To till or not to till. That is the question that nearly came between myself, farmer, and my wife, our natural winemaker and self-described OCD regenerative researcher. I had just been reading Deirdre Heekin’s Unlikely Vineyard, a magical description of her transformation of a pile of overused dirt in Vermont into a verdant vineyard producing wines of exquisite individuality. We had a similar challenge: three acres of land, recently purchased, and thoroughly banjaxed by years of industrial corn farming. Three acres that were to double our production of Gamay Noir while providing us with a palette for our sparkling programme and planted to Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Auxerrois. The soil after years of industrial farming abuse was grey, compacted, lifeless. After reading Heekin, I has visions of tasty broad beans waving in the spring sun before I mulched them (or munched them, adding green manure to the soil, a practice Heekin recommends.
‘No’, said the wife, ‘that’s tilling, and tilling is death. Death to microbes, which, when you till, are turned over to bake in the sun’. I think we can all agree, that’s not a good thing for microbes. Regenerative agriculture demands a different approach: the ancient one of mixed, no-till farming. Instead of annually tilling and sowing, you sow perennial cover crops for the sheep and geese (nitrogen-fixing clovers and mustard especially), and then let the animals fertilize your fields (supplemented with composts and compost teas).
Three years later and, alas, I must confess, once again Tilar was right (but please, should you visit the vineyard, don’t let her know I said so). More and more research is showing that untilled pasturage, which builds soil, is not only regenerative for the soil web of life but, done correctly, is also the best way to sequester carbon and address the climate crisis while replenishing the earth.
Still, it’s a learning curve. The geese (now up to thirty) and the sheep (six) were doing a fabulous job on the manure front, until I discovered the geese had nibbled the bark off the fruit trees, which we had planted at the ends of the vineyard rows to vary the monoculture while boosting mycorrhizal fungi, essential for a healthy microbiome. It had to be the geese, because they strip the bark off the vines in the spring, if you let them. So I chased the geese into a separate paddock to protect the trees until I noticed one of the saplings waving in the still air, with one of our Welsh Black Mountain sheep nibbling the base. The usual story: two steps forward in producing an ecologically self-sustaining farm, and one back while we perfect how to encourage our plants, animals, and microbes to live in harmony.