Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , , , ,

Retiring Sonoma County ag leader: Cannabis can be lifeline for grape growers, dairy farmers

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After eight years at the helm, Tony Linegar retired last week as Sonoma County agricultural commissioner, having overseen a tremendous amount of change in the farming sector that fetched a local record $1 billion of crops in 2018.

The 54-year-old Chico State graduate will be most remembered for his advocacy to treat cannabis and hemp just like any other crop, helping erase weed’s lingering stigma as a “stoner drug.”

He was instrumental in drafting local regulations for cannabis and hemp cultivation. He had vast experience with cannabis — which California legalized for recreational sales in 2018 — since he had previously worked in Mendocino County as its ag commissioner. He earlier worked in Shasta County, where he started in 1995 as an ag inspector.

Linegar took action here when vineyard owners violated local rules and had been vocal about upholding environmental and pest and disease protections in his talks with the politically influential wine sector. Although wine grapes represent a dominant 70% of the overall crop value of the county’s ag sector, he sees an industry in transition due to competitive pressures and evolving consumer tastes.

He thinks cannabis can help those small grape growers who are struggling to survive. Area dairy farmers, who have dealt with declining prices in the organic milk market, also will start growing or leasing their land for hemp and cannabis cultivation, he said.

Linegar sees the county’s agricultural sector becoming more balanced after a decadeslong dominance by the wine grape business.

“I do see more diversity coming into agriculture almost by necessity,” said Linegar, who is moving to Hawaii. “Whenever you have so many eggs in one basket, you are really vulnerable not only to market fluctuations but also pests and diseases. If you get a devastating pest come in, that can wreak havoc on a monoculture.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/10697266-181/retiring-sonoma-county-ag-leader

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Forests, Land Use, Water, WildlifeTags , , , , , ,

Op-Ed: After the grapes are gone

David Keller, PRESS DEMOCRAT

Our succession of boom crops in Sonoma County provides an interesting history — and a cautionary tale.

The county’s world-class wine grapes occupy more than 60,000 acres, with vineyard acreage expanding 80 percent between 1988 and 2014. Our climate, soils and location are ideal, and grapes are the current top crop, worth more than $400 million.

But, what will remain of our natural resources when markets and production shift? What will become of future generations’ inheritance of our region’s rich soils, water, forests, wildlife and fisheries?

As the past predicts the future, previously dominant crops over the past 160-plus years have been replaced with the next crops of gold. Early on, potatoes were large crops, now gone. Potato blight and erosion of coastal sandy loam soils helped destroy that crop’s viability by 1900, while adding huge sediment loads to coastal creeks and lagoons, damaging salmon and steelhead habitat.
By 1858, Sonoma County’s hops production exceeded $1 million (equivalent to $27 million in today’s dollars), producing thousands of harvest-time jobs. The industry declined rapidly during Prohibition and with changing tastes. After 1939, machine-picked hops shifted cultivation to operations outside Sonoma County. The year 1961 witnessed the last commercial crop.

By 1936, Healdsburg was labeled the “Buckle of the Prune Belt,” with plums exceeding 24,000 acres. Cherries, peaches and apples took turns as dominant regional crops. The first commercial apple orchards were planted in 1875, with Gravensteins the local favorite by 1915. At its peak in 1953, 27,000 acres produced a crop worth more than $5.5 million ($49 million today). By the 1990s, apple orchards were rapidly being replaced with grapes.

Poultry, with more than 50 million dozen eggs per year, was king for several generations until the shift to industrial production in the Central Valley. Pears, hay, dairy products (a $90 million industry), cattle, sheep and other crops have all had their eras of economic and agricultural triumph. We’ve harvested redwood, fir, salmon, eel, otters, seals, whales, murre eggs, ducks and egrets, mercury and gravel until resources were exhausted. Water is now subject to competing commercial, municipal, marijuana, wine and agricultural demands, all increasingly pitted against survival of native salmon.

European grapes were first planted in 1857. Despite phylloxera, Prohibition, economic depressions, droughts, freezes, floods and new threats of Esca fungi, demands for Sonoma wines have supported increasing acreage for premium grapes. Dry farmed rootstock has given way to higher-yield irrigated rootstock. Competition for scarce water, soils and appropriate microclimates is fierce, as the world market, investment strategies, real estate speculation, and vanity wineries have fueled development of more vineyards.

Tastes, prices, diseases, and access to processing and transportation all change. Tourists may grow tired of more winery events, while other world producers grab market share. Climate changes are impacting grape viability and suitable locations, affecting growing seasons, extreme temperatures, droughts, frosts and water reliability.

In 160 years, we’ve substantially changed Sonoma County’s landscape. What will happen in the next 50 years? As with past crops, the treasured domination of grapes may fade. When that happens, what condition will our local natural resources be in? Will the land and Russian River watershed still be healthy enough to host the next crops of gold?

Our responsibility is to assure that we preserve and restore fertile soil, clean and abundant surface and ground water, wetlands, forests and all fish and wildlife that depend on those resources — including us. Otherwise, our harvests of gold will disappear.

David Keller of Petaluma is Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/4500234-181/close-to-home-after-the

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable Living, WaterTags , , , , , Leave a comment on There's a better way for California to water its farms

There's a better way for California to water its farms

Danielle Venton, WIRED
California’s Central Valley farmers have a problem. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s water consumption, and in the midst of a historic drought, it is the largest potential source of water savings. Farmers want to be good stewards of the land by helping save water—it is, after all, what sustains them. But there’s a limit to what they can eke out of the soil with the water governor Jerry Brown has given them to work with.
Or maybe there isn’t. New irrigation techniques have made it possible to increase yields with less water than farmers once thought they needed. It’s even possible to farm essentially without water—growing produce by using the water and fertilizing nutrients already in the soil.
In Templeton, California, Mary Morwood Hart is using dry farming on her Grenache, Mourvedre, and olive trees, carefully cultivating the soil on her 20 acres so it can sustain growth without water. Over the past century, US agriculture has pushed itself to produce higher and higher yields by carefully engineering its plots: building larger farms with more advanced mechanics and increasing reliance on fertilizers, weedkillers, and pesticides. That’s brought more food to market. But it’s also depleted the soil—those steps tend to kill the microbes that build organic material and make it sponge-like.
Hart and other dry farmers think they can find a solution in the dirt itself. When soil is left to its own devices, it becomes rich in organic material. It loses less water to runoff and evaporation, and food can grow with little or no irrigation.Increasing soil organic content in an acre of farmland by just 1 percent can save up to 27,000 gallons of water.
That’s especially true of grapes. Hart and her husband, who run the farm together, believe dry farming prolongs the vine’s life, and their method isn’t exactly devoid of moisture: The calcareous clay soils in Templeton, she says, hold a lot of water. “It creates a situation where the tap roots have to dig deep down into the soil to find moisture and it brings about character and a complexity of flavor,” says Hart. “When you do irrigate a vine, the roots tend to grow very close to the surface, because they’re just waiting there for their drops of water.”
The downsides are what you might expect: Dry-farming reduces the weight of the grapes, so the farm’s overall output is lower than average (typical output is four to six tons per acre, while Hart gets a measly 1.3 tons). But without irrigation, her plots are less expensive to tend to and easier to grow on hillsides. And old vines and the smaller grapes that grow on them are prized for their flavor—which she can charge a premium for.
At Molino Creek Farms on the Central Coast, grower Joe Curry raises dry-farmed tomatoes on 136 acres. He and the other farm founders chose dry farming because their land has very little access to water. Once his tomatoes are taken out of the greenhouse and planted in rows, they receive no additional irrigation. That’s only possible, he says, because the farm takes care of the soil. Prior to planting they mow cover crops, leaving them on the ground to decompose. The nutrients re-enter the soil, used to support the next season of growth.
The effect on water usage is dramatic. According to the National Resource Conservation Service, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture, increasing soil organic content in an acre of farmland by just 1 percent can save up to 27,000 gallons of water. (Other estimates are less hefty, but still impressive.)
But waterless agriculture isn’t the answer for everyone. Tomatoes, grapes and vegetables are relatively high-value crops—not all farmers can afford sacrificing their high yields for higher quality. And certain crops like lettuce would taste terribly bitter if dry farmed. So other farmers have turned to other methods to conserve water.
Read more at: There’s a Better Way for California to Water Its Farms | WIRED

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable Living, WaterTags , , , , , Leave a comment on Debate over dry farming of grapes divides Wine Country

Debate over dry farming of grapes divides Wine Country

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
California’s drought has become an integral part of the conversation around Wine Country. Nothing is immune from discussion, from how many toilet flushes are acceptable to the types of gardens and lawns that are best suited in an era with less available water.
As the area’s largest and most valuable crop, North Coast grape growers have been a popular point of focus as well as contention. In fact, an ongoing debate over the centuries-old practice of dry farming highlights the increasing pressure the industry faces as the state grapples with a new water reality that Gov. Jerry Brown said will take “unprecedented actions” to solve.
For some, the practice of dry farming — where natural rainfall, not irrigation, is used exclusively to produce a crop — is rooted in history. Yet, it is relevant to modern times as Napa wines that won the historic 1976 Paris tastings were all dry farmed.
Proponents of dry farming note that drip irrigation can overly protect the vine from stress needed to produce top-quality wines, delay the development of full flavors until later in the growing season and result in wines with higher alcohol content.
“A bigger question is why people irrigate?” said John Williams, the owner of Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa, which has been dry farming its eight vineyards since opening 35 years ago.
For others, however, the practice is ideal, but not feasible to be widespread throughout the area’s diverse landscape, especially in areas where the soil is sandy and vineyard roots are not deep, such as hillsides. Not all soil is similar to that of Napa Valley, where Williams estimates about 20 percent of the vineyards dry farm.
“Shallow soil does not hold sufficient moisture to grow a vine,” said Rhonda Smith, the viticulture farm advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County.
Additionally, research has shown that dry farming can reduce a crop yield significantly, bringing serious economic consequences.
Read more via: Debate over dry farming divides Wine Country | The Press Democrat