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How no-till farming could provide the key to combatting extreme weather

Most wine producers believe that tilling is necessary to aerate the ground, but taking a hands-off approach can improve soil health, strengthen root systems and fight climate change. Kathleen Willcox considers why and how no-tilling benefits the environment and the vineyard.

The future success of the wine industry depends on its ability to counteract the effects of extreme weather shifts – from the wildfires that cost Californian vintners an estimated $3.7 billion in 2020, to the frosts that cost French growers €2bn in 2021, to
drought and extreme heat that costs winemakers billions collectively in regions across the world every year. It is also in everyone’s interests for wineries to find ways to reduce their carbon footprint and stop contributing to greenhouse gas production.

But change is difficult, and predicting the effects of large or small systemic shifts in the way business is done is notoriously difficult to calculate. Still, one under-the-radar, lo-fi innovation in viticulture is emerging as an increasingly popular tactic for winemakers eager to actively sequester carbon and improve soil health: no-till farming.

Tilling has been with us for 10,000 years or more, in some form. But as the Agricultural Revolution transformed farming in the 18th and 19th centuries, the method of cultivation became increasingly popular, primarily because tilling enables farmers to plant and weed more, fast, with very little effort.

The dark side of tilling

Tilling essentially entails turning over the first 10 inches of soil, which blends decomposing cover crops into the soil, while also aerating it and warming it. Sounds great. But, as with most short-cuts, tilling has a dark side, explains Linda MacElwee, a project coordinator at the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District who works with winegrowers, farmers and ranchers on projects designed to improve the health of their farms and lower their carbon footprint.

Tilling soil strips it of protection, making it more prone to erosion, MacElwee explains.

When soil is disturbed, it is less sponge-like, and less able to absorb and hold water and nutrients. It also disrupts the microbiome in the soil, killing the good microbes and insects that help balance out and fight pests and diseases – and making the entire vineyard or farm
more prone to attacks from those potentially harvest-damaging pests and diseases.

Tilling also disrupts soils’ ability to “store carbon”, MacElwee says. “When soil is tilled or plowed, that carbon, which was stored and held in the microorganisms and plant roots, rises to the top and is transformed into carbon dioxide.”

That carbon dioxide, of course, floats up into the atmosphere and contributes to the warming of the planet. Tilling also requires a lot of tractor passes, MacElwee points out, with carbon on top of carbon shooting into the air.

The practice is slowly but surely being phased out, for a multitude of reasons. In the US, farmers who have opted to switch from tilling to no-tilling save an estimated 588 million gallons of diesel fuel annually, according to the USDA. That saved fuel provides enough energy to power more than 720,000 homes for one year. It also prevents an estimated 5.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, as if one million cars had been taken off the road.

By switching to no-till, farmers can reduce their fuel output by up to 80%, which is also a huge cost savings amid rising fuel costs. It also means less labor – about 50% less.

So why wouldn’t farmers just go for it and make the switch? Due to fear of the unknown, and a lack of resources.

But if an estimated 11% of greenhouse gases come from agriculture according to the EPA, and the undeniable cost of climate change hitting both taxpayer and government purses, shouldn’t the government should be motivated to help reluctant farmers make the switch to no-till.

Quietly, as federal mandates fail to materialise, California has been doing just that for almost 20 years.

How California enables farmers to make the switch

Interestingly, it’s the O.G. Governator who started it all. In 2006, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a sweeping global warming initiative into law. “His goal was to slow down global warming by cutting greenhouse gases in the state back to 1990 levels,” says MacElwee.
The Global Warming Solutions Act aggressively targeted 25% cuts in emissions through a number of initiatives, including regulating car emissions.

“It also set in motion a number of incentive-based agricultural programs that would make farming part of the climate change solution, instead of part of the problem,” MacElwee explains.

But the Act was just a first step. It took years for state and local agencies to “wrap their minds around” the implications of the rules, and set up programs for farmers that would essentially pay them to be better stewards of the land.

“For vineyards, we have established that there are a number climate beneficial practices, and we work with growers to ensure they understand them and we provide incentives so that they can begin implementing them,” MacElwee says. “Reducing or eliminating tillage is a big part of the program. We can map the farm, determine – based on the vineyards’ topography and soil – how much carbon can be sequestered per year, and determine how much value should be associated with it.”

All told, MacElwee estimates that they’ve dispersed “hundreds of millions of dollars to farmers since the program was up and running in 2014. Last year, there were some $66 million in incentives handed out to farmers.”

Those funds cover all manner of officially designated green upgrades, she adds, with the additional caveat that even with subsidies, “farmers will still have to foot some of the bill themselves.”

No till for improved soil health

And for some, no-tilling’s eco-creds is just a cherry on top of a delicious, soil-boosting sundae. “Initially, we began to incorporate no-till farming into our program to help with soil stability,” says John Pierini, vineyard manager and viticulturalist at J. Lohr Vineyard & Wines, with vineyards in Paso Robles, Monterey and Napa Valley.

“Cover crops of annual grasses that re-seeded early and didn’t grow a large biomass that would compete with the vines for water during the early spring months. The grasses would complete their life cycle early, leaving a nice golden mulch in our vineyard middles that would prevent dust and protect the soils from harsh solar radiation in the summer. The grass stubble also was great during the early winter when we would get our first rain events. We would have stable, less erodible soils, with dried root pores to help with rainwater infiltration.”

Pierini adds that by the no-till system encouraged the plants to grower deeper, stronger and healthier roots that have made them “less vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions, especially heat wave and drought. And when we’re blessed with large rainfall years like we had this winter, the soil is able to store much of the rainwater deep into the clay horizons where it will be available for the vines in the spring and summer months.”

The fact that the practice also helps sequester carbon is just an added bonus. Niki Wente, director of vineyard operations for Wente Vineyards in California’s Livermore Valley, agrees that the results speak for themselves. “We have been farming nearly all of our 3,000 acres no till for more than 10 years, and after three we began to see a difference,” Wente says. “We see less erosion and better soil porosity, which has helped us in both drought and excessive rain conditions.”

No-till farming “reduces or eliminates soil erosion,” according to in-depth studies conducted the Natural Resources Conservation Service, increasing the amount and variety of microbial life in the soil, which makes it more resilient and better able to support vine health during droughts and heat waves.

Smart farming … with a conscience

All of this virtuous short and long-term eco-boosting practice actually saves farmers money in the end. “We farm more than 4,000 acres in Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties,” says Dave Michul, president and COO of Beckstoffer Vineyards in the Napa Valley. “It’s what puts butter on my bread, and the bread of everyone else who works here. We take being stewards of the land very seriously, and if you don’t have a viable soil, you’re done.”

Over the past five to 10 years, Michul has been slowly but surely reducing or eliminating tilling in Beckstoffer’s vineyards. “We are at almost 90% no till now,” Michul says. “But not all soil is created equal, so on our heavy clay soils, we do some tilling. But on rocky, sandy loam and hillsides, there are no issues with tilling.”

No-till farming also saves money – requiring up to 80% less fuel and 50% less labor than tillage-based agriculture, according to the USDA. Both fuel and labor are issues that are increasingly on Michul’s mind.

“We have about 100 tractors in our fleet, and we’re slowly converting them to electric,” Michul says. “Soon, we’ll have four electric tractors, and then we’ll scale up. We’d like to move faster, but everything takes time.”

Time. If only we had more of it.

Between 2012 and 2017, the number of farms practicing intensive tillage declined by 35%, according to the USDA – and the number of farms reducing tillage increased by 11%. In a race against time, those numbers aren’t bad. But they could be much, much better.

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How a few changes to vineyard management could help save the planet

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