"What is a farm but a mute gospel?"
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
We've been reading the headlines about how regenerative agriculture is the hottest 2020 trend and are thrilled to see the film Biggest Little Farm making headlines and to follow the work of grassroots movements like Regeneration Canada too.
The trouble with all that great press, of course, is that, once regenerative agriculture becomes a marketing label, there's a built-in motivation for it to be deployed as a sales tactic that may or may not have the kind of relationship to the farming practices we think of as regenerative farming.
Some folks think regenerative certification is the answer. We're not in that camp either. Part of that is economic: as small farmers the costs just aren't sustainable. That's a complex topic worth another post maybe. But for us the bigger issue is that we think certification increases the commercialization of the term and decreases the need for direct farm transparency.
In other words, as consumers, what we want to know from the farmers we buy from is what their practices are. Mostly, if you're a farmer, you can look at another farmer's field and get a pretty clear idea of what those practices are. But if you're not a farmer, that's trickier, and we think farmers should tell you.
So in the spirit of complete transparency, here are our farming practices at Parsell Vineyard and what we mean when we say we farm regeneratively:
We are livestock and pasture integrated. We have chickens, geese, and sheep at present, and they assist us by scratching soil, mowing grass, and fertilizing our vineyards. Our animals are completely unconfined for their entire lives, except for some of the chickens. About half our chickens insist on roosting in our apple trees, and as they seem to know what they are doing, after too many nights of trying to pluck chickens out of trees at dusk, we've let them be. The other half make for the safety of the coop, and we lock that door at dusk and open it again at dawn, so they can sleep free from predators. We don't give our animals any prophylactic medicines or antibiotics, we don't feed our animals (they pasture forage) unless there are extreme weather conditions where they don't have food available, and we're pleased to say that our animals are all in rude health.
We are no till. No-till farming keeps carbon sequestered. But just as importantly it fosters the health of the soil web and microbiome. We have permanent cover crops in place, a blend of native pasture grasses, yellow mustard, and clover primarily, and we are working actively toward integrated silviculture. We have planted dozens of apple, pear, plum, and fig trees at the ends of our vineyard rows and at our property margins to increase biodiversity and habitat, and we protect native Garry Oak "volunteers" where they appear in our vineyards naturally. We leave the natural water sources on our property as natural apiary and aviary reserves.
We use no chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or fertilizers. We do not use Round Up. Our animals eat our vineyard pests and trim our cover crops. We manage fungal infections (primarily powdery mildew) by focusing on plant health and immunity and by spraying with "teas" made of anti-fungal botanicals (such as nettle or comfrey), where we can get it (if you know a local source, tell us, we are always looking!) whey, organic sulfur, castile soap (as a "sticker"), horticultural oil, and natural acidifiers (powdery mildew doesn't like acidic conditions). The only commercial product we use is an organic-certified "pro-biotic" called Serenade, which works by encouraging the bacteria that eat the fungus. We use a small tractor with a PTO fan sprayer. We have considered using horses instead of a tractor, but we don't think the weight of the tank would make that safe for the animal or the driver.
We use compost (top dressing), fermented compost teas, biochar made on our property, untreated wood chips from a local arborist, sustainably harvested Vancouver Island kelp / seaweed / shell / fish emulsion, and worm castings for fertilizer. These are all what are known as bio-fertilizers, because they all contain living microbes. We do not use chemical or processed organic fertilizers.
We use drip irrigation, where we are required to irrigate (e.g. young plants getting established), and we dry-farm where ever possible. We burn pruned wood in the vineyard, using a French-style burning wheelbarrow, returning it directly to the soil as potash.
Our focus in all our decisions is what is going to leave the soil on our land healthier, richer, and more diverse than we found it. To us, that's what it means to "regenerate" the soil through mixed farming practices. We do lose yields. We weigh carefully every day (and many nights) the balance between economic sustainability and ecological sustainability. And British Columbia winery legislation requires that we produce certain volumes of wine each year in order to keep our license as land-based wine producers; by measuring only volume and yield, unconnected to farming practices or environmental impacts, the law creates disincentives for regenerative viticulture. We hope that will change.
In the meantime, if you want to know how we're farming at Parsell Vineyard (or how we're making our wines in the cellars), reach out, online or in person. We have an open-farm policy: that means if our tasting room is open, so are our vineyards and our cellars. Come out, have a look, and share your questions and your knowledge. We host more than a dozen volunteers each year. We're happy to have you join us if you need a little regeneration. We don't know everything. We are learning every day. But we're sticking with what we believe in, believing in its purpose.