Sonoma County Sustainability is Better Farming

A letter from Sonoma County Winegrowers President, Karissa Kruse.

“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

As we begin the 2018 harvest, it is a good time to pause and reflect on our quest to become the nation’s first 100% sustainable winegrowing region in 2019.  Thanks to the efforts, commitment and beliefs of our 1,800 growers, more than 72% of the total winegrape acreage in Sonoma County is certified sustainable and 92% of the total winegrape acreage has completed the sustainability self-assessment – the first step in achieving certification – making 100% certification a real possibility.

Make no mistake, Sonoma County is a leader in the world’s wine industry and the greatest asset we have is the dogged determination of our local winegrape growers and their families.  They are outstanding stewards of the land they have the privilege to farm, they relentlessly support the communities they call home and they are focused on improving the lives of their agricultural employees and their families.

For these reasons, the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) efforts have been recognized by California Governor Jerry Brown with the State’s premier award for environmental leadership and highest environmental honor – the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA). This award recognizes exceptional leadership and notable contributions in conserving California’s precious resources while protecting and enhancing the environment.

Despite this tremendous commitment and voluntary effort by our growers, I am always surprised when I hear criticisms of our proactive sustainability program which is enabling our farms and wineries to continue to stay in business by being socially responsible, environmentally conscientious, and economically viable to ensure we positively impact our community and preserve agriculture here in Sonoma County.  Would they rather we stood still?

One of the few consistencies in farming is the need to make tough choices in order to continue operations. What to farm, when to plant, where to grow and when to harvest are some of the more common ones. Growers also have a choice of farming organically, biodynamically, sustainably or conventionally. So why did SCW choose sustainability? As a group, we wanted to take the broadest approach to farming and managing our business. The sustainability certification programs we work with require a holistic assessment of the business that includes economic, social and environmental factors, continuous improvement and third-party audits. For example, our most common certification program, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (Certified Sustainable) emphasizes more than 45 best practices that support climate change mitigation such as energy efficiency, water monitoring and conservation and greenhouse gas reductions, while also incorporating best practices for supporting the health and well-being of employees and their families. We believe that these social and economic best practices are essential to the future viability and success of our multi-generational family farms. As a result, we work with many growers who both farm organically and have a sustainability certification. The two are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, all of our growers, regardless of farming philosophy, have to make the trade-off on a regular basis of calculating their carbon footprint with the use of materials or manpower.

Farming isn’t easy.  One grower laments that the reason it is called farming is because “gambling” was already taken.  Let’s be clear, every year the farmers in Sonoma County do the best job they can in responding to Mother Nature and ensuring their business survives the season.

Does sustainability make for better farming? Yes! The program requires an annual improvement plan so that each year, better practices are implemented.  Here are just a few sustainability success stories:

  • In early 2018, as soon as Steve Dutton learned that Mancozeb was on the Certified Sustainable red list, he stopped using it that day. Something that wouldn’t have necessarily been on his radar if he wasn’t actively involved in his sustainability program.
  • Duff Bevill, of Bevill Vineyard Management, specifically installed solar on his own ag property and has been working with clients to install solar as part of their sustainability improvement plan. This has helped Duff become “net zero” in his energy use on his ag property.
  • At Marimar Estate one major change that was implemented is shifting to no till farming on 65% of the blocks. No till farming is a way of growing crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. No-till is an agricultural technique which increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil thereby increasing organic matter retention and cycling of nutrients in the soil. In addition, they are working with Gold Ridge Conservation district on soil improvements.
  • Through the Fish Friendly Farming program alone, more than 200 miles of dirt roads and 92 miles of river and creek corridors have been assessed and best management practices applied. The primary water quality problem in Sonoma County waterways is not pesticide runoff, but too much fine sediment, so when the growers repair their roads they directly improve water quality for salmonids and other wildlife.
  • In 2019, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation launched a Vineyard Employee Sustainability Recognition program that has growers from around the county nominating their employees for leadership awards that support the incredible work they do on our farms every day. This is in addition to the $1,000,000 raised to support Ag families after the fires.

The reality is that sustainability is a voluntary program which the winegrape community in Sonoma County has fully embraced. Over the past four years, we have also seen a number of local wineries showing their support for sustainability by paying growers a premium price for grapes grown in certified sustainable vineyards.

Sonoma County Winegrowers are extremely proud of our success and we will continue to develop the most innovative sustainable strategies to ensure its continued success and the preservation of agriculture in Sonoma County.  We will never stand still.


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