What keeps a farm strong and healthy? What practices does that imply? Can sustainable farming and rockin’ wine come out of the same bottle?
On Earth Day 2011 ConsciousWine officially launched with a new website. Our blog and video-tastic experience covered four areas: basic wine enjoyment, demystifying natural wine, pairing up wine and food, and sustainable practices. We vetted 50 US wineries (mostly Oregon and California) for following our four principles: 100% organically grown grapes, sustainably farmed, creating vital products that taste great. Our goal is supporting the consumer in making wine choices both yummy for the palate and vital for our planet.
Trendy buzz words like natural, green, sustainable, organic and biodynamic® were getting thrown around without clarity of meaning. An early ConsciousWine blog post called The Green Wine Confusion Helper was our first attempt at help for figuring out what meant what. I’m compelled to think that whether or not one looks for natural, sustainable, organic or biodynamic products, most of us do have a real and honest desire to leave behind a better world for our kids and their kids.
Digging a little deeper, here’s some thoughts on the terms sustainable, organic and biodynamic.
- Biodynamics in particular has an interesting rap. Katherine Cole’s (wine writer for both The Oregonian and MIX Magazine) book, Voodoo Vintners, does a great job of telling the stories of people, places and practices in Oregon committed to a combo of biodynamic farming and making wines worth discovering. Monty Waldin’s (Decanter Magazine and vigneron) book, Biodynamic Wines, was the first book that inspired me on the topic. It affirmed that many of the wines I adored (as a life long wine lover) had this holistic farming practice at their core.
- Many articles, the media’s perspective and conversations on biodynamics tend to focus on the preparations (think homeopathy with a twist), cow horns, voodoo, magic, and esoteric aspects hard to grasp.
- Biodynamic farming seemed to me to be steeped in deeply rooted common sense which was often left out of the conversation (more on that to come below).
- Have you seen the refrigerator magnet or heard the line: “Organic food, or what our grandparents used to call food”? A hundred years ago, organic farming was the norm. Post WWI, many left over poisons used in the war continued in the forms of agricultural products. Is this really a good idea? Does synthetic chemical use on the farm (today called conventional farming) really support the vitality of the land being farmed for our kids’ kids and beyond? Are the present use of terms (and their branding) telling us what’s important to know to help us make conscious choices?
- One of my favorite descriptions of sustainability came from Ivo Jeramaz at Grgich Hills Winery in Napa, CA. In 2010, over half a million acres in California were quarantined for a pest problem called the European Grapevine Moth. Everyone was told they had to spray, and Europe’s answer to this problem the year before (a pheromone) was slow to be approved by the FDA. Grgich Hills used the larvae of a predatory wasp to take care of the problem. 366 acres of biodynamically farmed vineyards were saved from damage. When I asked Ivo about their approach he described their commitment to the health of the whole system and coming up with a natural answer. “If it’s a biological problem, there’s a biological answer. To look for an answer outside of that box is not a sustainable approach”.
My personal inquiry into this world deepened in 2005. I discovered sustainable farming and rockin’ wine often come out of the same bottle. Over time I became more comfortable saying it is indeed a common practice in Oregon and in multiple parts of California.
Here’s some personal observations from this journey on what keeps a farm strong and healthy:
- Diversity on the farm and a strong immune system go hand and hand.
- Through observation the farmer discovers the assets of their farm, and as a result builds a growing, evolving, living relationship with their farm. The depth of that relationship supports the on-going health of that farm.
- The farmer/farm relationship is what can allow the farmer to not put round pegs in square holes when making choices. This supports a set of dominos which keep the farm’s immune system strong. The easier things fit together, the less stress on the system, the more naturally the whole system works.
- When you take, you have to give back. That’s what makes any relationship work well and sustainably. If you take the natural vitality out of the soil (because it’s been absorbed by the products harvested), then that vitality needs to be given back. Indigenous cover crops and compost (created ideally from materials on the farm) are a couple of ways to accomplish this.
- Synthetic chemicals used in farming can help in the short term, but appear to come with side affects including nutrient and diversity depletion. Think of taking medicine for an ailment and how it affects your system especially if you take them long term. How do you support your overall health, and what might you do to balance or counteract the side effects of taking medicine both short and long term.
- Agriculture doesn’t exist in nature. It’s roots go back approximately 10,000 years. When a farmer takes away the natural diversity that was on that land pre-agriculture, a lot of conscious work’s required to reinvigorate the soil and the environment with diversity and vitality. Here’s a crazy idea: what animals were on that land pre-agriculture and what could a farmer do so those same animals were attracted to that environment today?
- Farm as if it was 1850. Huh? Use what’s on the farm to farm and to support the farm. Think of it like a closed loop system. If you want to build a house or wall, where does the wood and stone come from? The idea is to create a closed loop system where the nutrients and resources needed to nourish that system come from within that system.
A commitment to move in these directions can lead to sustainability defined as:
- leaving the land healthier than it was before farming
- passing a healthier place on to our kids and their kids
- minimizing the pull of resources from outside the farm
Specific practices include animals on the farm, biodiversity, biodynamic® farming, energy conversation, family farming, good worker policies, natural winemaking, packaging conservation, polyculture and water conservation.
Big cheers to the wineries walking the talk while putting in the bottle wines that rock! Lucky for those of us here in Oregon this trend is becoming more the norm and less of an exception.