Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Tablas Creek Vineyards

Without previously knowing the term “regenerative agriculture,” Tablas Creek Vineyard(opens in new window), in Paso Robles, CA, has been using many regenerative practices since its inception in 1987. But their relationship to this style of farming goes back much further than that. The winery is the combined efforts of two leading families in the international wine community: the Perrin family (proprietors of Château de Beaucastel(opens in new window) in France) and the Haas family of Vineyard Brands (a wine distributer based in the U.S. with a focus on wines made using sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic practices). Château de Beaucastel is a wine-making estate that goes back at least to 1549. It has been run by the Perrin family since 1909, and Jacques Perrin was a pioneer of organic farming in the region, starting in 1950. Twenty four years later he brought biodynamic farming to the French vineyard with the intent of producing grapes that reflect the entire ecosystem in which they are grown including, as they say on their website, “the land, the animals, and the stars.” Respect for the health of the land and surrounding environment is a primary motivation—part of their philosophy of life—and Tablas Creek follows their lead.

Jordan LonborgBiodynamic farming is a holistic approach to agriculture developed by philosopher/scientist Rupert Steiner in 1924. Some consider the underpinnings to be esoteric as Steiner talked extensively about listening to the land and the spirit of nature. But ultimately it was his desire to merge scientific understandings with ancient knowing/wisdom. The approach views every garden or farm as a reflection of the whole which includes the fields and surrounding forests, plants, animals, soils, people, and the spirit of the place. Practices focus on preserving or restoring biodiversity, integrating animals, and additional on-site fertility practices such as composting, cover cropping, and crop rotation. All of these practices are part of regenerative agriculture as well.

Jordan Lonborg shared his experience working at Tablas Creek. As viticulturist for the property he works closely with the vineyard manager, the shepherd and the crews, is responsible for the bee program, and works with compost, soil health and fertility among other things. He learned about biodynamics after joining the winery in 2016. They had started working biodynamically only five years earlier on 30 acres of the land. Lonborg helped them convert the entire property—110 acres of grapevines and 160 acres of oak woodlands—to biodynamics. He helped them become Demeter-certified as biodynamic and then shepherded them through the process of becoming the first winery to be certified regenerative organic through Regenerative Organic Certified(opens in new window). The winery has been certified organic (but not regenerative organic) since 2003.

The Biodynamic Approach to Regenerative Farming at Tablas Creek

Biodynamic/regenerative practices used at Tablas Creek include a flock of 290 sheep and alpacas who are moved through the vineyard in a managed way to weed and fertilize it. The animals are considered the heart of their biodynamic approach but there are also interplantings of hundreds of fruit trees around and within the vineyards, compost made on site from prunings and grape must, applications of compost tea from the on-site compost, and natural pest controls such as 39 owl boxes placed around the vineyard. The property also includes sections of native vegetation left natural to attract pollinating insects and predators which are supplemented with their own hives of bees.

Lonborg says that expanding the animal flock so that the entire property was biodynamic improved the health of the vineyard significantly. “When I first showed up here, there were symptoms of disease and virus that were showing up really early in the year. And through nutrition of the vines provided by the animal herd, in the last couple of years both myself and the winemaker look at each other and say ‘It’s unreal that these vines are staying this green this far into the season!’ On a conventional scale you’re fertilizing through the drip or foliarly. So it’s all within that band of grapevines. But when you introduce animals into your operation, you’re fertilizing your entire property. Everything in between your grapevines. And there are roots, lots and lots of grapevine roots within those spaces in between the vines. So every inch of ground is getting its own bit of fertilizer. You can’t do that on a conventional level. So I think they [the animals] have greatly improved the fertility of this property.”

Of course, there is a downside to having sheep and alpacas in the vineyard. “The animals are only in the vineyard from probably November until bud break, about April. And in that time they are definitely chewing on the vines and grapes a little bit. The grapes aren’t around but they’re grabbing canes and pulling canes off of the grapevines. With moving through the blocks they’re always messing up the driplines and the wires. It drives our vineyard manager nuts! But I think there’s an acceptable amount of damage. They’re doing more good than harm, without a doubt.”


Dry Farming as a Regenerative Practice for Wineries in California

Because parts of California are increasingly prone to drought many farmers are exploring dry farming combined with cover crops for appropriate cash crops. But for Tablas Creek, this approach is used both because it suits the environment and because they believe it creates a better wine. It’s traditionally been done that way in parts of Spain and in the Southern Rhone. The Perrins have dry-farmed their grapes for generations. At Tablas Creek they watch for visual cues to know when to irrigate and do so very minimally, perhaps one to three times per year. The idea is to force the vines to put down deep roots, a practice that might be thought of as stressful but it also helps the plants be more resilient. 

“This year we ripped out some vineyard. Some of it was dry farmed, some was trellised. And we were really careful. We actually excavated the root systems in the irrigated vine versus the dry farmed vine and it was just night and day. Literally, the dry farmed vine has these long roots that extend out and go down and are vertical. The trellised vine goes 12 to 18 inches into the soil and then its taproot takes a 90 degree turn and shoots straight down the row. And every three feet you see roots coming off the taproot where an emitter would be. So if you don’t give a grapevine reason to keep driving its roots down into the ground it’s not going to. It’s going to follow the water for the most part. The goal here is to not allow that to happen and that requires reduced or minimal irrigation. We really want our roots to go as deep as possible. What we find is in dry farmed blocks are roots that are 10-15 feet deep easily. We have keyholes cut into the hillside next to the winery and you can see the grapevines that are 18 feet above you and in front of you are the keyholes with grapevine roots growing in solid limestone. They don’t need us! You get to the point when they’re that established and they don’t need to be irrigated at all.”

 The limestone that runs through their property acts as a sponge for holding moisture and nutrient. The clay content in their soils is also quite high and has the same effect in terms of water holding capacity.

Going From Biodynamic to Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)

Because biodynamic farming is already a regenerative approach there wasn’t a lot that Tablas Creek needed to change. But because ROC was a pilot program at the time, there was a certain amount of input the vineyard wanted to provide to that program as well as adjustments they were happy to make. One of the sticking points was around tillage. ROC, at that time, had a requirement for no-till but because Tablas Creek is dry-farmed on property in California that was quite different than the ones ROC based their requirements on, they convinced them to develop their system into one that included exemptions for tillage under certain conditions. “These standards were written by farmers from Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado. And these are guys who see rains throughout the year or precipitation. They have very different soil types than we have. We live in a semi-arid climate with heavy clay content in our soils and what applies to a farmer in Virginia doesn’t necessarily apply to a farmer here.”

On the other hand, Lonborg says that the interaction with ROC did help them make some adjustments. “We’ve looked at why we till and on trellised parts of the vineyard that we do irrigate, it’s definitely forced us to come up with a better method or a more valid reason to till when we do. Or timing of that tillage or depth of that tillage. Those are some changes we’ve made.” 

The most useful change that qualified them for ROC certification, however, was a little surprising. Social welfare is part of the ROC approach. And, in fact, care for the wellbeing of the people on the farm is part of the biodynamic philosophy as well. But that’s not codified in any way. ROC lays out guidelines for fair payment and positive working conditions that includes democratic organization, transparency and accountability. And that made a tremendous difference for Tablas Creek. 

“We’ve always treated our labor crews very well but there were certain things that we were missing. Communication was really the big one for us. And it’s been really amazing to see how much this property has evolved just bringing people to the table that in their culture and in this culture have never really had a voice! They are from a working class so listening to what they have to say and observations they make has been really powerful for us. In reality, they are the ones in the vineyard the most and they see more than any of us do. So when we finally brought them to the table to do team meetings once a week—when we finally started to give them a voice—they take more pride in what they are doing and they’re thinking about the tasks that they are asked to complete. Before they were just given a job and they’d do the job and another job and it just becomes this repetitive motion. But now the quality of work has gone up without a doubt. And small things: equipment maintenance has improved. Communication obviously between management and the crew has improved but communication between themselves has gotten a lot better as well. Before it was, if one person saw another person doing a job and they thought they could do that job a little differently or a little bit more efficiently they would typically just keep that to themselves because it would be viewed as a negative. There would be negative connotations to suggest a better way. But now we sit down at a table and we talk about it. It’s not taken personally as much anymore. So that’s been amazing!

“I think it’s impossible to quantify the cost savings that have evolved from these meetings on a farm scale basis. It’s one thing, I think, that people in regenerative agriculture tend to lose track of. They don’t realize the most important component of regenerative farming are the people involved. And it’s been a beautiful evolution here, for sure! It’s been the most powerful part of this whole process for us, without question.” 

Paco the alpaca and the sheep in the vineyard

Equipment Needed and Monitoring Results

Jordan Lonborg says they didn’t need to get any special equipment to go regenerative. “Animals are a huge component. They are the core of our regenerative program. They can do more for the soil than any implement you can imagine purchasing. We haven’t had to buy any equipment whatsoever for going regenerative. There’s equipment that we’re having to contemplate stopping using. We have a spader, a really aggressive form of vertical tillage. And it disturbs a little bit too much of the soil profile. They’re [ROC] really looking at you not going more than 3 or 4 inches deep into the ground. We’re still able to prep seed beds for cover crop but they are having trouble accepting the fact that we’re using that one implement. But it’s really interesting. One of the blocks that I soil sampled from was one that we spade consistently year after year from long before I was here and it actually had the highest return of carbon sequestered and organic matter.”

That’s why Lonborg has been trying to push ROC to use soil sampling as their standard, rather than having hard and fast rules about tillage. “With the ROC certification they require soil samples taken every three years. Other than the nutrients that they’re testing for, they are really looking at the amount of organic matter and carbon sequestration. So we send those samples into the lab at Cornell University. And they want representative samples taken from across the property. So we’ve taken samples from native ground that has never been farmed, dry-farmed ground that gets disked multiple times with multiple passes a year, ground that basically gets disked bi-annually, and then no-till type situations that we have here as well. We did our first soil sample at the beginning of 2019. We’ll do another one in 2022. And hopefully, we’ll start to see some measurable differences.”

Advice for New Regenerative Farmers and Students of Regenerative Agriculture

“Every time I give a tour or have a discussion with another grower—we get a lot of smaller growers and even larger growers coming to us and asking us about our practices—I try to be very clear that what we do is right for THIS property. Take everything I’m saying but with a grain of salt! It’s a very specific ground that we’re farming here and climate.” 

For Farmers:

“Stop using herbicides right away! That’s the first step. It’s all about soil health so stop using herbicides. . . That is hands down the biggest step. . . It’s not hard to do. It really isn’t. There are some amazing implements out nowadays that aren’t super expensive and they can do the job that herbicides can do pretty quickly, efficiently and easily. For vineyards there are certain implements like Clemens. Weed knives that cut an inch under the ground and just take the roots out of the equation. There are these radial head implements that will lightly till the soil between the vines. There are mowing attachments now that you can buy where there is no soil disturbance, you’re just mowing between the vines. And then new technology is coming out every year.” 

“The second step would be increasing biodiversity. So every time we have a grapevine die in the vineyard we plant a fruit tree. We have insectories throughout the property. Grow a bunch of beneficial perennial gardens on the property with native species. And then the rest will follow. Once you get into that mindset of no chemical usage and increased biodiversity, the rest will fall into place.  You’ll be like “What about sheep? What about goats?!” A slippery slope in the right direction. 

For Students Thinking about Jobs:

“There are definitely areas of the country that are more focused on regenerative farming than others. . . I would focus on areas like Oregon and northern California. I feel like I got so lucky with this position! I would focus more on finding vineyards that are certified organic and if they don’t have a regenerative program in place, be the person who takes them to that place. Companies that have sustainable certifications, they’ve got their toes in the pool so maybe look there first. If you apply to that position know deep down that that is where you want to take the company. The word “sustainable” has been so greenwashed it’s sad, it’s unfortunate, but whatever company it may be, that’s where their heads are at so they may feel that’s a direction they want to be moving in. So until this thing really takes off, maybe not look for a farm that’s already doing it. I would focus more on the company philosophy. What sort of certifications do they already have? If they’re conventional farmers and their minds are made up and they’re spraying Round-up, you can try to fight that battle. I have! But it doesn’t always work out and it didn’t for me. But if you see a company that touts a sustainable certification, target those companies and try to get in and push them towards that level of farming. If their head is there it’s going to be really easy to change their heart.”

“And once you start, you never really look back as a company! Once you go down that road and you start showing them that you don’t need herbicides and you don’t need these conventionally produced fungicides and you don’t really need insecticides, you find that there are ways of creating balance in a vineyard or a farm. Nature is way more successful at fixing itself than we give it credit for! It’s human nature to want to control everything. I think the second you start showing these property owners, these companies, that they don’t have to rely so heavily on these products it’s a slippery slope in the right direction! You can get them to cross into that world pretty quickly. If opportunities come up like this [at Tablas Creek], obviously jump on board, but there aren’t very many. Be the change! And propel companies into regenerative and organic farming!

Any Last Thoughts?

“We’re looking for a shepherd! [Job published January 2021(opens in new window)] No, wait, we’ve adjusted the title. We’re not looking for a shepherd—we’re looking for a Regenerative Lead. That’s really exciting.

“And just keep farming! Farm like the world depends on it!”

Long View of Tablas Creek Vineyards