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Farming Is An Unnatural Act - A Tour Around McNab Ranch

Posted Sep 07 2008 2:11am

Revelations come at the most unexpected times.

We were standing on a gently sloping hillside in Mendocino, looking over the valley below with the sun warm on our backs and tidy row upon row of grapevines stretching out before us.

Dave Koball, eyes squinting slightly in the sun, gazed with transparent fondness at his domain — his creation, really, for he is the viticultural manager of all he was surveying — and casually, quietly, uttered his revelation.

“Farming is an unnatural act,” he said.

Okay, I know, that may not impress you as much as the biblical Revelations, but keep in mind we were at the culmination of a detailed tour of Bonterra Vineyards, replete with a meticulous explanation of the development of the sustainable farming initiative, the growth of organic viticulture, and the basic principles of biodynamic farming.

Throughout the day we were impressed by Koball’s intensity and devotion to the intricacies of sustainable/organic/biodynamic farming. One of our party was so taken by the idea that he congratulated Koball on “getting back to Nature with grape farming!” Koball looked at him for a moment, and then looked toward the vineyards, waving his hand to take in the whole valley, and said the revelatory line.

He asked us to look at the vineyard, then look at the open hillsides surrounding this magnificent little pocket valley in Mendocino, pointing out how orderly and precise and similar the vines were in the vineyard—and how utterly non-precise the hillsides were with their variegated hodge-podge of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of varieties warring with each other for space and sunlight.

“That’s natural,” he said, pointing to the slopes covered by grasses and flowers, dotted by single gnarled oaks and clumps of trees and underbrush. “That’s not,” he said, pointing at the vineyards.

According to Koball farming is nothing more than imposing hundreds and hundreds of exactly the same vines (“They’re nothing more than clonal replications of the same plant”) in a confined space and asking them to behave in the same way.

Nature hardly ever does that. Nature loves diversity. Nature loves the proliferation of many different plants and animals and insects and fungi, all furiously interacting with each other. Sometimes that interaction is obvious and direct; other times it is so complex as to be unfathomable. Koball’s goal is to farm these ‘unnatural’ vineyards, but do so in the same way that nature does, by encouraging — but controlling and directing — the diversity of the farm.

The first thing you notice on an organic/biodynamic farm, oddly enough, is the birdhouses. They seem to be everywhere you look, and in every possible form: gourds of all shapes and sizes, wooden houses swaying from branches high in the trees, perches atop posts, nests under eaves, everywhere. You can’t help but wonder why the vineyard is going out of its way to attract birds when most vineyards are spending time and money driving them away.

Then there’s the largest birdhouse of all, what the workers call the “Chick Mobile”. It’s a large chicken coop on wheels with a hauling tongue to hook onto the back of the ranch truck (which, this being a biodynamic ranch, runs either on natural gas or electricity rather than gas; the ranch tractors go one better: they operate on biodiesel — essentially, ‘vegetable oil’, which smokes like hell but is non-polluting to the vineyards.

If in his daily stroll around the vineyards Koball notices signs of cutworms, a frequent pest, he doesn’t spray with chemicals: he hitches up the Chick Mobile, tows it over to the area, and leaves it there for a few days. Chickens love cutworms. Pretty soon, no more cutworms. As an extra dividend, the chickens scratch incessantly at the soil, clearing it of weeds, doing the work a tractor would normally do, while at the same time leaving, er, biological residues to enrich the soil, something a tractor cannot do.

Then there are the sheep. During certain times of the year, Koball says, he’ll put the sheep out in the vineyards. They really don’t care for the grapes, but they do love the vegetation right under the vines, so they’ll nibble that off right down to the ground. Plus, their dainty, sharp little ungulate hooves tend to press holes in the soil, both aerating and pressing plant matter down into the soil. And there’s the biological residue again, of course.

Unlike more conventional farms, this vineyard is built to encourage wildlife. Koball builds habitat borders in certain areas to increase the diversity of plants in the vineyard, but also to attract certain beneficial insects to settle in and make a home. But there’s no reason that functionality can’t be beautiful too, so Koball makes sure the habitat borders are gorgeous to the eye. To the casual observer, they more closely resemble luxurious flower gardens than “habitat borders” but these are nothing more than designer drainage ditches.

Koball is also a proponent of beneficial insects. What are beneficial insects? Why, they are the insects that eat insects that tend to eat the vines. Ladybugs, for instance. While cute as, well, ladybugs, they are voracious eaters of mites and such that prey on the vines. And there are tiny, almost invisible little Mexican wasps that wreak havoc on other plant-sucking pests but leave the vines and grapes alone. So Koball’s vineyards, rather than being sterile and stern, are quite literally buzzing with life.

There’s also a thriving community of honeybees on the property, which Koball enthusiastically announces will yield their very own versions of different flower honeys for the workers.

Koball proudly points out the ranch olive groves, from which an award-winning olive oil is pressed every year. And the lavender fields, where a lavender harvest is conducted annually for oil and blooms.

Visitors often comment on the distinctive natural fencing around the organic vegetable garden and work area behind the Rose Tower, and Koball smiles and points out all the withing was done by hand from Golden Willow branches, then points to the Golden Willow trees that border the rock-lined drainage ditch leading to the creek. And casually mentions that the rocks all came from the property, as did the stones and wood that made the Rose Tower.

As he walks through the garden, he comments that most of the produce gets consumed by the workers, although they do use some of it for client dinners and such. Then he reaches down and snaps off the last few stalks of asparagus for the season and offers them to us to nibble away on.

This part of the vineyard is particularly beautiful to stroll in, for the gardener is something of a frustrated natural artist/sculptor, and each time I come back there is a new rock sculpture near the pathway, or a rusted iron and stone birdbath over in the flower bed, or an intricately woven bench made from the laboriously shaped branches of a tree.

On the stroll back to the winery building we weave our way through pathways crisscrossing the creek, now nothing more than a high-summer gravel bed but in the winter rain season a roaring mountain stream roughhousing through the deep cut banks and teeming with steelhead.

We pass by the lavender curing barn made of gray, weathered wood, with clumps of last year’s lavender hanging on strings, waiting for use in the sachet bags and floral arrangements. Under the lavender are curious bundled sheaves, which we discover are harvested and dried stalks of water reeds (cattails) that are stored until they are used in the vineyards. It’s standard practice when the vine canes start their growth spurts to tie them along the wire supports, training them to grow in the desired direction. Most vineyards use ‘twist ties’, the same thing you find in yard garbage bags and made of wire or plastic. But metal and plastic don’t biodegrade well, so Koball prefers to harvest and dry the water reeds and use the stalks as twist ties by moistening them and quickly twisting them onto the vines, and when they have served their purpose simply twisting and breaking the dried reeds and letting them fall into the soil to be recycled.

Standing this close to a habitat border, we can hear and almost feel the buzz of life, with visible clouds of insects flitting through the air, variegated butterflies wavering their erratic way through the flowers, and hummingbirds darting with frenzied thrusts and blurred wings. Koball suddenly flicks out his hand, calling us to him, saying, and “Look at this!” as he opens his hand to show us a tiny, almost invisible insect on his palm. He describes in great detail the genus and species and the purpose it serves in the vineyards, and how likely it will penetrate from the habitat border into the rows of vines. To us it is an indiscriminate little speck; to him it is a vital element in the grand diversity of the universe which is the vineyard.

At times, he explains, they will mow the cover crop between the rows to “flush out” the insects, stirring them up so they will perform whatever function it is they perform. At other times they will disc up the various cover crops — they use up to fifty different cover crops in the vineyards, some for summer and some for winter — to mix them back into the soil and return the nitrogen. The litany of crops is astonishing: crimson clover, fava beans and other legumes, rye, alyssum flowers, and on and on.

As an aside, Koball tells us the famous mustard, long favored in romantic vineyard photographs and subject of its own festival in Napa Valley, is now falling out of favor for cover crops because the particular shade of mustard flower yellow looks precisely like food to some hungry insects (which also explains why the once ubiquitous “No Pest Strip” was that curious yellow color!).

I learn that giant Japanese Daikon radishes are planted in the vineyards so the disking tractors can chop off the heads of the radishes and leave the huge roots to decompose in the soil, thereby both adding nutrients and giving aeration for the microbiological colonies thriving in the top layer of soil. I also learn that there are two distinctly different types of earthworms in the vineyards, each with its own function to perform. The horizontal earthworm is designed by nature to burrow just under the top layer of soil and create channels horizontally, where the vertical earthworm does a similar job but burrows up and down instead of from side to side.

Later, Koball loads us up into an open four wheel drive Jeep and we grind our way up the mountain and over the peak to Butler Ranch, a new development of six vineyards, all developed from the start along biodynamic principles, carved from the precipitous slopes of an old cattle ranch and haphazard fruit orchard.

The view across the valley is stunning, with the town of Ukiah at our feet. We can see Mendocino Lake nestled in its separate valley off in the distance, and the mountains stretch off in all directions as if there was nothing but mountains forever — even though the Pacific is only a few miles away to our west and the Bay is to our south.

Diversity applies here as well, with the vineyards designed with the hill and the trees and the flow of land and water. Standing in the bottom-most vineyard you feel the dead, still, enervating heat of the day. But only a couple of hundred yards away up the steep slope you can stand in another vineyard and shiver from the cold ocean winds that raise chill-bumps on your arms and suck out your body heat and make you wish you had not left your light jacket at the winery far below.

Koball explains that each vineyard is a different grape variety selected for the particular place and farmed individually according to its needs. As he talks we walk over to the water treatment facility (normal folks would call it a pond) and watch the fingerling fish dart around, and we selectively pluck newly ripened cherries from the trees remaining here and there from the fruit orchards which used to dominate this place. The cherries are plump, and sweet, and bright with reds and yellows, and we throw the pits on the ground. The apples are not ready yet, but we are curious about them, for they are not grocery store apples; they are small, lumpish, twisted, gnarled, more brown and speckled gold than red or green or yellow.

One of our group is so taken by the place and its peacefulness (and perhaps the excellent lunch we had earlier) that he lolls on the ground in the shade of an apple tree, puts his hat on his face, and takes an impromptu nap. Two others romp all the way around the pond, identifying the various fish, and talk about the eventual catch and the fine meals they will provide. Koball stands quietly, and smiles.

Finally we have to clamber into the Jeeps again and work our switchback way down the mountain, enveloped in gritty dust clouds of our own making when the wind shifts, Maybe it’s a metaphor for leaving the purity of the vineyard and returning to the real world. Or maybe it’s just what happens when you drive downhill on a dirt road and the wind is against you.

A few days later, I return to Bonterra to pick up some materials I left there. Along the road I see a solitary figure striding along at a regular vigorous pace. It’s Koball, and he’s out walking the entire vineyard, acre after acre. He gives a friendly wave, and keeps steadily striding along. And he has that same slow, quiet, peaceful smile he had on the mountaintop.

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