Regenerative Agriculture at Cameron

From John, April 9th, 2022

The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture is having a dramatic effect on our world. Accumulating evidence indicates that the approximately 25% of the CO2 in our atmosphere got there to a large extent by tilling our soil!

Every time a farmer runs a disc and/or rotovater through the soil, it sets in motion the degradation of organic carbon that is sequestered in the soil.  Soil bacteria and exposure to the atmosphere rapidly convert that organic carbon into CO2.  The sources of organic carbon in the soil are extended networks of fungal mycelia which are are fed by the plants above them. These fungi are also friends of the plants that grow in that soil. They assist bacteria in root nodules of legumes to make ammonia; they recycle important plant nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus; they help hold moisture in the soil and they are now implicated with helping plants to communicate with each other. When the mycelia network is broken to pieces by tilling, soil bacteria convert the resulting carnage to CO2.

Enlightened and caring farmers are now trying to reverse this destructive cycle by moving their farms to no-till agriculture in order to regenerate this fixed carbon in the soil.  Hence the term “Regenerative Agriculture” which is starting to replace the term “Sustainable Agriculture” as the descriptor of choice for responsible farming in the 21st century.

It is not always easy to move immediately to no-till when the soil in question does not already have a large quantity of organic carbon (due presumably to decades or centuries of tilling).  The resulting soil does not hold moisture very well since it is devoid of a rich microbial community.

At Cameron we have always farmed organically but realize we need to do more.  We started recycling all of our pressings (consisting of grape skins & stems) from harvest many years ago and then turned to nutritional cover crops to augment the process. Learning how to compost the pressings along with the winter vine prunings has had a huge effect.  Where we once burnt clippings in the field, now brush from the vines is chipped up into small pieces and these, when blended with the pressings, supply a large portion of organic carbon to the mix (in the form of mostly cellulose which is a carbon-rich compound). Together with the cover crops that grow enthusiastically in the winter and spring, we are slowly enriching our soil so that parts of the vineyard are now farmed without any tilling at all. And for those parts which are not quite ready for complete no-till (that is, they do not hold enough moisture to get the vines through increasingly dry summers), we till only every other row so that intermediate rows can grow a vibrant mycelial network.

We already have mobile chicken tractors that run up and down our vine rows. The next piece of the puzzle is going to be how to introduce grazing animals to the vineyard in the winter and spring while the vines are dormant. In our limited experience with sheep, we found that they also like to eat the luscious grape vines during growing season, so having them live on our property year-round is impractical. Grazers are a critical part of the regenerative process because they recycle green matter into a form (read “poop”!) that is more easily incorporated into the soil.  Their hoof action also helps fluff up the soil which brings air into the equation,aiding mycelia growth.

Stay tuned to the concept of “Regenerative Agriculture” and make your buying choices to encourage its use. Ultimately it is the consumers who will determine how widespread its use becomes.

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