Dry Farming and Drought

Sep 19, 2021

Simply put, dry farming means no use of irrigation water, and relying solely on natural precipitation. This is an old-fashioned, labor-intensive way of farming. In Dry Creek Valley, this method has traditionally depended on the Mediterranean climate here in Sonoma, which provides dry summers and wet winters.

 

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How does drought effect winery operations?

Our dry farmed estate old vines rely on winter rains to replenish the soil profile and get us through the season. This year (2021) we had very little winter rains, but water management can go beyond water use or input. Canopy management techniques are used to reduce water stress, these might include:

  • reducing crop load
  • shoot thinning and suckering
  • nutrient management
  • soil and vineyard floor practices

In some ways the drought has really shifted our thoughts and practices to regenerative farming. Our goal is to store as much precipitation from winter rain in the soil as possible, as well as encourage root growth down to the water table source. This practice is also called dust mulching, wherein you cross cultivate to seal the moisture into the soil. Sometimes when worry sets in, I think about how these vines have been in the ground since 1927 and they have seen their fair share of drought and stress, yet they keep producing year after year.

Are dry farming practices better at protecting crops against drought?

Yes, with the threat of wells being shut off, or highly monitored, it is safe to say that dry farmed old vine blocks can weather the drought. Vines that are irrigated cannot handle being suddenly shut off from water, their root systems are generally too shallow, whereas dry farmed roots go deeper to the water source, but that takes time.

Will more vineyards start using dry farming techniques?

I believe this is the way we are going. Water restrictions in the City of Healdsburg now prohibit automated irrigation, including sprinklers or drip, for all residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Small family vineyards like Nalle Winery can transition over, but massive operations with acres on the wire and irrigated will have much more trouble transitioning to dry farming. Dry farming is a completely different farming model and yields a lot less fruit.

What are examples of sustainable agriculture practices?

Nalle Winery has focused on land preservation and sustainability for over 93 years. Thankfully sustainable practices are becoming the norm, but in my opinion the old timers around Sonoma County have always kept the next generation in mind. Almost all farmers in our area are very conscious of sustainable farming, it is a philosophy that runs deep here in Dry Creek Valley. Examples of sustainable agriculture techniques we currently utilize include:

  • Compost tea applications
  • Vineyard floor management
  • Mulching

Additionally, any grapes we source are from families who are generational farmers and radically regenerative. The Bernier Family farm the Bernier-Sibary block that has been utilized by Nalle Winery for over 25 years. They mulch, dry farm, and use compost religiously. The Hopkins Family provides Pinot to Nalle Winery and are very active in environmental protection.

We are also moving towards permanent cover cropping in some of our blocks.

In regard to energy consumption, our electricity bill is less than a single-family home. It can get up to 107 degrees outside in Dry Creek Valley, but the temperature in our above ground cave will naturally stay 56 degrees. The building was completed in 1990 and requires very little maintenance, and the cave’s living rosemary roof is a bee sanctuary for sure! Learn more about our above ground cave here: https://www.nallewinery.com/the-cave/

About The Author

April earned her Masters of Viticulture from the University of Adelaide in Australia. Today she enjoys tending the Nalle estate old vine vineyards with love and sustainabile practices. Click here to learn more about April and the Nalle crew.

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