculum. As their luck—and mine—would have it, I’d just received my master’s degree in viticulture from UC Davis. (A big thank you to Ruth Waltenspeil, who pushed me back to Davis.) It looked like a good fit and, as history shows, by golly, it was!
A look at agriculture in the county in the early ’70s showed 8,900 acres of apples, 15,284 acres of prunes, and only 12,597 acres of grapes. The grapes were old varieties, except for Zinfandel, which was just another red grape then and went into bulk wine to be sold to the big boys for blending. Sonoma County could have been in Alaska in those days as far as wine drinkers were concerned. There were also 49,000 head of cattle and 69,500 head of sheep to round out the diversity of agricultural production. The changes are quite evident as you look around today and only see 2,155 acres of apples, 29 acres of prunes and nearly 60,000 acres of grapes along with 29,000 cattle and 33,000 sheep.
What happened? Well let’s see: Prunes developed a shitty image (literally as well as figuratively); and local apples were dominated by one variety, the Gravenstein, which has a shelf life of about 20 minutes in a market wanting long shelf life and storability. Apple growers, being very stubborn (like most farmers), refused to try and keep up with the times by putting in newer varieties, adapt spacing, switching to dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties to lessen the use of ladders (dangerous and costly) and look at irrigation techniques. I happen to know all about this, since I continued to host seminars introducing all of these newfangled ideas. Since they’d rather fight than switch, they just sat back and watched the state of Washington eat their fresh market alive, while the canneries locally continued to process the local apples at very low prices. (Processed fruit always commands far less of a price than the fresh market.)
The cattle and sheep markets continued to dwindle due to urban encroachment and a bumper sticker that proclaimed “Eat lamb, 10,000 coyotes can’t be wrong!” Meanwhile, the prune growers finally saw the handwriting on the wall and started pulling out trees and replacing them with grapevines. Since we were basically neophytes in this new viticultural world, we had a very steep learning curve, which we navigated with varying levels of success for several years. (We’re still actually on it, if you want to know the truth.)
To our good fortune, we had a couple of good teachers right next door in Napa Valley with a lot more experience than we had, so we did a lot of copying. In hindsight, I’m sure we’d all agree that we made a lot of mistakes and are still fixing them. Probably the biggest mistake is improper varietal placement in the various areas within the county: Cabernet Sauvignon in the lower Russian River Valley and Pinot Noir in Alexander Valley. Originally, we stayed with some of the traditional spacings of 8 x 8 feet to 8 x 12 feet and used either no trellis (head-trained) or the standard at that time, the California sprawl.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, I began to question the use of overhead irrigation for a multitude of reasons, including its inefficiency. We (at our SRJC farm) began tinkering with the new concept of drip irrigation. The Israelis had been doing it for years and perhaps it was about time to look at our wasteful practices. So the first drip block (five acres) was donated by the industry and installed by my students. They knew they were on the ground floor of something great and loved it. As we started to host programs and seminars with industry people, growers finally began to show some interest and thought maybe I wasn’t crazy after all. There’s continued to be new innovations in the use of water—and nothing better than our current drought to bring it to the forefront.
OK, my beautiful editor says I’m out of space, so consider this part one and we’ll continue next issue with other SRJC innovations that are finally being adapted and helping make Sonoma County the premium wine producer in the world—and, of course, our neighbor to the east. In turning water into wine, we’re only taking our lessons from the Bible. Homework time: This is great time of year to try the really wonderful dry rosés being produced.   

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