Let’s talk about dry farming

After 7 months of interning at Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) in California, I have worked to organize and facilitate two dry-farming workshops, helped create a dry-farming program complete with webpages (it’s a work in progress, but check it out so far! www.caff.org/programs/dryfarm/), crafted a series of case studies, wrote a fact sheet to come out next week, and done countless hours of research. This, of course, was work done in between various meetings, interviews, travels, and thesis adventures. The most challenging part of all this work was the communication. I found myself among disparate groups of people with their own knowledge sets, agendas, and opinions. And somehow, I wanted to take the information that was coming to me, synthesize it, and present it to grape growers to effect change.

Harvest at Condor’s Hope Ranch

When I moved out to CA in June to work on this project, I rather naively thought that promoting dry farming in CA vineyards would be somewhat easy. The science that I had read pointed to the benefits of this management strategy on wine and grape quality. Dry farming, therefore, became the obvious choice; growers can improve the quality of their product and reduce on-farm water usage! With concerns over the sustainability of irrigated agriculture in CA, I thought that the majority of people I would meet would jump at this prospect. Fresh off of my first year at BCEP, armed with the Annals of Botany and Irrigation Science, I was ready. But what I encountered was somewhat different.

Grape growers in CA are extremely progressive, environmentally speaking. Throughout the state there are numerous sustainable certification programs, either regional or statewide, that work with vineyards and wineries to minimize their environmental impact and increase the sustainability of the operation. Generally, each program has guidelines for resource and energy conservation, biodiversity protection, and land management practices. Further, CA has a large number of certified Organic and Biodynamic vineyards. All in all, the wine industry is making substantial changes to protect the environment and prepare their operations for the impact of climate change.

Dry-Farmed Vines, Tablas Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles CA

But, with all the environmentally friendly strides that the wine industry has taken, on-farm water conservation is still a tricky subject. And for good reason. Water use in the form of irrigation minimizes risk. Irrigation may not always be necessary for wine grapes, and conservation methods may be possible, but having the option to irrigate if necessary ensures a constant yield. Given the uncertainty often resulting from climate dependent agriculture, ensuring a constant yield is no small thing to a grower. Because of the competition for and the seasonal scarcity of water in many parts of CA, some growers are legitimately concerned that if they start working to reduce their yearly irrigation, then regulations restricting irrigation use to those lower values may not be far behind. And that means no more irrigation insurance policy; with water use restrictions in place, growers may loose access to water if and when they need it, and that can be a scary thing, especially in the face of climate change.

So here I was armed with science, but quickly came to realize that what I had read did not adequately represent the reality on the ground. My concern was the environment, with wine and grape quality as a secondary factor. To me it was a convenient bonus that on-farm water conservation would actually produce higher quality wine grapes. However, the growers’ top concerns were their livelihoods, family businesses, and the grapes and wine that they grew and produced, generally environmental concerns came after that. Even with the prospect of high quality grapes, concerns over yield loss, water regulations, and economic viability may prove to great for some growers to dry farm. And I’m not saying that the growers have their priorities wrong and mine were right. All of these concerns need to be addressed. Fortunately, the problem here was not insurmountable, but rather begged a different kind of approach from me. I could not expect the growers to change their priorities, so my question became: how do I bridge the gap between all of my reading and the grape growers’ needs? How do I talk to the growers on their terms?

The answer to this actually presented itself effortlessly. It was already built into the internship. CAFF’s approach to farmer education has been to facilitate farmer-to-farmer workshops. The beauty of this model is that it takes a farmer, one who is successfully implementing a sustainable practice, and it holds his work up as a paradigm from which other farmers can learn and emulate. Instead of an outsider or non-farmer presenting methods in the abstract, these workshops allow farmers to see the sustainable methods working in an economically and environmentally stable form.

CAFF Workshop 8/22/2012

I realized that my job and role was, first, to read and understand the science behind dry farming. This allowed me to confidently talk about and recommend these practices to others. And then find growers who were implementing the growing techniques that I had learned about. From there, I simply needed to facilitate the flow of information between growers during workshops and by writing case studies to highlight growers and their practices. Growers know, certainly better than I, why they dry farm, how they make it work economically, how to address water concerns, and what challenges they face. This is knowledge that you only get by actually doing, and much more than I could ever learn from reading. So my job was never to go wander onto a vineyard and tell a grower what he ought to do, but rather find examples of sustainable methods in practice and allow that success to speak for itself.

I organized two workshops at my internship. The interaction among growers was incredible. Hopefully these workshops, and the future ones that I will be facilitating, will encourage growers to adopt some new on-farm practice to conserve water. At the workshops, the knowledge sharing and enthusiasm for dry farming extended well beyond the scheduled workshop time – with any luck, that wasn’t just related to the free wine.

About Kendall Lambert