Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: On Climate Change

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I live on the front lines of climate change. The driest winter on record followed by early bud break, then record breaking heat and early bloom. Meanwhile, the worries of summer will include empty reservoirs. Hello spring of 2014.

No grass in winter meant no sheep grazing in spring when the hills finally greened. A weekend of monsoonal rains filled up dry reservoirs in mere days and kept the vineyards muddy and unworkable for weeks while the grass grew unchecked. As a result, I’ve been struggling to get my vineyards under control; it’s been too wet to get tractors in to do the mowing and cultivating and undervine cultivating that it takes to keep the grass from outcompeting the vines – what we call “floor management.”

A few weeks after the Pineapple Express, we were rolling along with said floor management when a surprising storm dumped more than expected – a tenth of an inch in the forecast, we got almost three-quarters.* The ground was too wet to get back in with equipment for a week and a half. In that time, the weather warmed up and I watched helplessly as the grass took over the vineyards, growing into the fruiting wire practically overnight.

Spring has always been a fickle mistress, but these weather extremes are beyond the pale. In little over a decade at RSV, I’ve seen the worst frosts in thirty years, both the wettest and driest years on record, and lost entire crops to freak late spring rains or early harvest heat waves.

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Farming has always been about dealing with weather extremes, but we had a general norm, a sort of format for the farming year. We used to be able to rely on what the weather normally did – it usually rains during winter, it usually dries out around mid-May, it’s usually dry for the month of September. We used to be able to plan our farming around it, with some minor (or occasionally major) variations. But there was a pattern, a rhythm we could follow as we worked through the seasons to bring our crops to fruition.

But this brave new world of climate change is all about being prepared for the erratic. The new normal is no normal – I can’t depend on what usually happens or when things are supposed to happen. Perhaps it just won’t rain at all for the months of December and January. And it’ll be a record-breaking 100º F in April. And we’ll have a monsoon in September. I just have to wait and watch the forecast like a hawk, have all my ducks in a row and be ready to move. Then roll with the punches every ten days. It’s maddening. I’m growing more amazed each year as we finally make it to harvest and there’s actually grapes on the vine to pick. And as modern society drags its feet and continues to pollute the system, as unreliable nature becomes even more erratic, I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to bring in any crop at all.

 

*On the flip side, if it’s going to rain, I’d rather have it really rain – it saves me an irrigation and gives the vines a healthy water status going into bloom. This will help the flowers set and make lots of little grape babies. It just means that the vineyards will continue to look abandoned as I wait for the ground to dry out.

 

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.