What It Means to Farm Dirt

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It’s all about rich, fertile earth that plants love to sink their roots into. Who doesn’t love good, tilled soil? The luxurious smell, the way it crumbles willingly between your fingers?

There’s a point in the year when the heavy clay soil of RSV’s Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard feels like a moist brownie under my feet – firm, yet giving. Rich and brown and tasty for all the tiny flora and fauna that live within its realm. This is my responsibility – to steward this earth, maintain its structure and richness for the life within. For it is this life that gives life to my vines – the activities of those tiny creatures, their living and breathing and dying, that makes a symbiosis of nutrients available to the roots of my grapevines.

Such well-tended soil also helps the weeds to grow. Thus, spring is generally spent battling grass – tall wild oats and rip-gut brome and bristly ox-tongue – tangling up the trunks and into the cordon. I have a small army of tractors wielding sharp, bladed implements – mowers and spaders and undervine cultivators. One of the reasons we graze sheep in the winter at RSV is that they make mowing passes with minimal compaction while it’s too wet to get a tractor in to mow. All this while spreading fertilizer at the same time. It’s a fabulous solution.

Deploying at the right time is critical – too soon, the grass just grows right back and we have to make more passes. Too late and the grass is so tall and tough that none of my implements are sharp enough. Moisture in the soil is also important – too wet and my tractors sink into the mud, compacting the soil and squeezing out all the spaces where air and water make microbial life possible. Compaction literally kills the soil. Too late and my poor tractor drivers’ kidneys take a pounding as the implements struggle to pierce the concrete of dried heavy clay soil. Timing is critical.

credit Debby Zygielbaum

credit Debby Zygielbaum

In slightly over a decade at RSV, I have watched the heavy clay of Scintilla Sonoma Vineyard change. In the early days, mud made moon boots out of my winter wellies – high magnesium content making the clay extra sticky and almost un-removable. (I spent much time kicking heavy clay-bottomed shoes to no avail.) But, over the years, as we’ve added soil amendments to counteract the mag, cultivated with the right implement at the right time, grazed and mowed, we’ve taken this young soil and helped it to develop better tilth and friability. Which means the mud no longer sticks to the bottom of my shoes in three inch high additions in the winter.

And people ask me why I call myself a dirt farmer. Every time I get that question, I wish I could take them for a quick jaunt down the winter-time soil of my vineyards – both a decade ago and now – as a healthy dose of mud on one’s soles is worth a thousand words.

 

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.