So there's 7.7 billion mouths to feed. Not an easy task. The current way doesn't have a future. Literally. Obviously herbicides, pesticides, and other chemical treatments need to go. But what else needs to change?
Regenerative Agriculture is actually pretty self-explanatory. It reverses climate change by regenerating organic matter in soil (humus) and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon emission decreases and improving the water cycle. So you're not merely sustaining the land, you're improving it. Regenerative Agriculture is more than just a farming method, it is holistic land management system that utilizes photosynthesis in plants to make the carbon cycle a closed loop, enhancing soil health, crop resilience, and nutrient density. It's kind of like biodynamic farming's scientific cousin. By increasing the organic matter in the soil, not only are you increasing the amount of soil life, diversity, and health, but you're also increasing biodiversity above ground, maximizing the soil's water-retaining capacity, and keeping carbon in the ground (versus emitting it into the atmosphere). Interestingly, there's at least 3x more carbon in Earth's soil than there is in the atmosphere!
So how doe Farmer Fred accomplish all of this?
- He minimizes tillage, or doesn't till at all: Tilling pulverizes soil and fungal communities, adds excess Oxygen to the soil, and releases the Carbon Dioxide hiding underneath the soil's surface into the atmosphere. It dramatically increases soil erosion and carbon emissions. Tilling also makes the soil absorb less water and contributes to excess runoff. The less water our soil soaks up, the more we have to irrigate. So the less Fred tills, the more water he saves (we're running out of water, folks). When Fred minimizes/eliminates tilling, he enhances soil health, water permeation/retention, and carbon sequestration.
- Cover crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures: These practices restore the plant/soil microbiome while promoting the liberation, transferring, and cycling of essential soil nutrients. Artificial and synthetic fertilizers on the other hand, create imbalances in the structure and function of microbial communities in soils, creating an agroecosystem that is weak, lacks resilience, and depends on said damaging chemicals. That dependance has no longevity.
- Responsible grazing practices: On the animal side of farming, when Fred thoughtfully manages his grazing animals, he improves plant growth, soil carbon deposits, soil fertility, biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration. This enhances the health of the environment, the animals themselves, and the humans who consume the animals.
Ok, so what does this have to do with wine?
For starters, there's about 18.2 million acres of vineyards on earth. That's a lot of opportunity to combat climate change. And wine is a luxury product, so there's even more inherent social responsibility involved with a vineyard than there is with Farmer Fred's corn fields. We're getting rich people drunk here, not solving world hunger. And something tells me, Big Ag isn't going to make these changes, especially not with the current subsidy structure. According to the 4 per 1,000 initiative, we could put an impactful dent in atmospheric carbon dioxide if the carbon stores in soil’s top surface layer increased by 0.4% annually.
Enough about ethics and social responsibility. Let's talk about selfish hedonism. Remember Biodynamics? And how healthy soil is KEY to making fantastic wine. Although you might not be able to see the soil beneath the tall grass of a regenerative vineyard, the soil is actually healthy af because of soil microbe preservation, superior water retention, and abundant humus (decomposed plant material). With practices like Regenerative Farming and Biodynamics, yields may be lower in the near term, but soil health is a long term investment in the farm.
When you take care of the soil, the vine will eventually take care of itself. The best wines (and other crops) come from healthy soils. Why do you think that farmers' market peach tastes 100x better than the grocery store peaches? Plain and simple, holistic farming is better for the planet and better for our taste buds.
Both Regenerative Ag and it's doobie-rollin cousin, Biodynamics, create healthy soils and therefore healthy vines. And to reiterate, THIS IS CRUCIAL for growing excellent grapes. Remember yeasts? Particularly, indigenous yeasts? The one's that allow your wine to represent the time and place they came from? Yeasts native to the vineyard represent terroir best, which is the whole point of natural/low-intervention winemaking in the first place. And without healthy soils, there are no native/indigenous yeasts.
So when farmers don't take shortcuts and, instead, deploy Regenerative Ag and/or Biodynamics, they grow better wine, their vineyard continuously improves, and their farm is REGENERATING the environment. Powerful stuff.
If you're geeking out right now, I recommend:
- Film: Kiss the Ground (Narrated by Woody Harrelson, available on Netflix)
- The Textbook: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
Thanks for reading!
-Charlie O'Leary - Founder - Rampant Wine Co.