181: Can Applying Compost Reduce Water Use?

The health of a grapevine starts at ground level – literally in the soil. The California Department of Food and Agriculture is helping farmers improve the quality of their soils through the Healthy Soils Initiative. Taylor Jones, Ph.D., Director of Viticulture at Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards used his funding as an opportunity to study the effects of compost. After completing two three-year trials in six different soil types in two American Viticulture Areas, Taylor found that compost additions significantly increased organic matter, Reduced Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium usage by 35 percent, and decreased water use dramatically.

Listen in to hear the only downside to increasing the use of compost in your vineyard.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

Here with me today is Taylor Jones. He's Director of Viticulture at Star Lane in Dierberg Vineyards. And we're gonna talk about some soil health projects that he's got going. Thanks for being on the podcast.


Taylor Jones  0:10 

Yeah. Thanks for having me.


Craig Macmillan  0:12 

I just learned about this recently, and you talked about a little bit in the vineyard team tailgate meeting that got me interested, you have more than one thing going on? Is that right? Yeah, yeah, we do. And these projects are funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils program. Is that right?


Taylor Jones  0:25 

Yes, that's correct.


Craig Macmillan  0:27 

We'd love to chat about that part of it a little bit later. But right now, I really want to know what you're doing. How many projects, what are they about? What are you trying to find out?


Taylor Jones  0:33 

We have two projects, we were awarded two different grants, one for each of our vineyard properties that we have. So we have one healthy soils project over in Santa Rita Hills that started in 2018. And it's a three year program. And then we have another project that's healthy soils program at our Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon, AVA and over their three year project also. And that one started in 2020, I believe. So we just hit our final year, this this last year. So yeah, to two different projects. And essentially, we're the states paying us to put compost down and improve our soil health. So we're jumping on that and trying to see what actually happens in the vineyard after compost has been applied. Since we're getting all of this compost from CDFA. It's we're going to use the money that we're saving on the compost to kind of do some some studies and see what's actually being impacted in our vineyard soils.


Craig Macmillan  1:30 

So talking about the Star Rita AVA, project.


Taylor Jones  1:33 

Over at Santa Rita hills, we have Drum Canyon vineyard, and over there we were awarded, it was 35 acres of compost applications, we had six tons per acre. For three years, over the three year span, we had 18 tons per acre put down down over there what we did, we tried to, as best we could make an experiment, you know, it's kind of hard to make a proper randomized trial. In a field when you're doing compost applications with your normal operations, we try to apply compost in all the areas that we could in our vineyard and while leaving a few barrier rows that we could do tests. And so we had, for example, we'd have 10 rows applied with compost, and then a few rows, no compost so that we could test those rows separately see what's going on. Are there changes in organic matter? Are we seeing changes in compaction, all the good stuff that comes with soil, so testing soils for nutrition, microbial populations, and then also water, I think water is the big thing. So that's how we set everything up on the property, we have five or six different soil types that we apply conference to and in each soil type, we did our own measurements there. And we were able to have soil moisture probes in most areas so that we could utilize those to help with some data. We really saw a lot of benefits from putting the compost down. I mean, we're in you're entering our sixth year after application, the state's requiring us to send a final numbers and we have to do one more test of organic matter. So that's coming up soon for our final dataset. Overall, we saw some great really good impacts from from the healthy soil program at that site.


Craig Macmillan  3:11 

Before we go farther, are we talking about banding under the vine we're talking about broadcasting?


Taylor Jones  3:14 

Whenever you do your grant, you have to specify what you're going to do. And in our case, we went with banding the spreader that we have is a bander you know we'd have six foot rows and we have a ag soil works hydraulic gripper, the wings move. So we're in an area where we have a lot of compaction. Typically we like to rip every three years every other row. And so that kind of led to the decision of banding. We're getting the compost close to the vine. Since we're in a six foot row, our rippers going right down the vine row right next to the root zone. So we're trying to get everything incorporated and move down lower in the soil profile. That was our target what we did we since we had three different years, and we didn't want to rip every single year, we did well alternating rows. One year we did every other row with a compost band and rip. The following year we did the even numbered rows with the compost band and rip and then the final year, our desire was to go no till so at the final year, we banded and we just did a light disk and seed on top of that, that we didn't unnecessarily rip over again. So it was technically a combo of riping and broadcast.


Craig Macmillan  4:22 

Unrelated just further conversation that I've had weed control under the vine using some kind of cold federal weed knife or using herbicides?


Taylor Jones  4:31 

For the extent of this trial. We use it herbicides, trying to keep all the weeds down as much as possible so that we're not seeing any funky results coming from having weeds all over the place. So we try to keep the berms clean as possible.


Craig Macmillan  4:42 

And this one has been going for a little while now. What kind of preliminary results do you think you're seeing?


Taylor Jones  4:47 

We're seeing some some great preliminary results. The most impactful result that we're seeing is water. Our water usage has declined dramatically. I mean, we went from irrigating every two weeks historically, this will be my eighth vintage here at the company, we used to always pretty religiously we'd water every two weeks, if not more over on that property. And every year, we were kind of able to spread that out, we were seeing water holding capacity almost increase. So last year, we ended up waiting 79 days from basically from bloom until we harvested, we were able to not water at all. Pretty amazing, we were able to heat stress, we have totally sensors in the field that help us tailor our irrigation strategies, but that 79 days of no water being used was significant for our operation in terms of water savings, you know, propane costs, even the irrigator had more time to do other things besides troubleshoot the irrigation system. I think all of that kind of stemmed from the organic matter increase. We saw, on average over a three year timespan, the average was about point 2% increase in organic matter per year for those three years. And you know, 1% organic matter is more or less 20,000 gallons of water per acre that you can hold. That's our goal. Let's try to increase organic matter by 1% and try to achieve that extra water holding capacity. Let's see how high we can get and so we had different different soil types reacted differently in terms of how well they held water.


What kind of soils do you have out there? We're talking about the Santa Ynez River Valley, we're talking about being relatively close to Lompoc, for those of you who are interested, there is tremendous will type variability all through that area. And Drum Canyon is relatively on the west side of that area. I would describe it as that what kind of sils do you have out there?


So we have top of the hill pure sandbox, as you go down the hill, we have some nice Shaylee loans. As we continue down, we get more and more loamy but a little bit more clay and silt as you kind of go to the flats. We're getting a lot more water holding capacity there in the flat zone. And then we have another corner of the vineyard that is the lowest coldest spot and that's mostly sand like a kind of like a sandy clay. So huge variability in soils, we kind of have almost all the types on our property, which is well fun for me.


Craig Macmillan  7:12 

Fun for you. Tremendous variation in water holding capacity.


Taylor Jones  7:15 

Oh yeah, we had a block we tried to establish our sandy soils, and that was watering twice a week with four gallons per vine, like just trying to get those vines. I mean, it's windy there, we have a lot of struggles and sand is sands an issue trying to get vines established. And to get that taproot down, otherwise, our loams on the hillsides, they tend to have good drainage, they're maybe two feet deep before you hit a layer of sandstone. So our soils are fairly shallow. So we get good water infiltration and penetration, good ability to stress the vines out quickly, but not really holding water. Well, as you get to the flood zone, we've always been able to irrigate a little bit less often those soils kind of have more of clay particles, they're holding on to water a little bit more, until you hit the sandy zone and there are definitely watering twice as much as we do in other areas.


Craig Macmillan  8:02 

But you're seeing improvement in all these areas?


Taylor Jones  8:05 

Definitely every single area of all in line with each other and what what we're seeing in in our sandy soil series, we saw the higher increase in organic matter than the other soil series. And we were able to irrigate slightly less in those zones than the other ones, which then in previous years percentage wise, which was surprising, but also I'm so glad water is the same you know, in our sandy soils, we saw almost it was point eight 5% organic matter increase total over a final timespan. So that's the equivalent of 16,600 gallons per acre that of water that was used, On the lower end some of the, our loamy silty soils, we ended up getting about a point seven 2.45% increase over five years. So a little bit different there. But you know, we didn't need as much help with holding water in those soils of the sandy soils. So it kind of balanced out percentage wise in terms of how much water we were using.


Craig Macmillan  9:06 

What about above ground? Did you see changes in the vines, the fruit crop load, wine quality?


Taylor Jones  9:11 

Not so much crop load tons tons per acre, we're pretty spot on throughout the vineyard with seasonal variability. For better or for worse. Some areas we had too much vigor, some areas are vigor was improved overall vigor was higher than than previous years, even with reduced water and reduced and reduced fertilizer inputs as well. So yeah, above ground pruning weights increased a little bit. But that was that was kind of expected. We're having a lot more vigor. But yeah, fruit load was not impacted, which is fine. We're not like trying to pump out as much fruit as possible.


Craig Macmillan  9:43 

We've made wines out of these?


Taylor Jones  9:45 

Yes. So why is not really a lot of changes in wine. Our winemaking team. They make a couple different wines. A lot of its blended from different areas of our flat zones. And in our other ranch we saw some Yans increasing Other than Yans, that's about it in terms of wine quality was still on point with with every previous year, so no changes in wine quality and no changes in Brix or pH, anything like that phenologically ripening, everything seemed to be pretty, pretty standard for our ranch.


Craig Macmillan  10:18 

And that's a good transition. So what about the Happy Canyon?


Taylor Jones  10:21 

We're just getting some, I'm finally organizing some data for Happy Canyon. And they're we're seeing similar results. And if anything this year more so or we have had some pretty significant rains. But our cover crop took off a lot quicker than any previous year, this last November, November, December is when we put our final load of compost in from healthy soils. So we were in year three, and we're finally seeing cover crops just taking off. Unfortunately, I think the only downside of these projects has been a lot of increase in in inter row weeds, we've had a lot more weeds creeping up. And that's just I think, some of the compost we're getting this now the seed beds in there just stuck there. And you can see the Malvo just coming up right where we planted and ripped, which is frustrating, but I'll take the soil benefits and deal with the weeds later, you know. Happy Canyon, we're seeing very similar results, we're starting to be able to use less water on a per annual basis, we have a little bit less soil diversity over at Happy Canyon a lot more silty clay silty on the hillsides, clays towards the bottom and the flats. That grant there was 95 acres of compost and give that reference over over a three year timespan that ends up being it was 58 $59,000 worth of compost that we got to not to have from the state which which was phenomenal. And then at the Star Lane project, we're only doing four times an acre, not six tons an acre, the grants kind of based off of what compost you're buying and your carbon nitrogen ratio of your compost, so four tons an acre and Happy Canyon still with the goal of trying to go no till over there. And we're seeing similar increases in organic matter where we're getting that point 2.25% increase year after a year. So there were targeting hopefully, my goal is to find one block, maybe that we can get a full 1% increase in that would be amazing. But it's good to see similarity over two different ADAs two different ranches. It's nice to see the similarities kind of confirming what we're seeing at one ranch versus the other ranch.


Craig Macmillan  12:24 

And I want to come back to that. But before I forget, again, we're talking about this is four tons per acre banded, you are not tilling the middle right now.


Taylor Jones  12:32 



Craig Macmillan  12:33 

But you are tilling with that piece of equipment over at the Santa Rita ranch when you have to occasionally yes in terms of no tilled you for see Star Lane being able to farm with a no till system indefinitely? Or do you have plans that you'll have to reset the system every so often? And if so, how would you go about it?


Taylor Jones  12:53 

That's that's a good question. I think that I would love to go no tilling indefinitely, unfortunately, with the rate of compaction all of our soils have and then the heavy equipment we're using it's it's inevitable that we're going to have to rip and till but I don't think that we'll ever have to do like every single year full plowed down kind of stuff. I'm totally fine with instead of ripping every three years, let's double that to rip every six years or even further down the road, see how far we can push it. I think with our compaction results that we're seeing in both ranches, our rate of compaction has reduced by about 80% We should be able to go for about five and a half years without ripping instead of every three years. So we can probably push that to six years and rip and then you know, maybe future copost applications will help reduce that even more. We're doing some no till trials where we planted a vineyard and started it no till and comparing it to the same block that's being tilled annually every year. And so far, we're five or six years in now and seeing no differences in yield or plant growth which is promising because I think that for our soil future we kind of need to go the the no till route and you know show that it can be done. And let's see what happens.


Craig Macmillan  14:06 

Something that we didn't touch on that. I think if our listeners are not familiar, this is in Santa Barbara County, Santa Yenz Valley. Happy Canyon and the Star Rita AVAs are about as different as you could possibly get in my opinion. So fill us in a little bit about what's going on soil and climate between those two branches.


Taylor Jones  14:24 

Both are similar in terms of frost. I mean we had we always have the same amount of frost days I feel like but yeah, so So Santa Rita hills a lot closer to the ocean. You've got the Santa Ynez mountain range, they're going east to west kind of funneling in all the morning fog so we get Santa Rita Hills morning fog usually burning out towards the end of the day, high winds and that that kind of leads to some nice distressed plants are really big fluxes in temperatures with daytime highs versus nighttime colds very similar toHappy Canyon Aava like stuff over there, we get a lot warmer during the day, we're seeing a lot more 90 degree plus days than what we would see in Santa Rita Hills. And with with the way the climates moving, both ranches seem to be trending towards more and more and more high heat days. And we're seeing more cold days as well. And out at Happy Canyon, we're kind of on the far edge of Happy Canyon where Star Lane is and we have morning fog kind of creeps in and it will kind of tickle the edge of our ranch almost kind of recedes a lot more back into Santa Ynez. So at Star Lane, we get a lot more a lot less foggy mornings, kind of ocean mist, and we have a lot more beautiful sunny mornings out. But over there, we also have a lot of wind as well, the significant amount of wind. So AVA wise, they are, you know, they're fairly, fairly similar, I would say only because you have some of that marine influence. High winds with soil types are completely different. And just like the amount of the day that you're getting sunlight in different areas, and wind is fairly different as well.


Craig Macmillan  16:05 

Tell me a little bit about the Healthy Soils program. I think this is a really fascinating thing. I remember when it started, and how did you find out about it? How did you get led to it? What was the process like for getting into it?


Taylor Jones  16:17 

Trying to think I found it, I really liked looking for grant money, I came from an academic background. And if there's free money to be had, why not apply for it, we use all the tractor replacement grants, we're trying to get electrification grants, you know, find money where we can find it to help our help our company out. Pretty sure we just stumbled upon this program being available. And we basically talked to CDFA. And we're like, Hey, we're interested in applying and said, Here's the process. And it ended up being kind of ridiculously easy. I'm surprised that more people don't apply for Healthy Soils programs, there's just an an online application that you fill out, not only while you're filling out this application, they make you use the Comet Planner tool online, which is a really fun tool, if nobody's used it before, just to estimate greenhouse gas emission reductions based on you know, that's, that's kind of the core of the program is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing organic matter in your soils. And comet planner can kind of help you look at that. So there's some criteria you have to meet, you cannot have applied compost on these fields within I forget what it was in the last five years or something like that. If you've been applying compost, you can't get the Healthy Soils program. So we used some areas, we had put compost down so we couldn't use those zones, which is why in our Drum Canyon Ranch is 69 acres, but we could only put compost down on 35 of that. So that's one One limitation of the program. But overall, you pick your blocks that you want to do you set out a sampling protocol for them. And they'll usually accept it. And it's essentially you sample your soils every year during the program prior to compost application. And they'll reimburse you for those soil samples as well. So that you can track your organic matter. That's that's all they require. We submit our soils for more testing than just organic matter. Yeah, overall, it's a really simple end of the year, you have to send them proof of your project. And that's generally photos of the compost arriving pictures of the team implementing the compost, actually putting it into the ground, receipts, invoices that you had for just everything to prove that you've done what you do. And then yeah, it's three years. And then in year five, you have one last soil sample to send to the state. So overall, it's a simple application process. I found it one of the easier grants to actually apply for.


Craig Macmillan  18:38 

You mentioned that you were doing soil analysis beyond just the soil organic matter what what variables are you looking at?


Taylor Jones  18:44 

We just submitted for a full a full soil health panel looking back on it, I wish I would have added bulk density on that, because I think that would have been interesting to see how it changed. But you know, hindsight is 2020 but we looked at you know, NPK, calcium, magnesium cation exchange capacity. Any differences in pH, soil moisture, sodium, just kind of the whatever you send to us soil lab, whatever they'll give you for those tests. I think the biggest thing was we reduced our NPK usage by about 35%. At both ranches after this soil results showed you know we had some NPK increases, but not really as much. I think what we're seeing more so is our vines, roots, finding new areas where they haven't been before. And they're kind of being able to utilize resources that previously weren't available to them. So that's leading to our decrease in fertilizer usage, which is great. We're trying to go towards organic and getting away from a lot of inorganic fertilizer usages would be spectacular.


Craig Macmillan  19:47 

That reminds me of something so have you been applying either synthetic organic NPK formulations on top of the compost as the compost been it for the fertility program?


Taylor Jones  19:56 

We still do add a little bit, a little bit of NPK but more so calcium, we will have more calcium applications. Especially out in Happy Canyon, we have really high serpentine soils and really bad magnesium problems. So we're always trying to add in gypsum and calcium whenever we can. The Drum Canyon Ranch, not too much of a problem over there we have a problem with potassium uptake. Um, so we do increase our potassium usage they're coming into this year, I think we're really going to reduce based on what we saw last year in terms of vigor and vine health. I mean, our nitrogen applications are going to be really low. Phosphorus, we're always pretty fine on we don't need to use much will probably continue with potassium, but we'll see what petioles looked like this year.


Craig Macmillan  20:40 

Well, we're running out of time. Is there one thing that you would tell a grower one piece of advice you'd give to a grower regarding what you've learned from this project?


Taylor Jones  20:49 

I mean, the advice is use compost, I think we're we're seeing root zones reaching areas they haven't before where we're using significantly less water, which is just key to farming in California and really in the world going forward. You know, you're you're increasing your CEC or your cation exchange capacity so less nutrients down I mean, you're getting compost is kind of like a win win scenario. The only downside is weeds. Our soils are seem to be returned to normal. We had earthworms returned for the first time since I've been at this ranch. Five different soil pits we found earthworms in which they've never been in before. They're kind of creeping in from the edges, which is awesome. I think we're gonna maybe transition to worm farming.


Craig Macmillan  21:33 

(laughs). Where can people find out more about you and what you do?


Speaker 2  21:39 

you could always find out. Dierberg and  Star Lane Vineyards, we have Otherwise, I kind of just bounced around the Santa Barbara County. I think it always...


Craig Macmillan  21:50 

Just like if you're looking if you're looking for him. Just go to Santa Barbara County and drive around a little bit. Yeah. Probably near a vineyard.


Taylor Jones  21:58 

Yeah, exactly.


Craig Macmillan  22:00 

He has a lot of friends.


Taylor Jones  22:02 

But no, yeah, you know, I'm happy if people want to reach out to me. You know, my emails, Taylor Yeah, happy to help people out with applying for grants or if they want to chat or look at some data. I'm always down to see what other people are seeing and compare what we're seeing in our AVA versus another AVA or different grower strategies for compost applications. You know, I think information sharing is the way to go.


Craig Macmillan  22:28 

Yeah, totally. Fantastic. Well, Taylor, I just am so happy you could be on the on the podcast, this has really been fun for me.


Taylor Jones  22:35 

Thanks for having me.


Craig Macmillan  22:36 

This is a topic. It's obviously a hot topic, continuing topic. And I think that the longer that we as an industry have been doing this, because this isn't something that people were doing in the 70s for instance, you know, is this you know, we've all had to learn we've had a compost is not just compost, you need look, the analyses and this rate is not the same as that rate and on the soil does that and the fact that you guys are doing that work along with everybody else and that you're sharing information. I think it's really fantastic. So, thank you so much for your contribution.


Taylor Jones  23:03 

Yeah. Thank you.


Craig Macmillan  23:04 

So our guest has been Taylor Jones. He is director of viticulture at Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards in Santa Barbara County.


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