Spring in Sonoma County is particularly vibrant this year with clearing from fires and abundance of winter rain. Vegetation is lush and I can’t remember seeing so many shades of green.

Marie Gewirtz

Marie Gewirtz

With spring comes the renewal of the growing season. It amazes me that even trees along the banks of the Russian River, submerged by flood waters just months ago, are again sprouting new growth.

In speaking with enlightened farmer friends, I’m hearing more about regenerative agriculture. Especially, as it pertains to grapegrowing and climate change.

Simply, regenerative agriculture, also referred to as carbon farming, uses farming principles that enrich the soil, improve watersheds and enhance ecosystems by capturing and holding carbon in the soil. It offers healthier soils and resilience to the ever-increasing climate instability.

Many believe these old-fashioned intuitive farming practices offer a solution for climate change by reversing global trends of releasing high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Healthy agriculture depends on plant photosynthesis to move carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into plants. Carbon farming implements practices that improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to soils and plant material.

Key principles of regenerative agriculture include:

•          Spreading compost increases soil vitality by capturing significant amounts of CO2. This builds up microorganisms in the soil and reduces the necessity for synthetic fertilizers. It also minimizes the need for irrigation by increasing the capacity of the soil to hold water.

•          Cover crops, legumes and grasses planted between vine or plant rows, naturally build soil health. They help create habitat for beneficial insects, which reduces the need for pesticides. Erosion is reduced because cover crops hold the soils in place.  As plants photosynthesize, they produce oxygen for cleaner air.

•          No or reduced till. Tilling (or turning over) the soil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. By not tilling, carbon dioxide is locked into the soil.

Paul Dolan, co-founder of Truett Hurst and a longtime guiding force behind Fetzer Vineyards, views farming as a multi-generational endeavor. In other words, he farms with a sense of legacy by building and maintaining the restorative capacity of his soils.

“The reality is we’re using natural resources on the planet at a rate of 20% faster than they can be restored. It’s a dead-end game,” Dolan said, referring to the more common extractive way of farming. “With most farming, nutrients and elements are being taken out of soil with each harvest and replaced with materials from outside the farm.”

Dolan believes in the restorative paradigm. That everything is available to us without having to introduce foreign matter onto the farm. He explains the distinction between what nature provides, like the natural cycle of plants taking in carbon from photosynthesis and moving it throughout the plant into the roots, complemented by restorative practices like building compost, grazing animals, planting cover crops and paying attention to the ecosystem not only below the ground, but also above the ground.

Dolan said, “We can restore 80% of the needs of the plant by using these free natural resources. Merely 1% increase of organic matter in the soil enhances the water holding capacity of the soil by 20,000 gallons per acre.

“Maintaining a healthy balance of flora and fauna on the farm is essential. Hedgerows and insectaries expand the number of plants to appeal to bees and beneficial bugs, which ensure vibrant life energy throughout the property.” 

Ridgely Evers, founder of DaVero Farms & Winery, is convinced that the first step toward regenerative farming is to grow plants that are climate-appropriate for the property.

"Grow what belongs here. Be patient. This simple premise guides us in everything we do — how we care for our land, how we farm, how we make wine and olive oil and the myriad other products from this magical place,” explains Evers in defining his philosophy of farming. "Over the past 30 years with both olives and winegrapes, we have found that Italian varieties are ideally suited to our Mediterranean climate, and facilitate regenerative farming."

Dolan and Evers agree that a farm is a living organism and successful farming requires a balanced give and take relationship with the land. Their farming is guided by the wisdom of this American Indian quote: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

If indeed regenerative agriculture is a solution to climate change, it needs to become mainstream in Sonoma County and hopefully throughout the world.

Marie Gewirtz represents wine and food clients with marketing and communications in Sonoma County and throughout the world. She can be reached at winewords@sonomawest.com.

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