Incorporating Ovines with Vines: A New Approach to Sustainable Farming in California's Wine Country

April 24, 2023

By Graham Thompson

Graham Thompson, the Director of Business Development at Bluewhite, is a highly experienced professional with an extensive background in agriculture and engineering. He completed his studies at the Wiltshire College of Agriculture and went on to work for John Deere for 35 years. During his tenure at the company, he held various positions in customer support, marketing, and product/portfolio planning until August 2020. Apart from his professional endeavors, Graham is also an avid farmer and manages a regenerative family farm in Iowa during his spare time.

Sheep grazing between the rows of vines in a vineyard or underneath the trees in an orchard is a very picturesque scene. It reminds me of the farming practices I experienced from childhood. I remember the traveling shepherds who would bring their sheep to graze the borders of local farmers’ fields and common ground.Today, several vineyards in California’s wine-growing region are incorporating sheep grazing to supplement other floor management practices.These wine growers are turning to the practice of ‘mixing it up’ and incorporating livestock to grow healthy animals, healthy soil, and healthy vines. But is it that simple?

Incorporating livestock is not for everyone. A farming colleague of mine from Iowa remains adamant that the best day he had on his farm was the day the last animal left, and from that point forward he has produced a rotation of corn and soybeans for the past three decades, many of those years have been highly profitable. Why would a grower want to bring livestock back to the farm?

In the case of vineyards, sheep provide a unique symbiotic relationship. Sheep are natural mowers of the grass underneath the vines and between the rows. For those growers adopting regenerative practices of cover crops, they are still challenged with weed control under the vines. Well-managed sheep grazing can provide effective weed control across the whole vineyard floor from the time that the leaves fall to the spring when the buds burst. Sheep grazing reduces the weed pressure ahead of the growing season. The sheep are generally removed from the vineyards in the spring to avoid the sheep eating the valuable wine leaves, buds, and grapes. Sheep are also natural fertilizer distributors, their manure pellets are teeming with beneficial bacteria and microflora which dissolve into the soil, improving the health of the soil and the vines.

So why was my farming colleague from Iowa so pleased to see the last animal off his farm?He has just returned from his regular winter break in Florida because he can. He is home in time to set up his planter ready for corn planting as soon as the soil warms. Livestock, however, is a 365-day commitment. It is also a completely different responsibility and knowledge base that the wine grower might not have. Yes, sheep look very picturesque in the vineyards, but there are numerous management responsibilities from providing a mobile drinking water source, perimeter or movable fencing, predator control, de-worming, vaccinations, mating, lambing, tailing, castrating, weaning, to shearing. Also, there needs to be alternative grazing management when the sheep are removed during the wine-growing season. And don’t forget, we need a sheep dog and a separate home for the ram! One approach for the wine grower could be to partner with a sheep farmer and agree on the cost to graze their sheep in the vineyard, sheep-as-a-service. This alleviates the livestock management responsibility for the grower, and it provides an ample food source for the sheep farmer, a win-win.

And yet there are other forces that might drive increased incorporation of sheep in the vineyards, and that is market forces. Where there is livestock there are benefits to local communities from jobs to food sources. There are opportunities for wineries to promote their sustainability practices; by incorporating perennial grasses and cover crops that reduce carbon, a reduction or elimination of herbicides, reduced or eliminated tillage, and sheep that area natural manure source benefitting soil and plant health, and wine quality.Some wineries are promoting and marketing their practice of sheep incorporation, taking them on a journey that is much closer to the terroir!

On our small family farm in Iowa, we don’t have a vineyard, but we have recently embarked on this journey to incorporate livestock. We have established our first orchard of chestnut trees, a permanent crop that grows well in the sandy well-drained soil that we have. The trees are spaced at 30 feet, in rows 35feet apart. In 2021 we started our flock of pedigree Katahdin sheep, and we are now grazing these sheep successfully between the tree rows. Our natural mobile mowers and manure spreaders are doing a great job and have also just provided a200% crop of lambs. Our goal is to generate two incomes per acre from nuts and lamb, by ‘mixing it up’, growing healthy animals, healthy soil, and healthy trees, and commanding an increased price for the lamb and the chestnuts. And no, we cannot spend winter in Florida, instead, we prefer to be on a diverse, living farm, 365 days a year!