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Wine, Water & Dirt by Don Wallace - Part 5

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Wine, Water & Dirt by Don Wallace - Part 5
He Said She Said

by Don Wallace

Really, I prefer the modern version,"I heard it on the Internet, it must be true". Everywhere I look today I see people stating half truths even outright, big old whoppers. I see it at meetings, I read them in the paper and I get them in the mail. I recently got a letter from one of the Russian River groups. They were soliciting donations but at the end of the letter was a half truth. When that half truth causes distress for others it should be challenged.

The letter said that they, I guess the group, had reason to believe that farming decreased the soils ability to take up water. Therefore the water table could be negatively affected. I am sure that that isn't exactly the way they said it but I think you get the point. While I am a supporter of people who support a good cause as they do, telling people a whopper to influence them isn't right. If it was ten years or more ago I might be able to get my hands around that but not now...

Today the vast majority of grape farmers employ cover crops. Cover crops are a mixture of plants utilized to stop erosion, create biodiversity and provide organic material to name a few things. These cover crops also assure that the soil doesn't develop what is known as a hard pan because disking isn't as regularly used in a sustainable vineyard. A disk is a farm implement made up of round disks eight inches in diameter set in rows and pulled behind a tractor to break up and turn over the top layer of soil. If a vineyard is disked repeatedly, the point load at the bottom of the disks creates this "hard pan".

Dry farmed vineyards still get disked like this because the cover crop competes for water with the grapevines. This hard pan, also known as a plow or disk pan, happens from disking back and forth repeatedly and never ripping the soil. The ripper shank, is another farm implement used to go deep into the soil in order to break up the hard pan and is the last step to this process assuring this hard pan doesn't develop. By sinking roots deep, a cover crop loosens the soil saving money by eliminating the need to pound the soil to death, wear and tear on the equipment, plus people hours. In addition, many cover crops are permanent so no plow pan is developed anyway.

Cover crops also do a number of other good things. They provide bio diversity which provides a home for beneficials, good insects that eat bad bugs. They build up organic materials which help naturally release nutrients trapped in the soil. If the vines are really hungry, a nitrogen fixer like Bell Beans or Clover can be added to the seeding mix. Their root systems grow nodules which provide a rich supply of nitrogen for whatever is growing.  We even use a type of mustard in the seed mix sometimes as it is a natural control for Nematodes, a nasty pest that can reside in the soil. These cover crops, along with hedge rows and healthy riparian corridors free of non-native plants, also help to offset the negative impact that can be seen in monocultures. All this and erosion control!

In the same light, farmers from California to Washington have been blamed for the decline of salmon? Again maybe once upon a time Sonoma County Agriculture caused problems, but we have been doing everything we can and continue to seek ever more responsible methods so as to be better stewards of the land. What is good for the environment is good for vineyards.

I have asked countless long time residents of the Russian River drainage what they thought was the reason for the salmon decline. I was surprised on a lot of what I heard. The first was back in the 1970s  the Russian River was poisoned two years in a row to kill off a single species of fish that was deemed to be harmful. It killed everything in the river, there were dead fish of every type everywhere. On top of this it wasn't until the 1980s that cities up and down the river stopped the practice of building waste ponds so close to the river that they washed out in high water.

Add this to adjusting water flows from reservoirs too quickly which strands fish in large numbers and you have a recipe for disaster. When dams let water out at high speed, fish get washed from their shelters at river banks and even the shelters are destroyed so fish have few places to rest or spawn during egg-laying season.

When flows are quickly dropped the small fish waiting to go to the Ocean don't have a chance to respond and get trapped in off channel depressions. Now I love all the animals that take advantage of these situations but we are trying to rebuild populations not provide a buffet. Fortunately times are changing and along with that new protocols are being evaluated and implemented. 

The old practice of dredging river bottoms for gravel also reduced spawning habitat for many years. Then reducing flow to save water in reservoirs left fish stranded in small puddles with no connection to the river. They died by the hundreds from lack of oxygen, too warm water, and racoons etc. taking advantage of easy prey. All these things have brought aboout habitat loss, pollution in the river and untimely fish kills from policies that had noting to do with agriculture. Fortunately, times have chamged. Current policies and practices are trying to make up for past ignorance in water management, habitat loss then restoration, as well as agriculture.

On the other side of the coin when biologists are asked, what goes on when these fish go to sea, they don't know. Are the populations being netted out of existence by fishing fleets from outher countries parked outside our protective boundaries? Or is the spike in the Humboldt Squid responsible? We don't know.  When asked why the salmon returned up north after their decline a few years back, I was told, " Well, it rained".

I am not suggesting that Farmers can't do more or that there are not a few bad apples in agriculture, but our movement to 100% Sustainable Farming is the right direction. The Sonoma County Water Agency is starting to get very positive indications that the first mile of new Salmon habitat along the Dry Creek is going to be successful. As of 2/2/16 the Steelhead count is well over 3,000 which is more than we've had for some time. This couldn't have happened without the cooperation and help of farmers.

Come by Dry Creek Vineyard and our staff will tell you about the restoration project if you are interested. Today you can go out into vineyards and find a healthy soil ecosystem where once mostly pests lived in a unhealthy desert. We need to support good agriculture or as Joni Mitchell said we will end up "Paving over Paradise."

P:S I am sorry that I took a month off.