Sustainability Made Easy: Critters chasing critters

I’ve become bored and jaded by people writing about organic farming. My new mantra is engagement and deliciousness — because if a wine is not delicious, I don’t care how it was grown. Bad wine is bad wine, organic or not.

As a professional wine judge for almost 20 years, I have tasted a lot of organic wines. A few were good, but many were so heavily flawed or oxidized that I would refuse even a second sip. I no longer define myself in the context of an organic farmer (even though 80% of what I do is organic), I consider myself a common sense viticulturist. If organic production methods reward a vintage with a stamp of quality not achievable by conventional farming, I will practice that method. If conventional fungicides prove several times more effective than organic, and there is no lasting impact, I would likely choose the conventional cultural practice. I do what is best for the wine: for making modern, clean and expressive wines that represent a time and a place. Technology should never be ignored when it can help us grow better wine, but tradition and the old ways also contain and sustain a certain wisdom and potential for quality.

Sustainability and organic production are worth discussing. But today, in this article, we don’t have to define organic fungicide applications, evapotranspiration rates or suggest non-treated end posts. This article is about one of my favorite fun subjects that also happens to be embedded in the arena of sustainable farming: Critters!

But what do critters have to do with organics and sustainability? Plenty. The organic movement attempts to achieve the natural state of a small family farm a hundred years ago: A farm that rotated crops and farmed hogs, cattle and chickens. Horses and other livestock produced enough manure to fertilize their fields without chemical fertilizers. Barn cats kept rodent populations in check, and the dogs kept the coyotes, wolves and mountain lions away. Rotating crops would keep nutrients balanced, and the habitat was diverse and safe enough to encourage beneficial animals to call the farm home: Such as owls, hawks, eagles, badgers, and weasels. Bees would help pollinate crops, earthworms left behind castings.

But what does this have to do with my backyard? The small-scale vineyard has an incredible capacity for innovation and creativity. Trying to retrofit a thousand acres of vineyard is a daunting, million-dollar project, while retrofitting 100 Zinfandel vines in your backyard is a weekend project for you and some hired/wine-bribed minions. The same is true of diversity. You can make your little backyard vineyard plot a petri dish of biology, and make the critters work in your vineyard while you’re watching a game on TV!

Here’s a quick and easy guide of how to make critters, visible and invisible, work for you.

Before you start putting up fencing for a flock of sheep, or setting up owl boxes or releasing lacewings, let’s discuss the vineyard as a habitat and some management decisions that will impact a vineyard’s ability to sustain diversity.

Vineyard floor

Bare vineyard floor allows the greatest predation of pests. If you want to get rid of gophers, voles, or other critters that dig, a bare vineyard floor is your best bet, as it gives the birds of prey perfect vision into the habitat for hunting. Lack of grasses and weeds will cut down on available food for these critters, and they will lose their ability to safely travel above ground. Insects like some cover crop, and if you’re more interested in producing green manure (grasses and plants that break down into your soil for nutrients), having a strong and healthy cover crop can help stave off erosion and provide habitat for insects.

Fencing/Nets/Physical barriers

There are some critters that no vineyard wants in their rows: Deer, wild pig, even baboons are a problem in South Africa! While I have no idea how to exclude baboons from a vineyard, a 7- to 8-foot (2.1- to 2.4-m) high fence will usually do the trick for the deer. Pigs, on the other hand, always seem to find a way under or through fences to get to what they seek. Generally pigs and hogs are in rural areas where hunting them may be an option (mmm . . . bacon), but a combination of sound fencing and a few large dogs may be the only solution for pigs in a suburban setting. Bird netting is suggested in all areas, as grapevines are nature’s perfect bird feeders, and birds love red/black grapes more than any other food source. Bird netting can also be tucked and tied at the bottom to exclude ground squirrels and slow down raccoons, coyotes and other larger animals. We use electro-netting to keep our sheep flock in specific blocks of our vineyard, and I suspect electrified netting may be an effective barrier for difficult animal problems. Make sure to warn the neighbors and the kids, and remember that pets can be killed in electro-netting if they are not carefully trained to respect it.

Tiny, tiny critters

Microbial critters could take up an entire article, but we won’t go into a lot of detail here. Encouraging microbes to decompose organic matter in tidy layers or using a mycorrhizae fungus “dip” when you plant your vines are examples of positive microbial actions in your vineyard. Allowing your soil to settle — never tilling or cultivating — allows stratified layers of decomposing fungi and bacteria to do their job extremely efficiently. Finding mycorrhizae used to be difficult, but now the material is easily available through nurseries or the Internet, and I do suggest dipping all grapevine roots in a mycorrhizae preparation during planting. Mycorrhizae is a specialized fungus that has evolved to aid root systems by creating fungal structures that support and improve the efficiency of roots. A healthy population of mycorrhizae at root level is a cheap and efficient way for all vineyards to get an early advantage.

How about organic compost and biodynamic compost? Sure, why not? Compost is a great way to energize the soil with microbial activity. I do not believe biodynamic compost is inherently superior to any other compost. I do agree that you should know what is in your compost before applying it to your vineyard.

Slightly larger critters (ones you can see)

Let’s talk bugs. Good bugs. So rarely do I get to write about bugs that don’t mess with our vintage and wine quality: Japanese beetles and their stinky residue, glassy winged sharpshooters and their attempts to suck California grapevines dead, mites and leafhoppers and mealybugs, oh my! But there are insect solutions to some insect problems. The key is diversity: You want lots of insect species stalking and hunting one another so none have time to cause havoc on the vines. Ladybugs (ladybeetles in some areas) are an excellent sign of a healthy vineyard, and those cute little shiny red bugs are voracious hunters. Lacewing populations are also a benefit to all vineyards, in areas where they can survive and thrive. Find which local plants and landscaping attracts those types of bugs, or look into buying some lacewings, praying mantises, or other beneficial bugs for release into your vineyard! Backyard vineyards are perfect for this, as the area can be carefully protected and observed. Plus, bugs aren’t that expensive, and they work hard without pay or worker’s comp insurance.

Pets & livestock

Almost all domestic animals were domesticated for pest control on human farms. Dogs keep coyotes, pigs, and deer at bay — well, maybe not a Pomeranian, but a proper ranch dog like a Walker Hound, a Shepherd or a Mastiff. My Border Collie, Rosa, worked tirelessly at the vineyard for 15 years excluding everything that tried to sneak onto the property. I am also a big fan of feral cats and their usefulness on the vineyard. We have 13 feral cats here at our vineyard, and since we brought them on we see very few mice, gophers and ground squirrels. They are brutally efficient. We give them a safe perch from coyotes, clean water and a small bag of food each week, which disappears in about three days, and then they go back to hunting.

Organic vineyardists will tell you that cows are the heart of any farming operation because of their fertilizer, but cow manure is a little rich in nitrogen for most vineyards, as is chicken manure. But for vineyards with poor soil and struggling vines, some limited manure could be a great way to safely and organically improve the vines’ yield and health. Sheep and goat manure is better balanced for vineyards, and we use a flock of almost 30 Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep for winter grazing and for year-round manure collection/composting. Our chickens are allowed to scratch and aerate the piles of sheep manure, which significantly reduces the amount of time it takes the manure to break down and start the composting process.

Allowing sheep into the vineyard, while hardly practical in most home vineyards, is a fantastic way to give your vines a reasonable and safe amount of nutrient-rich fertilizer without causing the vines to go crazy vigorous. We have seen an improvement in vine health and fermentation kinetics in areas we graze our flock.

Chickens in the vineyard are a better solution for many home vineyards, and what could be better than five chickens per acre turning your insect pests into delicious eggs for your breakfast table? The fertilizer they deposit will be limited and reasonable, and if I could suggest one positive solution to every vineyard, I can’t imagine why chickens wouldn’t help any vineyard where they were allowed to roam safely during the day. Rolling chicken coops are a great way to keep them safe at night without having to move them all around the yard.

Wild animals

There is another class of beneficial animals for your backyard vineyard beyond pets, livestock, microbes and insects. These are wild creatures you can encourage to live on your vineyard by providing habitat, a peaceful respite, or simply a lack of stress and a place to hunt. Birds love vineyards, and not just those that eat grapes. Owls can be amazingly efficient at taking out the worst vineyard pests: gophers, voles, squirrels and their evil kin. Giving other birds of prey, like hawks and falcons, line of sight to the pests in your vineyard can also help keep populations at a safe minimum. If you have the room and elevation to offer a hunting perch for birds of prey, or owl boxes in trees/barns for breeding, you will improve your integrated pest management in important ways. Some water birds will hunt gophers as well, like herons and egrets. Weasels and badgers make holes, but they also prey on gophers and other furry vineyard pests. Territorial birds such as bluebirds, crows or swallows often are insectivores or harry/attack invading birds. Crows eat grapes, but also seem to drive larger flocks of starlings away, so I consider them beneficial pests. Reptiles and amphibians, while sometimes creepy or slimy, are awesome free employees. Non-venomous snakes, and even venomous ones, often take their weight in rodents monthly. Toads and frogs eat pest insects and are also considered beneficial.

To sum up: Anything that eats grapes or bites a vine or its parts are pests, and anything that eats, bothers or disrupts a pest is a beneficial critter in our vineyards. A good combination of livestock (chickens for fertilization), pet animals (cats for gophers, dogs for large animals), proper fencing/barriers (keep the beneficial animals in and the pests out), and a habitat that encourages natural predation of pests (owls, hawks, snakes, toads, beneficial insects and microbes) will create a natural balance that will keep your vineyard producing balanced growth, healthy clusters and delicious wine. Naturally!