231: Stacking Regenerative Practices to Create a Healthy Vineyard

Lange Twins has implemented individual regenerative practices but now they are asking, what would happen if they stacked them? Kendra Altnow, Sustainability Manager at Lange Twins Family Winery & Vineyards and a 5th generation Lange shares Project Terra. The goals are to increase biodiversity, build and enrich the soil and improve watersheds through shifting farming practices, restoration, and conservation. They are accomplishing this through grazing livestock, establishing permeant ground cover, reducing tillage, improving native habitat, and reducing reliance on herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

Our guest today is Kendra Altnow she is sustainability manager at Lange Twins family winery and vineyards and she's a fifth generation. Lange. Welcome to the program.


Kendra Altnow  0:09 

Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.


Craig Macmillan  0:11 

We want to have you on because you folks there at length twins have been doing some really innovative things around regenerative agriculture. And through a project you're calling project Tara, what is project Tara? What's that all about?


Kendra Altnow  0:25 

Well, we kind of have two different definitions, I would say a project Terra one is the concise purpose of project Terra is to increase biodiversity building, enrich the soil and improve our watershed through shifting our farming principles and practices, restoration and conservation, all while building the next generation of land stewards. That's what I like to say is the on paper definition of project Terra. But project Terra means something a little bit different to me, it's our vision coming to life. Like many of us, the health of the planet is a top of mind. And a few years ago, I really wanted to see what we could do as a family to contribute to being part of the very complex solution equally as important passing our land to the next generation healthier than it was passed to us. So I really just started reading and I learned that there are lots of changes that we can make. But we have a unique access to something that a lot of other people don't have. And that's our land. And really, I see that our land gives us the greatest opportunity for change. So we started just digging into what those practices look like. And regenerative farming really was something interesting and something very obtainable for us to do.


Craig Macmillan  1:41 

What are some of those practices? Because from what I understand from doing research with what you're up to you, you did certain things 10 years ago, and then you brought in some other elements, and then you tried some other elements. Now you're kind of trying to bring them all together, if I understand correctly, what are some of those elements?


Kendra Altnow  1:55 

Yeah, that's exactly what it is. I like to say when people come out and come to the farm for tour, that we've been practicing everything in different vineyards, but not necessarily taking those practicing and what regenerative agriculture calls stacking them. So the components of those are reduction of off farm inputs, livestock integration, maintaining permanent ground cover, conservation or reduction in tillage, creation of habitat, which is one of my favorites, and reducing our reliance on herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. So those were all practices that we have been doing. But we said, hey, can we take those and put them together in one pilot vineyard. And that's really the core of what Project Terra is. And for us, it's not just about doing it on that pilot vineyard, but is building the framework to be able to scale it to the other vineyards within our families holdings.


Craig Macmillan  2:56 

You mentioned you were excited about this particular area. And I think it's an interesting one, too. And that's habitat.


Kendra Altnow  3:00 

Yes, that's my wheelhouse. I love it.


Craig Macmillan  3:02 

Yeah. So tell me about that. How does that play into this project?


Kendra Altnow  3:05 

Gosh, it's a huge portion. Biodiversity is really a big element of what we need to do here as farmers in general. When my grandfather was farming, he did edge to edge farming. And that really is you didn't see anything green in those vineyards whatsoever. When my dad and uncle came back in 1974, the ranch that they grew up on really looked different the wildlife that they had enjoyed seen. It wasn't there anymore. But the reason why it wasn't there was because the habitat was gone. Without that biodiversity, there was a shift in the ecosystem. And so with that, is this new recognition that we're approaching ag at that system's level, where we're seeing the farm, not just between the rows or from edge to edge, but everything inclusive.


Craig Macmillan  3:52  

So how do you do that? If you like, did you take landlords in production? And then set it aside for habitat? Or did you identify areas that could be habitat and then restored them in some fashion? How did you how did you approach that?


Kendra Altnow  4:05 

Yeah, and that's, you know, something we've been doing for a long time is habitat restoration, primarily riparian restoration, our family is here on the Mokelumne river. So that's our watershed, and we have unfarmable areas. But we also have areas that were planted that we have taken out of production just because the quality coming off the vineyard wasn't meeting the standards of the winery. So we we kind of have a multiple approach. Over the years, it was just what we could get done. Recently, we worked with point blue conservation science and we have a conservation plan. And that conservation plan takes a look at all of our land that we farm as a whole and has helped us identify areas where we can make improvements that's not only within the vineyards itself by creating maybe filter strips or wildlife corridors, but also where We have maybe a vernal pool area, and what we can do there. So really enhance what is already happening. So it's a little bit of everything I guess is we've, we've had help. But we also just noticed, oh, that area over there isn't great. Let's put a pollinator habitat in.


Craig Macmillan  5:16 

And you've been doing as long as you believe that there is some improvements and some stability from increasing the biodiversity on the land.


Kendra Altnow  5:24 

Let me take a step back. Biodiversity has definitely increased here on our farm, just the other day, we saw two Bob Cats hanging out on the bridge by our house, that is nothing I saw in my childhood. So I can definitely tell you that there has been a shift because there are animals and birds that we haven't seen that are coming back to our area, those animals and birds are what we see. And so can you imagine what we can't see? So what we're making the impact on? Who knows, right? I don't I'm not out there every day with a microscope looking. But by these bigger animals being here, I have to say that the other ones are here, too.


Craig Macmillan  6:04 

And do you think that leads to a more stable? agro ecosystem?


Kendra Altnow  6:08 

Absolutely. 100%


Craig Macmillan  6:10 

100%, you had mentioned also things around fungicide, insecticide herbicide reduction. How does that play into what kind of practices and how does that play into the stability of the project overall?


Kendra Altnow  6:20 

we just finished reading a book. And there's a lot to be said about soil health, right. And that's a big topic, especially in ag these days, I think that we're a lot better than we have been. That's what sustainability is all about, right? Is continuous improvement, really digging into the health of the soil makes us recognize that maybe there's more we can do. From my perspective, having biodiversity above ground and below ground is only going to help us not just in our vineyard and the production of the wine grapes, but also as a whole for everything around it. I'm not sure if that answered your question. Sometimes my brain goes off in tangents.


Craig Macmillan  6:57 

No, I think I think it's the right idea, I think what you're getting at is by looking at things as being integrated, looking at from a system standpoint, where everything affects everything else changes that make over here, make changes over here. And those can be beneficial changes, they don't have to be negative changes, necessarily.


Kendra Altnow  7:12 

And I think also, it's such a long term result, right. So it takes a very long time, for us to see the true benefits of what we're doing today. I always say, Gosh, I wish we would have started this, you know, 10 years ago, because then I would feel better about what we're doing. Now you have to have patience. And I think that's been the biggest learning for us or for myself in particular, is that you're not going to change your soil structure or your soil health or anything that has to do with the environment, it takes time. And it takes that dedication. And it's not always the easiest path forward either. So you really have to sit back and realize following that vineyard, for a certain period of time might seem against what we would typically do. But in the long run, it's going to benefit what we're doing, if you understand what I'm saying,


Craig Macmillan  8:09 

Yeah, I do I do I change this to soil health improvements. And so structured water holding capacity and things like that. Those do take a long, long, long, long time. But you have to do it if you're gonna get there, you know, and I think what a lot of folks are finding out from the interviews that I'm doing, you know, you may go like, Oh, my God, you know, it's gonna take 10 years, well, 10 years can fly by in terms of like a region, you know, just do it stick to it part of that cover cropping. So you folks have been doing cover cropping for a long time. And I'm guessing that the decisions that you've made in terms of what to plant, where to plant it, maybe even how to plant it, how to terminate it, and probably evolved over time. Can you tell me a little bit about your cover cropping, philosophy management, how that's changed over time?


Kendra Altnow  8:51 

So my very simple philosophy is the soil is better served covered period, I believe that not only in our own homes, at home, in our backyards, and our front yards, but also within the vineyard. So that's an aside from how we make our decisions on what cover crops we plant. When it comes to cover crops. I'm sure you know this, they're super complex, there's so many different species out there. And they all are very specific on what you're trying to do for typically the health of your of your land or your soil. So what we always look at first, is the vigor of the vine because we want to ensure that we're not taking away from the growth of the vine and then regional erosion. So those would be like the two starting points for us. And then from there, we combined with the soil type, if we're going to be grazing or not grazing and then the ecological benefits so it's kind of a stacking just in decision making. And then the way we choose what vineyards it goes into, we we across the board, try to get it out. Timing is a big thing for us in all of our Lange Twins family vineyards, except in the vineyards that the mower can't fit down the rows. So it's a very operational decision on that, that side.


Craig Macmillan  10:10 

What are some of the variables that you've been trying to manipulate? And what were some of the plant choices that you made to achieve those goals?


Kendra Altnow  10:19 

Erosion control is probably our biggest number one cover crop choice that we do or a multiplex this species type, that's something that I would have to ask Chris and Charlie, or even Maria, on our team, they handled the decisions of that. But I'm involved in more of why. So I'm sitting here looking out my window at one of our vineyards, and we have a runoff issue. And so we made, you know, a very spot decision to plant a an erosion control mix, just because it's not planted right now. And we saw two years ago, or, actually, it wasn't two years ago was last winter, it was just gosh, the amount of soil going into the soil was absurd. So what can we do about it? So a lot of it is knowing your land as well, and making the decisions that way?


Craig Macmillan  11:07 

So you're using different things in different places. So for some areas, it's all about erosion. Other places, it's about probably water management,


Kendra Altnow  11:14 

Or, you know, your nitrogen fixing is a big decision making as well, depending on the vineyards.


Craig Macmillan  11:22 

Oh,that reminds me, so I hadn't thought of before, have you been doing any, like pre post testing or control treatment kind of testing, as you do these things


Kendra Altnow  11:30 

For cover crops?


Craig Macmillan  11:32 

For cover crops or anything else.


Kendra Altnow  11:34 

We do a lot. I mean, we do a lot of soil testing, is what we've started doing. And we do that not only just from a short term reason of seeing what's happening right now. But in these areas where we are doing no sustainable ag versus regenerative AG, we have started long term analysis so we can see what really is going to be happening in the vineyard long term with the decisions that we're making today. And does it make sense. So does it make sense for us to do it? Well, maybe it's not making a huge impact on that level, but it will be financially. So there are a lot of tracking that we are doing, because we need to make sure that it makes sense from a sustainability point of view.


Craig Macmillan  12:21 

What do you been finding out?


Kendra Altnow  12:22 

That's a great question. I It depends. I mean, it really depends on where, and it also depends on what and that's what's so tricky about farming. There isn't a playbook. Right. So what is working on one vineyard isn't necessarily working on another, for example, we have a vermicompost trial going on right now. And it's interesting, we've set it up. And we've done all of the analysis. And what we found is that different phases of the growth of the vineyard, the vermicompost, made a difference. But at the end of the growing season, everything caught up. So it's going to be interesting to see this year, what happens because is there going to be a true difference year after year. And then we'll add in do we add vermicompost again, so what we're trialing right now, which is really fun, is taking our pumice from the winery and feeding it to red worms to see if we can then reapply it out in the vineyards. What we don't know about that is if what is in the vermicompost by the worms, eating our promise is something that is going to benefit the vineyard. So benefit is in the sense of we're closing the loop on our promise, but it may not actually have any value to the soil in the vines themselves over a traditional form of compost feeding. Worms are really fun.


Craig Macmillan  13:45 

I'm just gonna ask about that. So you're making worm compost on site?


Kendra Altnow  13:48 

No, we're not. So there's a neighbor of ours, my cousin in law found I went out to visit him and I asked him if he would be interested in trial doing a trial with us. And he said, Sure, so we're taking pumice over to him from the winery during crush, and then he is running the trial for us. If it is something that becomes viable for us to do then we would transition it and start it on our own.


Craig Macmillan  14:15 

Which reminds me of something else. You are working with a number of collaborators, you're not doing this in a vacuum and we'll transition into grazing was part of that but like what are some of the collaborators here you have your your neighbor, you're obviously working with probably other agencies or other other companies or their specialists who was part of the team here outside of Lange Twins.


Kendra Altnow  14:36 

Oh, so many when I started in this role, going back a little bit is I you know, I didn't go to school for farming or winemaking and or sustainability for that matter. And so I took a lot of learning, calling and asking questions. Honestly, some of the organizations I reached out to first I was Point blue conservation science I hopped on, you know, the internet and I started just Googling people and seeing who would be interested in coming out and giving me a hand, they have been awesome because they really have introduced me not only to a whole host of other individuals within the that side of the world. So I would say the habitat side of the world, they did our holistic conservation plan for us. That really is what I would say is my strategic plan on that side of my role. From there, I work with the Center for land based learning their  SLEWS program, in particular, the kids from that program come out, and they actually implement some of our projects for us. And that's great, because that really is helping that next generation of land stewards in my mind, hopefully, some of them will come back and want to do this and do it in a fashion that is smart for both themselves and for the environment. NRCS Of course, Xerces, East Bay Mud, calf Valley grazing, hedgerow farms, Megan Phillips, Kelly Melville, you name it, I have like talked to all of them. And really, they have all been instrumental in us putting this together and moving it forward.


Craig Macmillan  16:22 

I think it's an excellent transition into grazing.


Kendra Altnow  16:26 

Yes, that's fine. I love graze


Craig Macmillan  16:28 

you love it. Okay, cool. Well, here we go. If I understood correctly, from some things that I read, you folks are looking at moving into year round grazing. Can you tell me a little bit about the evolution, how it started, how you kind of got into it and how you got to where you're at now and kind of where you see yourself going in the future? Because it sounds like you actually are moving you're not done yet is what it kind of sounds like to me if I understood.


Kendra Altnow  16:51 

We're just getting started. Grazing came to us through Charlie's sStar, there were sheep grazing and alfalfa field next to his home vineyard. And he offered the grazer to come into his vineyard for feed. And he said, guys, they did a great job. What do you think? And so we trialed it on 100 acres, and it was great. They came in, they did their job, it was the winter pass, and good to go. We loved what they did. We learned a little bit. And then the following year, it was ramped up big time. So we had a contract raiser come in. And we had probably 2000 to 3000 sheep everywhere, literally everywhere. And that winter was really raining. So it was difficult to get them into the vineyard. Some of them were flooded out. And it was just a challenge all around. And then when the rubber hit the road in the springtime, they got a better contract and left. So we didn't necessarily truth be told, have the best experience the second year. And it was logistically the main reason why. So the third year, we wanted to approach it a little differently. And I was at a young farmers and ranchers dinner and was approached and said, Hey, I had know someone that would love to do vineyard grazing. So great. So we sat down and talked. And what we realized is that what was going to work best for us is for them to be a true extension of our team. So not someone that's just going to come in and then move on to someone else, but someone that is going to be dedicated to working with us, because that is what we found was most important is that we're working together. So I see Valley grazing and Ross Mulrooney as not a separate from length twins, but he is part of length twins in the sense of being our sheep herder, right. So he's the guy, the boots on the ground, moving the sheep, the health of the sheep. And we're just helping direct them in that. And that honestly, if I could give anyone advice, and I know this can't happen for everyone based on size, or lots of other complexities, that has been a saving grace for us, because it's just, he, he knows what we're working towards. And we know what his needs are as well.


Craig Macmillan  19:14 

You're working collaboratively. He has needs the sheep have needs you have needs can we find a way to have those things meet that makes a better outcome leads to a better outcome. Without question, yes, it sounds like you started with kind of the traditional, hey, let's get some animals, let's turn them loose. They're gonna go run around and do their thing. Oh, they're done. Now they leave. My experience with grazing is that it can get much more complex than that, and can lead to some even better outcomes when the management becomes a little bit more intensive, which it sounds like you're kind of moving towards is that right?


Kendra Altnow  19:52 

Right. I mean for us, our goal is to have four passes a year with the sheep so it's It's a tool for sure. That's how we see this. It's a practice that we're going to implement within the vineyard. That's no different than mowing or herbicide spray, for example. So for us, the number one reason why we started it, there's lots of factors but was for that biodiversity in the soil and the soil microbiome, we know that animals do make a difference. So that was a really big factor. The second factor is back to the herbicides, if we can cut down on that, that's also going to help that soil microbiome third is the fossil fuels. Right. So by employing the sheep in the vineyards and integrating them in, we are cutting on fossil fuel use by all of the tractor passes that we're not doing anymore, etc. Sure, at first, it was like, Yay, winter weed control. This is awesome. But then you start scratching your head and peeling back the layers, you recognize that there's lots of other benefits of having animal integration. I mean, I sometimes they were just going back before my grandfather, right? They had animal integration, they actually had dual crops within their vineyards. And so it's like, we're going back to what we knew our ancestors. And we're applying it today, but in a modern way, with changes, of course, because we're not homesteaders.


Craig Macmillan  21:27 

So we're talking, you said four passes. So what, what's the timing? What's the timing of the other grazing passes.


Kendra Altnow  21:34 

So the first grazing pass for us starts post harvest. So three weeks after the vineyard has been harvested, we can move in the sheep. And really, this is to clean up weeds, vegetative debris, and the leaves. The second pass is the cover crop and weed management on our rotation. Typically, what ends up happening is why when they're done with the first pass, they're going to go start kind of all over again, right. And so now they're going to the cover crop and weed management. And that is what really this time of the year is. So they're out there mowing the cover crop, or they're really happy sheep, because they have tons of feed and getting the berms, we always focus on the berms. That's really important for us, especially if we're if we're not using any herbicides, it's really important for us to pay attention to the berms. The third pass is cover crop and weed management again, and this is kind of when we have the blind canopy management happening suckering chute hygiene and leaf removal. So it's in that spring where springtime, where there they can get in, they're not going to do a lot of damage, and they're still going to do good. And then the last pass is summer, so forth passes time or weed control. We are using these only and our trellis systems that are high wire. And so the Sheep can't really do that damage, because they can't reach up into the canopy and make a huge impact.


Craig Macmillan  22:57 

And that was something that I mean, you you folks may have some experience with this. Maybe too early still, you know, the trend has been towards shorter and shorter, lower, lower trellising for a long time. And it's always been Oh, wine quality is better when the trellis is lower. And then we have these systems here where you will Yeah, but if I train a little bit higher, a little these other benefits that I can get is your winemaking staff getting feedback at this point. Are you seeing anything in terms of the cultural differences between the more traditional trellis and a higher wire trellis.


Kendra Altnow  23:26 

I can give you a very specific example. We have single vineyard wines. And on our single vineyard wines, they keep all the lots separate. And we have an older cab vineyard. And then we have a high wire cab vineyard that is a little bit younger. The older one is California sprawl, it was planted in Gosh 1980s. It's our winemakers favorite vineyard. And along comes our River Ranch vineyard. And it's high wire and it is mechanically pruned and it is grazed and very different than what they 38 is. And I'll tell you what, they love that River Ranch cap and made it as a single vineyard wine. And so that to me goes to show that it can work both ways.


Craig Macmillan  24:09 

It can work both ways. This is so fascinating. We could just go on forever. But is there one thing regarding kind of your experiences with all of this, all of this integrative stuff, is there one thing that you tell our listeners that you would recommend to them? As far as this goes this area?


Kendra Altnow  24:25 

Oh man, I have so many recommendations. That could be like a whole thing on its own.


Craig Macmillan  24:32 

You're gonna write a book?


Kendra Altnow  24:34 

Probably. So my one recommendation is every little bit helps. And I truly believe that and that is something that you can do not only within your vineyard or your business, but you can do that at home. So my passion came from my family, because we have been farming sustainably in a really big way. However, my practices at home for example, I really got ignited because I saw a picture of all the plastic in the ocean and I had a heart attack. And I knew at that point, I couldn't use plastic bags anymore, for example. And that's a true story. I think that even though everyone around me might not have changed that practice, I know that that little bit does help. Right. So I think that is really important. I think the other important thing, when you're talking about farming, is the mindset shift. Farmers have been farming and doing things the same way for years and years and years. And it really takes forward thinking or openness to be able to change the way you're doing something. Because it's harder, it's harder, not only to train your team, that it's going to be done differently. But now you're using another tool, or introducing something different that hasn't been done before. So there's a learning curve. And when you have 100 million things going on, that one new thing feels like 100 billion pounds. And I think that it's really important that you have a cheerleader, which that's what I am, is the cheerleader to say, Hey, I think that this is really interesting. Do you think that we can implement not all of it at once, but do you think we can handle parts of it. And even that one small step is going to get us to where we want to go. And I would come in very different from, say, Erin and Phillip, my brother and cousin, they've been entrenched in farming for years, I kind of have this outsider's perspective where I don't necessarily know all of the logistical nightmare that might happen. Or I don't know all of the little idiosyncrasies that happen. All I see is this awesome opportunity. And then they bring me back to reality. And then we meet in the middle, and then we implement something. But I think if it was someone that didn't have that, like, I think we could do this, it wouldn't come to the forefront, because we're just so tasked on what we're already doing, and making sure that we're getting it done, that doesn't really give us time to do anything different. And I think that to me, has been the biggest learning. And maybe that the tidbit that I could give others is that be be that cheerleader or somehow find yourself to be that cheerleader for yourself, because it really will make a difference.


Craig Macmillan  27:41 

I think that's great. I mean, every every little bit counts and being a cheerleader. Yeah. Sharing your excitement and your successes. I think it's huge.


Kendra Altnow  27:50 

Yeah, I mean, it's, it's funny, Craig, between you and I, or if you want to put this out there I you know, I don't have a science background. I don't have a farming background. I don't have anything like that type of background. My background is sociology. And for for me, I just know that we can do better. And we have an opportunity to make positive change. And so I come in with they always call me rainbows and sunshine. Because that's that's like, really, for me, that's what it's about right is, is how can we make a difference, and I dried down I5. And I'm like holy smokes, we are the size of a gnat when it comes to farming in this world. And how to like I sit there and think, wow, I am I'm working hard to make change on my tiny little farm. Just think if we could get this farmer who has 30,000 acres to also make that change. And I think that's where it's at is it's got to start. I see. I mean, we're not small in the sense of tiny, tiny. We're midsize but gosh, there's some big farmers out there. And so sometimes it's like, Am I really making a difference? Like this is on 450 acres right now we could expand it. We're planning on scaling it up. Yeah. Okay, let's forget about those 30,000 acre farmers and that we're only a tiny bit to this very complex issue or complexity that's happening out there. Sure. Yes, let's do this. Because ultimately, it's going to be better for the next generation because they're going to be out there hopefully farming too.


Craig Macmillan  29:25 

Yeah. And technology and innovation has its ways of being transmitted. Yes. And being adopted. More broadly. It takes time. And it also takes different systems. It takes different systems and that's one of the things that's intriguing is we've seen things that like you said that we tried things in the past and then we moved away for various reasons. And then you say hey, wait, there's benefits. Let's go back and try this again. Or people say Well, that isn't gonna work on my system because my system is so different. Within time goes by and there's proof of concept and then it well maybe this would work and we see changes all the time being out there as a leader Kendra, I think is part of the part of the solution and you're doing that.


Kendra Altnow  29:59 

And I think honestly like what we can do for our farm, and this is what makes regenerative and we could go into that as a whole nother one podcast. But I look at sustainability and regenerative, which is so great about sustainability in my mind is it's not one size fits all, you're making the decisions for your farm based on what you can do in the best possible way. So someone might still fully believe in full tilling and that's all good and great. I'm not judging you, but they might be excellent in water conservation. And we have a lot of room to grow in that right so I like that's what I think is so awesome about farming is that there is no one single way of doing things and there is no right or wrong, but I always believe that there is room for improvement.


Craig Macmillan  30:52 

Exactly. Where can people find out more about you?


Kendra Altnow  30:56 

Well, will have information about the family winery and the vineyards and laying twins on Instagram has tidbits about sustainability and if you really want to see all of my lovely day to day posts you can follow me at Kendra underscore Jean nine you get a little bit of sustainability and a lot of benefit family animals.


Craig Macmillan  31:22 

That's fantastic. So our guest today has been Kendra Altnow she is sustainability manager at length twins family winery and vineyards and she's a fifth generation Lang. Thanks for being on the podcast has been a really fun conversation. Thanks Kendra.


Kendra Altnow  31:35 

Gosh, I hope so you're welcome.


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