Organic Agriculture – Farming in a Box

Our company has had the opportunity to utilize several different farming systems over the past 23 years. We have farmed organically, biodynamically and sustainably for a number of different wineries. We have had the opportunity to work with renowned biodynamic and organic consultants including Alan York and Nicolas Joly from Coulee de Serrant in France. Currently, the majority of our acres in the Central Coast are farmed sustainably and much of it is certified as such.

So what is the difference between these notable farming systems? I would propose that biodynamic and organic are subsets of sustainability. Sustainably certified vineyards are evaluated as to 3 specific criteria or pillars; Fiscal sustainability, social sustainability (wage and benefits, philanthropy, community involvement, etc.) and environmental sustainability. As we know, organic and biodynamic only deal with the environmental aspects of farming.

Sustainability considers the cumulative impact of one’s decisions. As an example; buying a Prius makes one feel good about saving fossil fuel and producing little if any greenhouse gas or pollutants. However, if we look at the cumulative impact of the production of this vehicle, in particular the manufacturing and disposal of the battery, we would find this vehicle has a larger carbon footprint than some hydrocarbon burning vehicles.

So why is organic agriculture farming in a box?

It is all about standards versus metrics. Its standards that but you in a box; If you adhere to a particular standard you can be organic if you do not you are out of the box. Sustainability on the other hand is all about metrics, so we can measure our progress. From the inside of the box adherents need to defend decisions and those decisions are simply black and white. There is no grey area; you are either in or out. This type of approach typically becomes outdated and ultimately mainstream, as a larger percentage of growers adopt it, many times as a marketing niche to compete with larger, more efficient companies. I propose it is far too simple for the complexities of nature. As an example:

Pierce’s Disease is a malady of grape vines without a cure. The attacking bacterium, Xyllela fastidosa, invades and clogs the vascular system of the vine similar to the effects of arteriosclerosis in humans. It is prevalent throughout the South, Southwest and western regions of the US and is a particularly problematic for vineyards adjacent to riparian habitat in Napa and Sonoma. Suppose an astute Sonoma County grape grower were to serendipitously discover that vines growing where deposits of pine needles had built up under the vine seemed to be immune to the disease while adjacent vines without the presence of these needles succumbed. Upon further trial it was determined that the needles indeed suppressed Pierces Disease. Suddenly everyone with the problem is spreading this “natural” remedy as mulch under their vines. Certainly, this would be considered an acceptable and approved certified organic practice. Ten years later growers are discovering that the pine needles, which are naturally high in sodium and chloride, are building up toxic levels of these salts in the soil. Meanwhile Monsanto has synthesized the molecule in the pine needles that inhibits the Xyllela bacteria. So, do you use the “natural” organic solution which is toxic over time to the soil or the new chemistry to manage the situation without the side effect?

Everyone practices sustainability; none of us wants to perish from this earth before our time. Some of us are farther along the continuum in terms of consciousness than others. The same is true with farmers. Certified Sustainable is not a competition between growers, it is an internal self-correcting discipline. It is not something you ever attain and everyone is at a different point along the continuum. The idea is to be able to measure improvement and that is where the metrics come in to play. Carbon footprint calculators, vine water status models, energy usage analysis and sustainability workbooks provide the basis for self-improvement and certification. The workbook products are particularly relevant as these self-correcting documents change when new farming techniques or metrics are developed.

One of the great aspects of Certified Sustainable is that you don’t have to defend your standards, as the pace of discovery accelerates and new peer review science becomes available, you self-correct. No defense needed!

– Steve McIntrye