Practical Winery
58-D Paul Drive, San Rafael, CA 94903-2054
phone:415/479-5819 · fax:415/492-9325
This article is from the March/April 2004 issue of Practical Winery & Vineyard Magazine. Order current or back issues here.


March/April 2004

BY Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus has over 20 years of watershed, river, and wetland restoration experience, working extensively in the watersheds of northern and central California to restore fish and riparian habitat and repair erosion sites. Marcus is the author of the Fish-Friendly Farming Program, which she directs in the watersheds of the Russian, Gualala, Navarro, and Napa Rivers.

Grapegrowers, environmental and agricultural organizations, elected officials, and members of regulatory agencies gathered at Clos du Bois Winery (Geyserville, CA) in August 2003 to celebrate the first group of farms certified under the Fish-Friendly Farming (FFF) Program. The 20 newly certified properties encompass 10,000 acres in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, including vineyards.

Fish-Friendly Farming provides third-party certification that documents environmentally friendly land practices. The program addresses a number of issues that concern grapegrowers:

  • How to interpret and comply with the maze of state and federal environmental regulations, including the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act;
  • How to manage their lands using sustainable and environmentally beneficial practices;
  • How to distinguish themselves to the consumer and community as environmental land stewards

In Sonoma and Mendocino counties, FFF addresses a number of sensitive environmental issues. Among them are the need to improve water quality affected by “non-point” sources such as agriculture, and the need to restore the once famous salmon and steelhead fisheries in places such as the Russian and the Navarro rivers.

Agriculture, along with many other land uses, contributes to these environmental problems. However, unlike the permanent problems created by urban sprawl or large reservoirs, farms can change practices, restore creeks, and directly participate in improving rivers and streams.

Program origins
The Fish-Friendly Farming program was developed and is currently directed by this writer’s private firm — Laurel Marcus and Associates Guerneville, CA— of natural resource planners and scientists. The program has served more than 70 property owners and land managers with workshops since its inception in 1999. Feedback from participants has indicated their appreciation of the program’s flexible approach, solid scientific basis, and the fact that it was developed specifically for farmers. At the request of agricultural and environmental groups, the FFF program began in Napa Valley in January 2004.

Growers sign up for a series of four two-hour workshops held in January through March. They receive the FFF program documents, which include a thick binder of Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs), which serves as a reference manual, and a Farm Conservation Plan template, which is filled in and eventually certified for the property.

Each farmer receives a topographic map, custom color aerial photograph, and soil map for their site. The workshops review the BMPs, which are organized into elements — designing a new vineyard, managing the existing vineyard and replants, road repair and management, creek and river corridor restoration, and others. Each farm plan is different because it addresses the particular features of the property, and any needed changes.

Three-phase methodology
The farm plan follows a simple three-phase methodology:

  • Inventory the property and its current management regime;
  • Apply BMPs as needed;
  • Formulate an implementation program.

The farmer, assisted by the program, completes a detailed inventory of the natural and human-made features of the site. These include vineyard areas, past land uses, steep slopes, soil types and erosion hazards, existing erosion sites, all year-round roads (including those from previous ranching or timber harvest activities), vegetation types, the entire stream network from headwater creeks and hillside swales to the main creek or river, and water storage facilities.

Land management practices are also inventoried: including soil conservation practices, such as winterization with cover crops and use of erosion control measures next to waterways; vineyard road winterization and management; chemical use; water sources and conservation; vineyard drainage systems and their potential for eroding hillside creeks or need for upgrades in sizing; all year-round roads, including the condition and management of ditches, culverts, creek crossings, bridges and fords; and creek corridor management, including vegetation removal for Pierce’s disease. The entire property is inventoried in the farm plan, not just the vineyard, because regulations cover the overall property.

Coming into compliance
This extensive inventory is completed by program scientists through a one-on-one consultation with the grower or owner. Road and creek assessments are technical in nature and too great a burden for the grower to accomplish without assistance. However, due to the need for management in most road systems, the grower takes part in the assessment and in determining the BMPs and repair strategies to be applied.

For each element or section of the farm plan, the inventory and one-on-one field visit identify where the grower is currently implementing the program BMPs and where improvements are needed.

An assortment of improvements may be called for — from increased winterization and erosion control in the vineyard area, to major repair of old roads, to revegetation and restoration of hillside swales or creek corridors. For major projects, the program provides design and funding assistance and allows up to 10 years for implementation.
Funding for the program, including the implementation of larger projects such as road repair and creek restoration, comes from various state and federal sources such as the State Coastal Conservancy, State Water Resources Control Board, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A completed farm plan is a comprehensive document that addresses the particular needs that a property has to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, California Fish and Game Code, and local ordinances. For new vineyards, the plan revises the site designs to avoid impacts and costly mitigation that might otherwise be required under regulatory processes and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In addition to regulatory compliance, the BMPs reflect management measures that are sustainable and benefit the vineyard over the long-term. For example, vineyard development is discouraged on slopes in excess of 30%, on soils with a high erosion hazard or unstable areas. Integrated pest management, often incorporating cover crops and native plants, and decreased-to-no use of high toxicity chemicals is encouraged.

Multi-agency certification
Finally, the FFF program offers a third-party certification by three regulatory agencies — National Marine Fisheries Service, California Department of Fish and Game, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board — who have agreed to work cooperatively in reviewing each farm plan and judging it for completeness, accuracy, and a commitment to implement needed BMPs and projects.

Third-party certification from well-known agencies lends great credibility to the FFF program. Certified growers receive a letter from each agency recognizing their farm plan and actions as leading to compliance with regulations. Growers also gain access to the FFF trademark and marketing materials to distinguish their property for its environmental stewardship. The certification requires effort and a commitment by growers, and is recognized by environmental groups.

“Friends of the River supports the FFF program because of the large environmental benefits gained from cooperation with farmers and landowners in restoration projects and the comprehensive nature and sound scientific basis for the program,” says Betsy Reifsnider, executive director of the statewide river conservation group.

As the marketing phase of the FFF program grows, it is hoped consumers will also participate in environmental improvements through their recognition of the FFF program and selection of certified wines. Such wines will be distinguished through a combination of advertising, tasting room information, the FFF website, and other winery communication materials. There will be no FFF information on bottle labels.

Diverse initial group
The first group of growers certified under the FFF program is diverse. Small vineyards to very large ranches are included. Golden Vineyards in Redwood Valley and the King Ranch near Ukiah have large property holdings of 800 to 1,000 acres with vineyards of less than 80 acres. Small vineyards of five to 40 acres were also certified.
Wineries that have certified vineyards include: Simi Winery (Healdsburg), Clos du Bois Winery (Geyserville), Navarro, Greenwood Ridge, and Husch wineries in the Anderson Valley, and two Fetzer vineyards in Mendocino County. More vineyards owned by Fetzer and Bonterra are enrolled for the next certification round.

For Fetzer Vineyards, the FFF program added new elements to its ongoing commitment to organic farming and sustainability, “The Fish-Friendly Farming program rounded out our operation by bringing erosion control practices on roads and environmental enhancement and restoration projects to our streams,” states Tom Piper, Fetzer vineyard manager. “We’ve learned to go beyond accepting what we have to enhance it for fish and wildlife.”

An example of Fetzer’s environmental improvements is the installation of a basin to catch road runoff and reduce sediment in waterways within a new vineyard development.

Clos du Bois has completed restoration of Lytton Creek on its property near Geyserville by removing several rows of vineyard and replanting native riparian species, such as spicebush, box elder, big leaf maple, and oaks.
Clos du Bois is also involved in removing Arundo donax, or giant reed, an invasive grass that grows to 30 feet tall and has no value to fish and wildlife. The Arundo has spread to many locations on the main channel of the Russian River and requires several years of removal and re-treatment.

Vineyard manager Keith Horn explains, “Clos du Bois is starting a project with a local non-profit organization, Circuit Rider Productions Inc., to clear, chop, and compost the cut Arundo, to greatly reduce the cost of the project.”

Simi Winery has seeded several cover crop mixes, including California brome, meadow barley, molate fescue, Zorro fescue, and yarrow, to prevent soil erosion, and created a 350-foot-wide wildlife corridor along one-half mile of Maacama Creek in Alexander Valley. “This area has one of the largest and most ecologically diverse wildlife habitats,” says Alberto Zamora, Simi vineyard manager.

Simi planted native trees and shrubs to replace invasive non-native blue periwinkle and to enhance the creek for steelhead trout and the corridor for other wildlife. “Mountain lions, deer, raccoons, and many types of birds have been observed in the creek corridor,” reports Zamora.

For wineries in the Anderson Valley, the FFF program brings another benefit. While vineyards comprise only 5% of the drainage basin of the Navarro River, local environmentalists frequently name them as the prime cause of problems. Third-party certification helps to distinguish growers for their environmental stewardship efforts.

Navarro Winery has rehabilitated a former sheep ranch and planted thousands of redwoods on previously logged lands. Historic erosion sites have been repaired and old roads upgraded and repaired, while vineyards have been planted on less than 10% of its overall property. The vineyards are each separately fenced to allow wildlife access and movement to the restored forest and grasslands.

Greenwood Ridge Winery also has rehabilitated and revegetated a large, heavily logged-over, hilly property to protect fish and wildlife areas, while only 2% of the property is in winegrape production.

Future blueprint
The Fish-Friendly Farming program represents a future blueprint for agriculture in a California dominated by environmental concerns. As more grapegrowers volunteer for this certification program, they demonstrate the value the wine industry places on a healthy environment, and its commitment to sustainability for both farms and endangered fish.

For more information, contact: Laurel Marcus, 707/869-2760
To sign up for the program, contact: Sotoyome Resource Conservation District — Mendocino and Sonoma counties, 707/569-1448; or Napa County Resource Conservation District, 707/252-4188.