Sustainable Agriculture Practices
A discussion with Bill Williamson.
Our home and those of our children and grandchildren are surrounded by our vineyards. We drink the wine and eat the fruit and vegetables grown on our property. Our matriarch, Mary Doyle-Williamson lived here until stroke took her at 95 years of age. We are all successful farmers and business people and there is no way we would want to contaminate the food or wine we consume daily so sustainable farming is an unequivocal life choice.
Industrial agriculture has become the economic way to grow crops. Vineyards dominated by corporations growing the same crops year after year, using enormous amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers that damage soils, water, air, and climate squanders and degrades the very resources that they depend on and completely ignore the centenaries-old tradition of Terroir, that grapes and the wine they produce show a sense of the place where they grew.
At Williamson Wines growing wine grapes is a long term prospect and protecting the ecosystems in which he grapes and our homes are situated is a high priority for our family.
In January 2014, Sonoma County Winegrowers announced a commitment to make Sonoma County the first 100 percent sustainable winegrowing region in the nation. Williamson Wines was among the early adopters of the program, made easy by the fact that we were already following sustainable practices. Our vineyards are all certified as sustainably farmed using the two major sustainability programs that California Winegrower organizations recognize, namely:
- Fish Friendly Farming
- California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (“Certified Sustainable”).
Microbial Communities in Vineyard Soils
Derived from the respect for terroir and the implementation of good practices in the vineyard, a ranking has been established using biodiversity indexes traditionally used in ecology and other related sciences, based on the richness, complexity and balance of the microorganism communities that inhabit the vineyard soil.
Working with our partner Biome Makers we use DNA Sequencing technologies to measure and evaluate the complexity of microbial communities in our vineyard soils to measure their health and quality.
This analysis helps us understand specific members of our soil microbial community that might support plant disease and those that might promote specific flavors in the resultant wine.
We are now utilizing these DNA Sequencing technologies as as a sustainability indicator and a basis for managing the biological activity in our soils. This gives us the potential to combat disease microorganisms naturally and to more fully understand the wine flavor profile effects of soil-based microorganisms.
Rotating Crops & Promoting Plant Diversity
Obviously when farming vineyards you cannot rotate the vine crop but each year you can plant a variety of cover crops within the vineyard rows. These crops protect and build soil health by preventing erosion, replenishing soil nutrients, and keeping weeds in check, reducing the need for herbicides.
Natural Pest Management
We use various methods, including mechanical and biological controls to keep pest populations under control with a focus on minimizing use of chemical pesticides.
To control local flying pests we erect bluebird houses to attract bluebirds that are voracious insect consumers, quickly ridding an area of large numbers insect pests. To control bird damage to the grapes we erect hawk roosts, encouraging raptors into the vineyard. We also erect owl houses encouraging raptor owls that control mice, gophers and voles within the vineyards.
Feeding the Vines
It’s easy to simply add fertilizer to promote growth but grapevines get their nutrients from the soil so understanding what’s going on below ground is vitally important to growing healthy vines.
Periodic soil analysis tells us the nutrient levels available in the soil while annual petiole - plant tissue analysis - provides an indication of vine nutrient status which reflects its uptake from the soil.
Understanding the grapevine nutrient standards used in our vineyards is the result of extensive analysis, study and development of our own control models. The short answer is that we seek to provide valuable nutritional elements - naturally occurring soil nutrients - back into our vineyard soils at regular intervals instead of applying commercial fertilizers.
Managing the Entire System
Salmon and trout (salmonids) are considered indicator species due to their sensitivity to human-induced impacts to their environment. Sensitive to changes in water quality and quantity, water temperature, turbidity, and aquatic food webs, the decline of a salmonid population in a creek or river is an early warning of the decline in the overall health of the environment.
The Fish Friendly Farming program takes a comprehensive approach to environmentally friendly land management ensuring long-term environmental improvements, sustainable agriculture and the principles of state and federal environmental regulations. Three resource agencies - the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the County Agricultural Commissioner, provide the objective third-party certification which we have received, acknowledging our land and river stewardship.