Friday, January 24, 2014

Is Dry Farming the Answer During This Drought?



Photo courtesy of Tablas Creek Vineyards, which dry farms 30% of its vines.

Governor Jerry Brown of California has issued a drought proclamation for the State of California. Rainfall for 2013 was the least amount in the state’s 163-year history. If the state does not get a huge dose of rain and snow in the next couple months, the outlook is not good for growing grapes, or any other crops, in the coming year.

In the January 20th edition of the Los Angeles Times, columnist George Skelton talked about the need for great efforts in the state’s water management program, and noted that you “don’t hear much discussion of whether certain crops in California – wine and weed for example – are justified in such quantities, given the great amounts of precious water they soak up.” Yikes!

Per the Wine Institute (www.wineinstitute.com) there are over 2,000 brick and mortar wineries in the state, and these are predominantly family-owned businesses – a nice addition to the state’s economy.

Like it or not, however, grapes do require a great deal of water (I’m unfamiliar with how much water weed requires), and since much of California’s crop lands have been turning over to vineyards, skeptics are rightfully asking how much is too much?

In fall 2013 I visited several Central Coast vineyards and tasting rooms and the topic of dry farming came up frequently. Dry farmed vineyards basically require no irrigation other than rainfall, although often they are watered in the first year or two of establishment.

According to the Community Alliance With Family Farmers (CAFF) water held in the soils from winter precipitation provides the necessary water for vine growth. Dry-farmed vines typically have extremely deep root systems, as much as 30 feet, as their search for the water goes ever deeper. By comparison, irrigated vines will often have short roots, say 2 feet long, allowing them to be planted on shallow soil.

Drip irrigation was introduced to California vineyards in the early 1970s and quickly caught on. The thought was that the more the vines were watered, the more grapes they would produce – hence large yields. It also allows for growth in areas that would not otherwise support viticulture.

So, irrigation seems like a good thing, but like anything in life it has its share of critics. Many European countries ban irrigation, as they believe it has a negative effect on wine quality (although there has been some movement recently to relax these regulations). The most common drawback is the belief that irrigation does not allow the natural expression of the terroir to come through. Terroir is the unique characteristics of the soil in a patch of earth, and year to year this will vary depending on the rainfall and other weather conditions.

And, of course, the already depleting aquifers in parts of the state are cited as a mark against irrigation.

“I think in many ways dry farming is more viable than irrigated farming, given the stress on ground water that the drought has produced,” says Jason Hass, Partner and General Manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard (www.tablascreek.com) in Paso Robles, which dry farms about 30% of its vines. “If you set up a vineyard to be self-sufficient, you’re going to do better than one that is used to being given water but then can’t be.” 

But what if there is little winter rain, as there has been thus far in 2013-2014?

“We saw stress on the vineyards last year after our second consecutive drought year, and this year would make three, with this winter looking like the driest of the bunch,” Hass says.  “We’re going to preemptively reduce crops through more rigorous pruning, and we’re irrigating the sections of vineyard that we can, just to get some water in the ground.” 

Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines (www.tercerowines.com) in Los Olives agrees.  “It looks as if there will be a concerted effort to carry less crop levels on vines to reduce potentially catastrophic stress on the vines and their root systems that larger crops may lead to in the absence of ground water.” Schaffer, who sources his grapes from vineyards in Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, and Los Olivos, believes “this won't stop many vineyards from continuing their current drip irrigation strategies, but this may put a major stress on water systems.” He adds that the current situation is “interesting and quite scary indeed.”

The question I have is, can dry farming save California’s vineyards during this drought? And can an irrigated vineyard be “retro-dry-farmed”?  Hass says yes, but it’s not so simple. “It has to be a gradual process. You need to develop root mass deeper in the soil, where natural water can be found, rather than at the surface under the irrigation drips, where it’s likely to mostly be if a vineyard has been irrigated regularly. You can train the vines deeper by watering less often and for longer duration, and letting the topsoil dry out. This discourages surface root growth and encourages deeper root growth."

Bottom line, though, it’s better to start out dry farming. Says Hass, “It’s definitely easier to start out knowing that’s what you want to do, not least because you typically plant a dry-farmed vineyard more (often much more) widely spaced, so the vines have a better shot at finding what they need on their own.”

Overall, yields of California vineyards may be lower in 2014 than they were in 2013, but all depends on Mother Nature. Hass is actually not too worried about Tablas Creek’s dry-farmed vineyards, which he says have proven to be remarkably stable in drought years. “You don’t get big yields even in wet years, but you also don’t get much less in dry years than you do in wet.”

But just in case, I’m doing a rain dance.

Until next time, Cheers!

For a list of some dry farmed vineyards throughout California, visit CAFF’s Web site at (www.caff.org).

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