Next-generation agriculture plants seeds of innovation for Wine Country farmers
North Bay farmers seeking survival of their crops and vineyards amid drought, weather extremes and other forces may discover their best solutions are grounded in next-generation agriculture.
Area vineyard tenders and produce providers are using the latest technology, from a Canadian manufacturing plant to the work benches of Sonoma and Lake counties. The North Bay Business Journal examined three such next gen agricultural products.
Essentially, healthy ag operations lead to bumper crops for farmers trying to preserve their way of life for their children and their kids. It takes knowledge, willpower and money to run a successful farm and vineyard blocks. But the alternative of doing business as usual is costlier, industry insiders say. A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey in May showed the nation lost about two-thirds of its 6.8 million farms since the peak in 1935.
“In the long run, yes, it’s absolutely costlier to do nothing. We’re trying to help the family farm and make it so the next generation won’t have to reinvest in the vineyards. I’m lucky my kids like the family farm,” Dutton Ranch President and co-owner Steve Dutton said. Otherwise, letting the land fallow and starting over may amount to a “$40,000 to $50,000 an acre” investment.
Dutton is taking part in a pilot program managed by the Sonoma County Winegrowers that’s helping seven farms and vineyard growers maintain soil health.
Within the association’s pilot partnership, San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis — an international marketer and distributor of agricultural products with a facility in Healdsburg — has combined a modern approach with an old mining technique.
A sensor resembling a cylinder created by Ontario, Canada-based SoilOptix is attached to farm equipment that travels across rows of vines collecting gamma rays emitted from the soil. The electromagnetic radiation measures and maps out soil moisture, nutrients and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, which the device detects up to a foot below the surface.
The goal is to improve the dirt’s organic matter — the primary principle of regenerative farming.
“I was surprised it was able to give data about organic matter,” Dutton said.
Prior to this method of analyzing the soil, crop farmers and wine grape growers were required to dig pits throughout the property to determine the soil viability.
“It’s important to understand the texture of the soils. The information we produce with this technology will help, even if the driest of conditions continue for years,” SoilOptix Global Support Manager Zach Harmer said, referring to California’s extended drought period.
Joining Dutton Ranch, Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, Redwood Empire Vineyards, Munselle Vineyards, Sanchietti Farming, Vimark Vineyards and Robert Young Vineyards have signed on with the pilot announced by the association in July during its inaugural “Farm of the Future” summit. With the collaboration two years in the making, the pilot is intended to last at least five years.
“These farms are looking for ways to increase the longevity of their investment. With 95% of the vineyards here still family farms, regardless of what happens with Mother Nature, they’ll have the ability to pass on the farm to the next generation,” Sonoma County Winegrowers CEO Karissa Kruse said.
The grape grower trade group executive added, “It takes time to change the composition of the soil,” while standing outside her Guerneville Road office adjacent to Dutton’s Sunny View Vineyards in Santa Rosa.
Kruse was overseeing a recent SoilOptix sensor demonstration over the 17-acre site in the Russian River Valley, home to some of the most acclaimed pinot noir on the planet.
Like the temperamental nature of this varietal, soils vary by climate, topography and terroir. Sonoma County, in particular, boasts 19 American Viticulture areas and microclimates — with more soil types than France. The gamma readings represent a history of DNA in the soil — with Sonoma County providing a living lab for agriculture stakeholders from which to learn and make critical changes when tending to the farm.
Going deep with irrigation methods
Among other next gen ag innovation is a company collaboration run by two brothers, Jeremiah and Jeff Ciudaj, who grew up in Angwin. Now they run Deep Root Solutions in Middletown out of Lake County and Deep Root Irrigation in Burlington, Iowa, respectively.
Their dual companies manufacture and distribute a device that injects water and fertilizer deep in the root zone. Their findings show using the wand-like device to supply water to the crops cuts usage in half.