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The Good Earth

Author: Bonnie Durrance
July, 2015 Issue

Farmers and governments work to keep the North Bay green.

 
Try to think of a gathering with friends, new or old, when you haven’t heard at least one person say, “We’re so lucky to be living here!” Nobody ever disagrees or says they’d rather be living in Kansas. But we know maintaining the beautiful and bountiful agricultural character of Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties won’t happen without a concentrated commitment to sustainability. And that’s what we’re seeing, particularly in the wine growing regions. Driven by growers and farmers, it’s a movement to become fully sustainable so the tradition of farming that many of them have grown up with can be passed down and enjoyed for generations to come.
 
By definition, if you’re not sustaining something, you’re losing it. So when we’re talking about sustainability, we’re basically talking about working in a way that doesn’t deplete the resource or harm the environment on which it—and we—depends. And from there, we’re talking about restoring, revitalizing and perpetuating the cycle of life itself.
 

It starts with carbon

On a grassy hillside in Marin earlier this spring, John Wick, a Nicasio rancher with a radiant face, lectured a group of environmental writers about how an experimental application of one-half an inch of compost to his rangelands had, over one year, surprised him by drawing unexpectedly large amounts of carbon from the air down into the soil.
 
It all came about when Wick and his wife, Peggy, took over the ranch, which until then had been cattle grazing land. But they thought it would be better without cattle. “So we took the cattle off and thought that if we would leave everything alone, this would turn into a beautiful piece of wilderness.” But that did not happen. The invasive species invaded, the coyote bushes took over and neighbors complained the land was becoming a fire hazard. After trying the usual methods of weed control—mowing, chemicals—he met Jeff Creque, Ph.D., a rangeland ecologist who suggested reintroducing grazing. Cattle were reintroduced and the land started to improve.
 

Marin adopts the Carbon Project

By 2007, Wick and Creque decided to see if, perhaps, in addition to improving soils, the cattle dung’s impact could be measured as a way of creating carbon offset credits. They took their questions to Dr. Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist at UC Berkeley, who, initially skeptical, designed an experiment involving the compost application to several experimental plots (about three acres, total) across Wick’s land. Meanwhile, Wick, Creque and Nancy Scolari, executive director of the Marin Resource Conservation District, formed the Marin Carbon Project (MCP) to guide and support the work.
 
In the first year, the compost application resulted in an extra metric ton of carbon being sequestered in each hectare (2.5 acres) of treated ground. As a result, the soil’s fertility increased and they saw a surge of new plant life.
 
That, in itself, was amazing, Wick told the group. But even more amazing was that, in each of the subsequent six years since that first (and only) compost application, an increasing amount of carbon had been absorbed into the earth. The soil has continued to increase in fertility, and the grasses have continued to increase in variety and health. Birds returned. Native plants sprouted. The conclusion was that, given the right circumstances and practices, a rangeland farmer, such as himself, could directly contribute to the reduction of carbon in the air, where it was doing harm, and increase the carbon in the earth, where it was doing good. That was exciting.
 
Wick says the realization transformed the way he and his wife regarded their land. “We used to look across it, but now we look down into the soil. When you start doing that, you see a whole different set of conditions.” They also began to feel a sense of abundance and well-being. They pursued the work.
 
“Yes, we showed that we could increase soil carbon,” says Creque. “And yes, it increased plant growth and increased the quality of the forage, and it increased the water holding capacity on those rangelands. It was all good news.”
 
The Marin Carbon Project continues to educate about opportunities for agricultural carbon projects to enhance and restore the soil through a process known as carbon farming.
 
“One of the things I loved about the approach that Marin Carbon Project took,” says Calla Rose Ostrander, who was the climate change project manager for the city of San Francisco when she learned about Marin Carbon Project, “is that it wasn’t treating carbon as a pollutant. Carbon is a fundamental building block of life. It’s actually the mechanism by which all life exchanges energy from the sun. We’ve underestimated the potential of all the plants, trees and grass on the planet to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil.”
 
She says the Marin Carbon Project has found it easy to gather a constituency because it’s demonstrating there’s gain for everybody. “MCP’s approach is a positive for farmers; it’s positive for the ecology; and it’s positive for the wildlife biodiversity and the climate.”
 

Building a sustainable Sonoma County

“Today, if you were to talk to the growers and farmers who we interact with, they’d say they’re the original environmentalists,” says Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, which represents all growers in Sonoma County and the few in northern Marin. “If they don’t manage and take care of the land, and manage habitat and streams for fish, they’ll lose their land and livelihood and will have nothing to pass on to the next generation.”
 
When she and her board of directors decided to explore the idea of sustainability and a 100-year business plan, she posed a key question: Are we preserving grapes, or agriculture? She asked them, hypothetically, what they’d do if, one day, they couldn’t grow grapes. “I said, ‘Would you want to put on a suit and work at a bank, or try to get a job in town? And they were like, ‘Oh, my gosh. No! I want to be on my tractor. I want to grow things and take care of the land. I want to walk my property as a farmer.’” So they came to the conclusion together that grape growers are farmers, first and foremost. They want to preserve agriculture as a way of life. They want to leave thriving fields and farms—and businesses—for their grandchildren, and sustainability provides a path for this long-term preservation. With this shared goal as a firm foundation, they’ve made a commitment that, by 2019, 100 percent of Sonoma County’s vineyards will be certified sustainable.
 
For the Winegrowers, sustainability is an all-inclusive concept involving a complicated process with a simple result. “It’s about minimizing our impact on the land.” says Kruse. “It’s about treating people, from our workers to our neighbors, with respect and engaging with them in the process. Probably most important, it’s about business—because if we can’t pay the bills, it doesn’t matter what we do for the land.”
 
The program will progress in two phases: assessment and certification by a third party such as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
 
For the first phase, there are 138 assessments, compiled from a group of more than 50 stakeholders across the state of California, who were asked what sustainability would look like for grape growers. The growers are answering questions such as: Do you have a cover crop planted? How do your vines get nutrients? How often do you test for nutrient levels? What’s your canopy management like? Are you planting in the right direction to take advantage of the natural sunlight or slope of the hill? How are you watering? When do you water?
 
The second phase of certification involves a third-party audit of this assessment to ensure growers are really walking the walk. This adds a layer of credibility to the initiative.
 
Sonoma growers—whose lands in the big and varied county are all different and distinctive—are hopeful that this intense focus on farming best practices will provide a voluntary path for compliance in working with regulators to set the standards that should work best on their farms.
 
While this is an ambitious commitment, at this writing, more than 60 percent of the growers have completed their sustainability self-assessment, and 33 percent have gone through the certification. The work is empowering farmers to be proactive toward sustaining their own environment and reaching their own goal. When they achieve their goal—unless, of course, Napa gets there first—they’ll be the country’s first totally sustainable county.
 

Taking sustainability to the next level in Napa

Napa Valley has a long history of sustainability, starting with the establishment of the nation’s first and only Agricultural Preserve in 1968, the hard-won and award-winning, “living river” flood project in 1998, and private projects such as the Napa River Rutherford Reach Restoration Project, overseen and carried out by the Rutherford Dust Society and led by Davie Piña, owner of Piña Vineyard Management, LLC.
 
“We set up the Rutherford Dust Society back in the early 1990’s,” says Andy Beckstoffer, one of its founding members. “We did it not just to sell wine, but also to build community in Rutherford. It was a major project, and it brought everybody together—it says something about Rutherford, the appellation and who we are.”
 
The Napa River is compromised by sedimentation, channel incision and bank erosion, loss of riparian habitat, blockage by debris, and proliferation of invasive species, which encourage pests detrimental to grapevines. So property owners, wanting to prevent further loss of their valuable lands to erosion, and interested in being good stewards of the river and lands, decided to embark on a project to allow the river to flow naturally as possible along that length. The project, along that 4.5 mile portion of the Napa River called the Rutherford Reach, was approved by Napa County in 2002 and begun in 2003, and involved removal of invasive species along the river banks, replacing them with native species, which will help hold and stabilize the banks, and restore the portion of the Napa River called the Rutherford Reach. The project was completed this spring, with a public celebration.
 
“This is about a lifestyle and a life,” says Beckstoffer. “What we did is we saved that reach. We did a private thing between the growers and the government. Had we done nothing, the government could come in and tell us what to do.” This thought is enough to drive most landowners to take action themselves. “The government’s not going to be anywhere near as concerned about property rights and vineyards, and aesthetics and everything. It’s just going to draw a straight line and say, ‘Do it!’ So we avoided all of that—and we not only avoided it, but now it loves us!”
 
When he came here in the ’70s, there were few wineries and the river was still healthy. “We were just farmers,” he says. Then, as challenges such as phylloxera appeared, we had to become viticulturists. Now, with the realization of what farming does to the environment and the land itself, growers have had to evolve again. “And now,” he says, with pride, “we’re stewards of the land.”
 

Working toward a sustainable Napa Valley

Recognizing that in Napa Valley, the soil and the land are the most valuable resources, Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) helped develop two voluntary but rigorous environmental certification programs for the region: Napa Green Land, which is certified by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Napa County Agriculture Commissioners Office; and Napa Green Winery, which is certified by Napa County.
 
These programs help vineyard and winery owners learn about and adopt best practices to manage their land in such a way that participants can reduce impacts and comply with many environmental regulations in one easy step. “I explain it as, you’re traveling down this highway of regulations of the things you have to comply with,” says Napa Valley Vintners’ Industry Relations Manager Michelle Novi, “and, through achieving Napa Green Land certification, you’re positioned to essentially take an off-ramp because you’ve already met the majority of the regulatory requirements.
 
“The word ‘regulation’ doesn’t always have the most positive connotation,” Novi continues. “They’re usually applied with a broad brush and may not take individual circumstances into consideration.” The organizations that started Napa Green realized a regulatory framework would be needed to make sure everyone was going in the same direction and doing the right thing—and it realized there already was a science and a system in place to determine what the right thing is.
 
“Like many Northern California counties, Napa County has faced its share of issues and controversies,” says Novi. “The Napa River was listed for excessive sedimentation and, while there are already strict regulations in place, they’re likely to become stricter in some areas, particularly regarding water.” Participants in Napa Green are already ahead of the game. In 2014, NVV set a goal that all eligible members would be in either the Napa Green Land or the Napa Green Winery programs by the end of 2020.
 

Going beyond sustainability

There’s an old English joke about a country vicar showing his newly and laboriously restored church garden to a parishioner. “What a masterpiece you and God have created,” said the man. “Ah,” said the vicar, “but thee shoulda seen the mess it was when God had it on his own!”
 
As we listen to farmers, it’s clear that farming is a culture of collaboration between man and nature, nature and community, and man and himself. If we consider the sustainable programs described here as a start, we might wonder what would be the ultimate scenario we could aim for in terms of agricultural sustainability—or harmony between man, nature and community. In the North Bay, we wouldn’t have to look far. There are numerous biodynamic farms and vineyards all over Sonoma County, and there are several in Napa and Marin counties as well. They’re sustainable, organic and something more.
 
We stopped in to Quivera Vineyard and Winery in Healdsburg to find out about the “more.” At Quivera, you get it instantly. Everything smells good. There’s a feeling of happiness in the vitality of the flowers, plants, vines, people moving about and even in the chickens chasing each other in their pen. You can sense it even in the visitors, under the umbrella, smiling and tasting the wines and talking with their Quivera host, who’s explaining that in biodynamic farming, terroir means something special indeed.
 
What you feel when you go into a healthy garden, where all the elements are in balance, is almost an involuntary impulse to smile. One can’t but help to notice, visiting a biodynamic or otherwise healthy farm, that there’s a sort of happiness about the place. There’s a sense that the people tending the land, animals, vines and plants are there with genuine purpose—aimed at making great wine, but really going beyond that.
 
Biodynamic farming aims to create, as far as possible, a totally self-sustaining farm, so all the living elements come from and return to that piece of land, farm or vineyard, creating a living cycle and its own, unique, distinctive terroir.
 
You can feel the difference in the ground. “First,” says vineyard manager Ned Horton, “you’ll notice the sound under your feet. You can hear things crunching and snapping, and it’s maybe that there are cover crop residues or there’s a permanent cover crop. It isn’t sterile, so if you put your hands under the soil—this time of the year when there’s still moisture close to the surface—you’ll see worms.” The vines look healthy and full of life. “When you’re looking at the canopy, you should be looking at balanced growth and pretty much what you’d see in any fine wine-growing vineyard where there’s a focus on timely execution of practices and balanced vine growth.” And the grapes? “What we’re looking for is typicity—that it’s a true expression of the varietal.” Integrity and health characterize the biodynamic vineyard, “so the goals line up with fine wine.”
 

The practice

Behind the outward radiance, there’s an intense and deep practice that predates even the organic movement. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, developed biodynamic farming in the early 1920s as a way to restore health to soils and growing things. His methods involve a complex teaching and may look odd to an outsider—lots of stirring and preparations and a concentration on compost—but for a grower like Horton, who came new to the practice and was driven by a love of the place and the work, they can become natural. “I just kept working with it and became more engaged,” he says, “to the point where right now, I pursue it with gratitude. It’s opened up lots of different things.”
 
Quivira Biodynamic Estate Manager Jim Barausky, who has a lifetime of biodynamic practice under his belt as a farmer and teacher, sits in the shade, looking out at his perfect rows of flowers and vegetables, and muses on the future. “We have to go beyond sustainability to renewal and regeneration,” he says. “You can do what you did last year, but every year is different. You want to be building up the organism, the farm or the garden, in such a way that it’s resilient.”
 
Take the drought, for example: “You don’t want to do something about it in the year of the drought, you want to have done something 10 years before, so your soils are all deeper, and the root systems are deeper and finer, and the plants can respond to conditions that you wouldn’t have expected.”
 
The point is to build a healthy system that can resist disease, pests and weather change. Ultimately, the farm is interested in what we’re interested in for ourselves: a healthy, balanced life in harmony with the natural world. “Nature has this abundance of life,” he says, “in which you immerse yourself, and you find yourself getting nourished by the sunrise, the sunset, the beauty of nature.”
 

One last thing

Behind all of the impressive and effective efforts being launched and practiced in our North Bay counties toward a sustainable—and restorative—future, there’s one more thing this biodynamic approach might add: “Anyone who gets engaged in a sensitive way with nature usually comes up against what’s true,” says Barausky, “because nature is always showing you what’s true. Sometimes drastically so.”
 
Any genuine farmer would, in his own words, agree with that. But there’s still something more. “You actually create the future in your work and attitude,” he says. “The thoughts help guide the future.” If that’s so, then all the optimism at work among farmers, planners, growers and vintners—all the good thoughts and intentions of the people working together to create genuine sustainability in our treasured lands—will create a force of sustainability able to weather whatever challenges the future might bring.
 

Restoring Wetlands

Restoring wetlands is another important way of preserving soils, storing carbon, providing habitat for wildlife and creating opportunities for enjoyment. In southern Sonoma County, near the mouth of the Petaluma River, the Sonoma Land Trust, partnering with Ducks Unlimited, is working with grants from nine state and federal agencies to complete an $18 million project to restore 1,000 acres of wetlands that, 150 years ago, had been drained and “reclaimed” for agriculture and to build a trail for visitors.
 
Over time, the ground level of what had been a healthy wetland subsided about seven feet, explains Julian Meisler, baylands program manager for the Sonoma Land Trust. So restoring the marsh called for replacing seven feet of sediment over 1,000 acres. “Which is a lot of dirt,” he says. And, potentially, a lot of expense. “There’s a couple of ways people can do that and one is to use dredge spoils transported in from projects around the bay. That’s very expensive. Instead, we’re relying entirely on natural tidal processes—all the sediment we need will flow in with the tides.”
 
He says they’ve dug holes and used the soil from the holes to create mounds that serve as windbreaks to suppress waves, which will let the water release the sediment. Over time, the sediment will build up enough to transform the site from open water to mudflat and, ultimately, into a vegetated marsh. He explains, “If you should fly over the bay, you’d see the water all muddy and cloudy, which means it’s holding a lot of sediment. We need to let that water quiet down so the sediment can settle and form ground. But that’s difficult because there’s a lot of wind there. So they’ve engineered a series of mounds, which are dirt excavated from around the bay, as windbreakers. That way, the sediment drops down and we build the ground up.”
 
Meisler can see real accomplishment now in the project’s near-completion phase. “Marshes sequester carbon up to 100 times faster than terrestrial forests,” he says. “This benefits all of us. Sea level rise is coming and everyone around the state is preparing for it. By restoring the area to marshland, the Land Trust will be rebuilding one of nature’s best coastal defenses against storms and flooding. People driving from Marin to Napa on Route 37 will be glad when the road isn’t directly in harm’s way.”
 

Sustainable Groundwater Planning in Napa

Now well into a drought that’s causing pain in other agricultural areas in California, the Napa County Planning Commission has, on April 1, 2015, approved revisions to the Water Availability Analysis Policy which is used in environmental evaluation documents prepared for new discretionary development proposals that rely on groundwater resources. New or expanded winery permits and hillside vineyard erosion control permits will need to calculate the water use for their projects and submit evidence that water is both available and that new wells won’t adversely affect the water table or neighbors’ wells.
 
“As water has become more scarce and concerns for groundwater and sustainability have become more prominent,” says Sandy Elles, executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, “the county planners are trying to create a fair share analysis process so there’s not a ‘rush to the bottom’ with neighbors feeling they have to dig deeper and deeper wells to access more water than the surrounding properties.”
 
In addition to this process, the county has implemented a comprehensive groundwater monitoring process and has recently published the First Annual Napa County Groundwater Monitoring Report. The report covers four main basins and 17 subareas; it reviewed decades of geologic data, 1,332 drillers’ reports, 191 drillers’ reports for cross sections and data from 115 wells in the monitoring program. “People have volunteered their wells to be monitored. The more we’re engaged in this monitoring process, the more we’ll learn,” says Elles.
 
“We have some amazing examples of collaboration and forward thinking,” she continues, “but we’re also cognizant of the risks we face. If you want to remain a bucolic, rural community, there are limits to how much growth you can sustain—at a pace that provides adequate resources, and which also protects the quality of rural life.”
 
“None of these things are easy,” says Jim Lincoln, chair of the Natural Resources Committee of the Napa County Farm Bureau, reminding us that Measure A, the trend-setting, award-winning, flood control project that’s transformed downtown Napa and financed a lot of needed work in the county areas, took a massive community effort to get passed. “We got some major grief about it,” he says, “but look at it now. It’s incredible.”
 
“We’re fully committed to sustainability for this generation and generations to come,” says Elles. “We’re celebrating our 45th anniversary of Napa’s Ag Preserve. Measure J and Measure P are in place, and that further protects our agricultural lands and our watershed. The county is moving ahead with sustainable groundwater management, and we cautiously support that. We’re also committed to protecting water quality with growers carefully managing their inputs and their impact on our watersheds and surface waters.”

 

 

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