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Building Sustainability on a California Vineyard, Ranch

By Dave Sanden

April 4, 2017 - Matt Terry grows wine grapes in Tehama County. His small but expanding vineyard is an island of vines surrounded by rangeland that he uses for livestock production. He currently has 11 acres planted in Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovesse, Orange Muskat, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Zinfandel. This spring, he will plant an additional two acres in Aglianico and a half acre in Viura.

Terry has used various conservation practices on his land since well before he planted his first grapevine. In 2007, he developed a conservation plan with the NRCS​ in Red Bluff. Since then, he has used several programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to make conservation improvements on his land that benefit both natural resources and his operation. Currently, he is enrolled in CSP, which rewards farmers for documented stewardship of natural resources on their land and provides incentives to do more.

Terry got started with CSP seven years ago after completing his EQIP​ contract.

Because Terry had a conservation plan and had implemented many NRCS conservation practices, he was well prepared for CSP.

Over the years, Terry used NRCS​ technical and financial assistance to implement a suite of conservation practices on his land, including brush management, wildlife-friendly fencing, range planting, pipelines, watering facilities, upland wildlife management, and a pond for livestock and wildlife. In 2010, he signed up for a five-year CSP contract. In 2015 he extended his contract for another five years.

Through CSP, Terry receives annual cropland and rangeland stewardship payments to maintain his existing conservation activities to at least the level of the conservation performance identified at the time of the application for his contract period.

In his vineyard, Terry considers cover cropping his most important enhancement. From the start he has used cover crops because of their tremendous benefits, including improved soil health, water efficiency, reduction of fertilizer use, and pest control.

“I’ve been cover cropping from the very beginning,” Terry said. “I plant an acre or two every year. It’s been getting cover cropped between the rows as well as before we even get out there.”

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“That stuff is just working, and it’s not an expensive endeavor. The cover crops look pretty and nice, and they give such a huge benefit. A cover crop is better than a bag of fertilizer.”

- Matt Terry 

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Prior to establishing his first vines, Terry consulted soil survey information to determine where his best soils were. He then prepped the soils with cover crops, disking and mulching.

“When I first started I would cover crop and throw down about 200 pounds of fertilizer per acre to really get it pumped up and going,” Terry said. “In some years, I did not do that, and it grew pretty well without it due to residual nitrogen left over from the previous crop.”

Terry rotates his cover crops to get different benefits. “I use a legume mix and long-rooted, soil-penetrat­ing plants such as mustard and radish,” he said. “Nitrogen guys are sweet peas and vetch. Soil builders are your barleys. Radish and mustard have something in them that helps with nematodes.”

“That stuff is just working, and it’s not an expensive endeavor,” Terry said. “The cover crops look pretty and nice, and they give such a huge benefit. A cover crop is better than a bag of fertilizer!”

Terry still uses some fertilizer. “It’s mainly for the fruiting of the wine grapes, and it’s all dripped in at the base so it’s pretty efficient,” Terry said. He also adds wood ash amendments to his soil. “It mimics volcanic soils and gives you potassium and tons of trace minerals,” he said.

“The soil is quite different now, the consistency of it, and there’s a big-time difference in the organic matter from when I first started with hard compacting clay,” Terry said. “Now it doesn’t compact down at all. It has some give to it, and when it rains there’s no runoff and erosion like I used to have.”

Terry also noted that his practices are saving a lot of water because his soil holds on to it. “The biggest benefit of cover crops is water infiltration,” he said. “From the beginning I’ve seen it get better and better. The moisture that’s built up over the winter seems to last almost six weeks longer. It’s cut down the frequency that I water. I was not affected by the drought at all.”

Agricultural producers interested in CSP for the first time should contact their local USDA service center to learn more.