Advantages of Sheep
Sheep spend the winter and part of the early spring in our vineyard feasting on unwanted weeds and providing the bonus of a little fertilizer. Growing organically and therefore without the use of herbicides, weed control is an expensive and time-consuming challenge. We mow, hoe, burn, and, eh, sometimes? munch!
Fortunately our neighbor to the north, Kevin, was raised as a sheep herder in Wales. Partly because he doesn't have a large enough pasture for the number of sheep, we share them by hosting them in our vineyards about six months of the year. Each month one sheep can deposit via manure about 1.25 lbs of nitrogen, 0.6 lbs of phosphorus and 1.2 lbs. of potassium; so needed by grapevines.
The breed of the sheep is Targhee, named after the Targhee National Forest, which stretches across southeastern Idaho, from the Montana, Utah, and Wyoming borders. This breed is thick in natural fleshing, produces high quality apparel type wool, and readily adapts to rugged conditions. Overall ours is an excellent arrangement that turns out to be a "win/win/win" for all parties involved.
What is Organic and why does it matter?
Although organic farming is seen as something ‘new and cutting edge’, it is in fact a return to traditional methods of agricultural production. Since the ancient Roman era, farmers used techniques such as crop rotation (planting different crops over the course of the year) to maintain soil health and grazed livestock on fallow (non-planted) fields to add fertilizer in the form of natural manure. These basic techniques produced crops year after year, without reducing the long term soil fertility.
For an in-depth history of farming techniques, click here.
What we in the 21st century consider “conventional” farming is a quite recent development. Starting in the mid 19th chemical fertilizers were first applied to crops on a regular basis. By 1900 there were over 3.5 million tons of manufactured fertilizers applied to US soil. Pesticides were developed and used in the early 20th century, with increased use after WWII.
In 2001, there were 164,437 separate applications of pesticides totaling over 22 million pounds of active ingredients applied to wine grapes in California alone! One reason many chemicals are used is to allow large farms to grow the same crops year after year on the same land. In fact, the average size of farms in the US has tripled since the 1930’s, from 157 to 471 acres, as of 1997.
The basic goal of organic farming is to create healthy, living soils. This is achieved in two ways. First is the use of only natural fertilizers, compounds that contain a wide range of the nutrients needed by plants and avoiding the concentrated fertilizers that are heavy on the three main plant foods; nitrogen, potassium and phosphate. (A good analogy is a person eating only sugar, steak and olive oil. They would certainly get all the energy and protein they require, but would lack the vitamins and minerals to keep them truly healthy, and would eventually fall ill; scurvy, rickets and goiter are all conditions that result from lack of a specific vitamin.)
The second main part of organic farming is avoiding harmful chemicals. Many of the compounds used to control pest insects also kill beneficial insects; those that might eat the ‘bad’ bugs or even bees that pollinate crops. The loss of beneficial bugs can throw off the balance in the field, causing even greater infestations, requiring the use of stronger pesticides, or more frequent applications. The average sprayed vineyard in California will be sprayed over 15 times each year!
Why Certified Organic?
Without getting an independent agency to verify that a farm is organic, you can never be 100% certain about its products. There is a strict set of codes that the organic producer must adhere to, and trained inspectors visit every certified organic farm each year to insure the standards are met. While there are additional expenses involved with getting and maintaining an organic certification, the customer has an independent, verifiable record of practices on any given farm. This provides confidence for the purchaser and producer alike. Many vineyards in California use very little chemicals except herbicides to control weeds. This is a laudable goal, but is not organic. Certified equals confidence!
Organic Grapes, and the Wine They Make
The main issue with organic is truly in the vineyard. Grapes are the number one fruit or vegetable crop in terms of tons of pesticides per acre dumped on them annually (strawberries and tomatoes are the others in the top three). To be certified organic (as Yorkville Vineyards has been since 1986) there can be no use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or chemical fertilizers. The best wines come from healthy vines, living in healthy soils. Vines farmed naturally are more likely to be healthy and produce the best fruit. These are the reasons we're farming organically.