183: Regenerative Vineyard Farming

The three pillars of regenerative farming are soil health, animal welfare, and social wellness. This podcast brings together interviews with two farmers who are exploring regenerative agriculture practices: Caine Thompson, Managing Director at Robert Hall Winery and Sustainability Lead at O’Neill Vintners and Distillers plus Clint Nelson, Director of Vineyard Operations and Grower Relations at Bonterra Organic Estates.

Caine and Clint explore the challenges and benefits of going nearly no-till from under vine weed cultivation to using rubber skids to reduce compaction to improve soil health. They also share the many benefits of our favorite living lawnmowers, sheep. Not only do these animals aid with weed management and fertilization, but they are also critical to fire suppression.

Listen in to hear both their experienced farmer's advice on how to bring more regenerative practices into your operation. 



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Caine Thompson  0:00 

Our guest today is Clint Nelson. He's director of vineyard operations and grower relations for Bonterra organic estates. And we're gonna talk about regenerative organic agriculture today, and the certificate, the rock, the ROC. Thanks for being on the show, Clint.


Clint Nelson  0:12 

Hey, Greg, happy to be here. Looking forward to talking some organics with you.


Caine Thompson  0:16 

Here with me today is Caine Thompson. He is managing director Robert Hall Winery and sustainability lead. With O'Neill, vintners and distillers. Welcome to the podcast. Caine.


Thank you. Great to be here.


Let's just start with some basics. What is regenerative organic agriculture?


Clint Nelson  0:33 

Great question. I would say it's very similar to our traditional CCOF certificate or the organic certificate that we we now consider our stay. But the one of the biggest differences between going from traditional organics to regenerative organics is a few changes in animal welfare. So we're looking out for the animals that were hurding and grazing on our vineyards. And that's one of the pillars in the certificate. In addition to that, there's a social equity component, where we're looking at the well being of not just our internal employees and how they're treated and making sure that they have fair compensation for the work and also a nice work life balance, but also the region as a whole or the community as a whole, I should say and how our farming operations are impacting the area that we work with. That's really the additions to this certificate program compared to CCOF from a pillar aspect like something that's new, different. When you look at the farming side of this certificate program compared to traditional organic certificates, the biggest change or one of the most drastic changes depending on your farming techniques, is going from tillage to non till and looking at soil health, and doing infield soil tests to check the porosity or the drainage or the organic matter and things like that. And so that can be a challenge for a lot of traditional farmers that are used to tilling either every row or every other row for weed management or irrigation, conservation and their ideas. But for us, it's something that we've we've taken on and we're excited about what we're seeing anecdotally increases and things like organic matter and overall soil health. And also reduction in cover cropping. You know, once you go from tilling to non till your seed can start to reseed itself. And so you have less passes and your cover crop applications and, and all kinds of neat benefits that we're happy to take advantage of.


Craig Macmillan  0:35 

So no till I talked to people all the time about this is a very important topic. And when I talk to the scientists, they're like, man, do not till your setting to set the system back to zero, you're feeding microbes that are there, and then they die because there's so much oxygen, etc, you're losing your carbon, because they're consuming it, all that kind of stuff. And so then I talked to growers that are, you know, believe in this. And then like, yeah, we're no till. And then we have a conversation. And I say, how do you handle things like squirrel burrows and gopher holes and things that are uneven because it's hard on the tractors and the drivers, and they say, Oh, we do it again, every five years, we'll till it again and replant every five years, or whenever we kind of need to do it. Now for you folks, it sounds like you're making a pretty intense commitment to the long term. When you think no till are you thinking like forever and a day or are there times when you might reset the system? And if so, how are you going to do it?


Clint Nelson  3:28 

Yeah, I think for looking at this strictly from our certificate perspective, there are times when you're allowed to go back in and do quote unquote, maintenance of your soils. And for me, my biggest concern from transitioning from tilling to not is compaction, you know, compaction can start to limit your ability for water infiltration. And then your roots start to suffer and find declines sets in. We haven't seen that yet and my experience in management and directing the vineyard operations. I've rarely seen compaction be an issue. And so we're not doing maintenance tilling to alleviate compaction. One of the keys to that though, is we're transitioning a lot of our wheeled tractors, to rubber skids are rubber tracks, and so we're alleviating the pressure within the vineyard. And in addition to that, we just avoid all operations when the soils are moist or wet because you can get major running and things along those lines which then necessitate a grading pass just to make it smooth for tractor operations. Once again, if it's wet and rainy, we stay out of it. One added benefit. Craig, you might find of interest. This past season, we've had a lot of flooding up here in Mendocino with the rains, we had something almost like 30 inches within six week period and the rest of the river came up and over to some of the vineyard properties which is normal in a wet year. But being that we are non till we were actually able to get tractor operations back into the vineyards much earlier than anybody else that had been tilling prior to the rain events, because we had that soil integrity and also vegetative biomass there holding the soils together. And so we were out there pruning and flailing without creating any ruts or divots much earlier than anybody else around us.


Caine Thompson  5:19 

So when I talked about no till many of them say, oh, yeah, this is a no till system. And then later on, they say, well, every 5, 6, 7, 8 years, we do go in and reset it, get it nice and clean and flat. And then we resed and we go from there, that our time horizon, that you would expect that you may actually go in and till again and reset the system. Either they're sustainable, or ROA system?


There could be. And there's a number of documented studies that have shown that the occasional use of tilling is required and the framework within ROA doesn't necessarily eliminate tillage it does at the Gold level. If you're like a Gold Certified regenerative farm, you've got to be 0 0 till there is the ability to till and divine row for weed control for certain practices in the ROA guidelines, you can still till there's different percentages of areas that you can till based on bronze, silver gold areas, when we do or need to teill, again, we wouldn't in the mid row, we wouldn't do every row would likely do every other row when we need it. So we'll use it as a as a selective tool, kind of like in sustainable conventional systems where there's a patch of weeds where you're not spraying the whole vineyard, but you've targeted application of herbicide to tackle a particular patch of weeds. Same with them the regenerative system and can see the use of selective tilling as a tool to control weeds in particular areas or an area of compaction that you need to work. And so the frameworks great in regards to working with growers for what is needed for their specific vineyards, while having a plan to minimize tillage in the long term.


As with a lot of things, you have a tool and may say, Well, I could reduce the use of this tool in a knowledgeable way. But it doesn't mean I'm gonna throw it away. I'm not gonna I'm not gonna say never. And it's interesting that you still have it in the toolbox. That's interesting.


Overarching, with tillage, we would love to just not till it all intelligence, time consuming, it's expensive, makes difficult for gear equipment to go back on the Vinyard. When we get them, the winds and paths are you can see that erosion happening. When you till you're like putting a plow chisel through the vineyard of these ecosystems that's just kind of destroying what's what's there. So it's, we're not wanting to use it, we're wanting to build and regenerate soil that having it as a tool, if we need it at some point, it's beneficial.


What about inro weed control using a weed knife or flame or steam or something like that?


Clint Nelson  8:03 

All the above. It really depends on the weed species. You know, we have some areas where I have Bermuda grass, it is almost impossible to tame. And sometimes it necessitates a hand pass, but when it's just your traditional mares tail or thistle or what have you, we like to run under vine cutivators. So to say that we're, we're not 100% non till because we're tilling underneath that find spaces for weed management. We're about say anywhere between 80 to 90% non till and we also like to till right under the vine because of a lot of our fertilizers have transitioned away from fertigation and we're actually banding pellets out there.


Caine Thompson  8:45 

Oh really?


Clint Nelson  8:46 

Yeah, yeah, it's been quite effective actually. And we're getting a cost effective boost in our nitrogen phosphorus and potassium compared to organic drip fertilizers which can be somewhat costly with very low horsepower behind them you know your NPK is pretty low on this organic injectable fertilizers. But when we can go after we banned on and this is a banding application after we ban on those pellets, we can incorporate them a little bit quicker by running our under vine so we get a two for one pass. We get weed management and also quicker incorporation of fertilizer pellets.


Caine Thompson  9:22 

What about weed control? You mentioned on the swings abandoned herbicides in the sustainable area. How do you manage weeds in the ROA section?


In any type of conversion, whether it's to organics biodynamics regenerative farming, it seems to be we've controls one of the largest barriers to entry and how to do that in an economical way. And so, the main way we're controlling weeds under vine and the regenerative side is under vine cultivation just within the vine row. So just under vines, in the wintertime we have what's called like mounting up so we're turning this Soil just inside the vine row on top of uer vine row. And then that starts to break down through the season. And then we use a Clemens blade just with a little sensor arm to undercut the vines.


What's your stocking density like?


Clint Nelson  10:17 

It's about 20, head of sheep per acre. And we keep them in a region or zone set of blocks for about a week. And then after that, we'll we'll move them on to another region of the vineyard. And they'll stay there for about a week. And so we do this rotation through all our vineyard blocks,


Caine Thompson  10:35 

Five to seven days. Okay, well, that's good. So are you doing the shepherding in house?


Clint Nelson  10:40 

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we don't have the bandwidth for that. And that I'll be the first to admit I'm not a experienced sheep herder. And so there's quite a lot of work that goes into it. We have a very close relationship with a sheep herder up here that we've been working with since the dawn of us bringing sheep and they get to take care of that for us.


Caine Thompson  10:59 

And you're letting them go. But like December to March, something like that?


Clint Nelson  11:02 

More like mid January to just before budbreak. So like the end of March. Yeah, your timeline is pretty close.


Caine Thompson  11:09 

And again, obviously, there's no incorporation of any of this. So it's getting in there on its own, which it'd be nature to lay anyway. Right?


Clint Nelson  11:15 

You'd be surprised about the incorporation aspect. Yeah, the sheep are really good about incorporating all the sheep. You'll see hoofprints throughout the entire vineyard.


Caine Thompson  11:23 

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I'm glad you mentioned that, because that's where I was gonna. Yeah, see you next, are there any other animals in the system?


Clint Nelson  11:31 

We actually internally have a couple cattle, just a few. And that's more for our biodynamic reparations. So we keep them around for the compost and manure horns. But they also graze, not so much in the vineyard. We keep them adjacent in the vineyards to help with fire suppression. So they keep the weeds down for us.


Craig Macmillan  11:49 

Very, very cool.


Clint Nelson  11:50 

And actually, as we transition into budbreak, and we start to move the sheep out, we start to put them in the wild lands around the vineyards as well, that will fire suppression.


Caine Thompson  11:58 

Oh, okay. So how long total? Are they on the property?


Clint Nelson  12:02 

About six months.


Caine Thompson  12:03 

Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah, that's a long time.


Clint Nelson  12:05 

Well, we we have quite a lot of acres that aren't vineyards here. So fire suppression is critical as the you know, California likes to burn. So we tried to do our part to keep it down.


Caine Thompson  12:15 

Yeah, I know, a vineyard winery that everybody focuses on the fact that they have the sheep they talk about in the vineyard, and then the shepherd is part of the meeting. And he's like, Yeah, but this is probably the biggest benefit to us is the little fire suppression. They're doing that for the rest of the year. And I was like, gosh, that's really cool. That's really smart.


Clint Nelson  12:31 

Exactly. I was gonna say taking this another higher level from a viewpoint. It can help with your insurance deductibles, too, if you can prove that you have sheep out there grazing and and removing the fire fuel pressures. Yeah.


Caine Thompson  12:45 

You mentioned the welfare of the sheep, are there in particular things that you do, or the shepherds do that are focused on animal welfare?


Clint Nelson  12:54 

Yeah, I think it comes down to auditing their practices and making sure that they're humanely treated and not overgrazed, like too many sheep in one area or anything like that. And they're, they're well fed and just taken care of properly, there's actually a whole list online of the things that we need.


Caine Thompson  13:11 

Now let's transition over to animals, because animals is a big part of the ROA. And they're gaining popularity, but I'm curious about how you folks use animals for animals to use.


Yeah, so I'm originally from New Zealand. So I've a long history with sheep and using sheep within vineyards. And I just love them as a tool for incorporating into the vineyard system and they bring it just another level of energy into the property number one. Number two, they come in like these living lawnmowers that move with between your vines between your rows, they are consuming grass, that weeds, leaf falling off the vine, and they're consuming all of that and then you're gonna manures going back into the system, their hooves are also spreading their weight across across the ground as well. So there's a bit of aeration that the helping provide as well comparatively to large tractors that are giving us the compaction in the mid row as well. Really, that nutrient recycling is really valuable and the weed control it's a great way to you talked about it earlier, resetting weed control at the tail end of the season, bringing the sheep in to really chew down all of the weeds and grass within the system to back to like a base level at the start of the next season. It makes it easier to go in and start your under vine tillage program. So we're using sheep early season, our fruiting wire within the vineyard with a trial setup is set pretty, pretty high. And so the sheep can easily walk underneath the vine rows. And that allows us even even maneuverability of them through the vineyard. And so we find we get good control of weeds with them. It also allows us to extend the use of sheep within the vineyard and both ends of the season because the fruiting wire is way above the heads. So there's no risk of chewing off little young shoots in the early spring.


Craig Macmillan  15:16 

So this is post budbreak?


Caine Thompson  15:18 

Yeah, so we're putting them in post pruning through to post budbreak, we have noticed that if you leave them too long, and there's not enough grass, they will start trying to climb up the canopy in into the veins. And so there is a limit to how long you can leave them. And then you've got to ensure that there's not too many animals per acre grazing, otherwise, you're going to strip out the food system, and then they're going to be forced to go up into the canopy, which you don't want.


Craig Macmillan  15:50 

And you said, there's two times the second one in the fall like after harvest?


Caine Thompson  15:54 

Yeah, as soon as the fruits of the sheep come back in, and we really like that as a way of again, cleaning up the understory, then all these leaves from the canopy falling down into the vineayrd floor. And so the sheep are consuming them turning them into nutrients and and putting it back into the soil versus that leaf just usually blowing away somewhere else. Yeah, just running down eventually, by by itself, that's just a faster way of getting nutrient recycling happening and back into the soil. So they're a great tool, there's a local shepherd that we're using that brings in sheep for us, we haven't got our own herd at the moment.


Craig Macmillan  16:35 

Is there one piece of advice that are one thing you would tell growers on this topic that you really encourage them to do or encourage them to think about?


Clint Nelson  16:43 

I would say when it comes to regenerative organic farming, don't be scared of going non till it's not the boogeyman in the closet by any means. I've been doing it successfully for over six years hands on direct management, and haven't had any issues. And in fact, we're seeing great benefits and duction, one of our blocks this past year had a record setting crop being on non-till system. And then in addition to that, we're seeing these jumps in organic matter and, and the ability to get in in farm earlier than other people. I would say there's a reason where we made this jump. We're excited about it. And I hope that I can kind of spread the word for everybody out there and get more people are excited about.


Craig Macmillan  17:25 

Is there one thing that you would tell grower related to this topic that might help them what message do you want to have somebody take away?


Caine Thompson  17:33 

I would say just make a start on even if it's a few rows and remove herbicides, number one, and look at alternatives for your agrichemical program. Sulfur has been used for powdery mildew control for hundreds of years, it's very, very effective. And look at the tools that can replace slowly some of the products that you might not want to use around your farm and around your household data, more organic solutions and get your learnings yourself. You don't need to do your whole vineyard right out of the gate. But just start small and get the learnings and if there's a desire you, you learn pretty quick and then expand from that.


Craig Macmillan  18:17 

That is a great message and one that I encourage everybody to hear. Try things out. You don't have to put everything on 17 Black, try a little bit, see how it goes. And that's a great way to control cause and the other thing is site specific. Right? That's always the thing. Well, it's all site specific. Well, yeah, it is all site specific. And therefore you need to try it on your site.


Caine Thompson  18:37 

Yeah, we started trailers of 48 acre trail. And after year, two, now, we've expanded into 130 acres, but we got the learnings over a two year period to give us the confidence to expand into the rest of the estate.


Clint Nelson  18:53 

One more thing I used to work in in research and outreach. And this was back in time when I help with best practices on irrigation techniques, or best practices in pruning management, things like that. And when talking with growers, I would just say ask yourself, you know why? Why why are we tilling? Or why are we doing XYZ farming practice? Is it because our predecessors or grandfathers and fathers were doing it? Or is it because there's a scientific base reason? And I think once you start to ask the why you can start to uncover a lot of information about your farming operations internally, increase efficiencies and have better deliverables just by asking why.


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