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A Little Bees With That Wine?

Bees Wine large imageBy: Tracy Robillard, Oregon NRCS Public Affairs Officer

From atop a hill at Illahe Winery, looking down across 80 acres of lush vineyards, there’s more to generate a buzz than just the wine.

That’s because this vineyard is teeming with pollinators like bees, beetles and butterflies – thanks to a unique conservation project.

Landscape photo Poppy row image
Pop Bee image Bee in a poppy

A vibrant mix of flowers (California Poppy shown here) planted in between every other grape row provides habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects.

Lowell and Pauline Ford, owners and operators of the vineyard, have a long history of land stewardship and grape growing. A couple years ago, they decided to try a new conservation approach on portions of the vineyard to provide pollinator habitat and establish native plants that were once a dominant part of Willamette Valley’s historical oak prairie landscape.

Lowell Ford












By working with their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff in Dallas, Oregon, and with help from the NRCS Plant Materials Center in Corvallis, the Ford family planted a custom seed mix in between every other row of grapes.

“I wanted to get native habitat back on to the farm, like the habitats that were here before the Anglos developed the land, when Native Americans used fire as a tool to manage oak prairie landscapes,” Lowell said.

Lowell was inspired to try this practice based on an NRCS publication from the Midwest about prairie conservation strips. He learned that strategically planting small patches and strips of native prairie plants into farmland provides multi-functional benefits to the land, such as:

  • Increasing soil organic matter Bolstering biodiversity
  • Slowing surface water runoff
  • Reducing soil erosion
  • Protecting water quality
  • Providing habitat for pollinators and beneficial insectsControlling pests naturally via beneficial insects

Staff at the Plant Materials Center created an experimental seed mix tailored to a vineyard setting. They planted the seeds on different sections of the vineyard during 2016. Staff continue to monitor the progress of the plantings as they tweak the formula. This collaboration is helping the Plants Materials Center develop the ideal seed mix for future vineyard projects in this region.

PMCplanting“There were several factors to consider when developing this seed mix for a vineyard,” said Amy Bartow, a soil conservationist at the Plant Materials Center. “We needed plants that are short, so they wouldn’t shade the grapes, and we didn’t include legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil so that it wouldn’t affect grape quality.”

“We chose plants that are historically native to western Oregon and created a balance of annuals and perennials that would persist for multiple years,” Bartow added. “We also chose plants that would bloom at different times of the year, so ideally we would have something flowering in the rows from March through November.”

Self-heal is a native flower to the region and provides pollinator habitat.A few of the flowers in the mix are sea blush, western yarrow, farewell to spring, pacific aster, western buttercup, and Oregon sunshine.

Growing pollinator strips in the vineyard does not affect pollination. Grapes are self-pollinating, meaning they don’t require help from a bee or other pollinator to flower. However, having pollinator strips integrated into the vineyard rows provides perfect habitat to support beneficial insects that control pests and are food for birds.

So far, the Ford Family is happy with the plantings, and they have noticed many more bees abuzz in the vineyard. They are also noticing more beneficial insects like lady bugs that help control pests such as aphids and mites.

Customers at the winery also appreciate the pollinator strips. Not only do they add a splash of color to the landscape, they also spark conversations about pollinators, ecology and conservation. For the Ford family, those conversations are a valuable tool for education and outreach, and they also enhance the marketability of their product.

The Ford family is no stranger to conservation. They have worked with the NRCS since the 1990s on a variety of voluntary conservation projects, such as planting cover crops, installing micro-irrigation and more. Over the years, they have demonstrated that conservation and agriculture is a win-win for people and for the land.

Oregon Sunshine