Some Good News in Vineyard Regulations

Napa Valley Grapegrowers hear about current and planned government rules

by Paul Franson
Michael Wolff of the University of California, Davis, reported on a study at the Oakville Experimental station, which revealed that minimal tillage and cover crops produce the least amount of greenhouse gases, although such practices may not increase yield.
Yountville, Calif.—Business owners tend to hate rules and regulations, and grapegrowers are no exception. Nevertheless, a room full of vineyard owners and managers managed to get to the Yountville Community Center by 8 a.m. Thursday for a summary of recent and potential rules and regulations that affect their businesses.

Among the proscriptions, the attendees did hear some good news—and some unexpected and possibly surprising information about the environmental impact of machine harvesting, irrigation and organic growing.

The seminar was one in the series sponsored by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, but some of the information applies to other California regions and even the whole country.

Crop insurance
Many grapegrowers probably think of crop insurance as something for corn or soybean farmers in the Midwest, but it’s valuable for grapes, too. It can protect against losses from bad weather such as frost, freeze, wind, drought, excessive moisture and certain diseases and pests, but not Phylloxera.

In addition, if a weather-related event damages your irrigation supply or renders your insect or disease controls ineffective, you may also be covered. Even if the value of your crop is just reduced, you may be eligible for compensation.

For the basic 50% catastrophic coverage (CAT), the premium is paid in full by the USDA, with growers paying a $300 application fee per grape variety grown.

For higher levels of coverage up to 85%, a significant portion of the premium is paid by government subsidies.

Nord Vineyard Services co-owner Julie Nord, who has been purchasing crop insurance for more than 10 years said: “Crop insurance has changed over the years. I used to buy just the catastrophic level, but after looking at the coverage, I now buy at the 70% coverage for 100% of the crop price. I was able to buy $500,000 in coverage for only $15,000. I slept better after the 5 inches of rain knowing I at least had a backup if the grapes didn’t weather the storm. The crop insurance check arrived before many of my grape payments.”

In addition, if a region is declared a disaster area, the federal government can require that you have catastrophic crop insurance coverage before providing additional assistance. If you have not signed up for at least the minimal coverage, you are not likely to receive any assistance.

The deadline to apply is Jan. 31,2014. Napa County growers can call the Solano/Napa office of the USDA at (707) 678-1931. For more information about crop insurance, contact a crop insurance agent. You can find agents at rma.usda.gov/apps/agents.

However, another representative from the USDA had to report that he couldn’t say much about the USDA disaster-relief program since Congress has not passed a new Farm Bill.

Grazing in vineyards
Many growers use sheep to tend their vineyards. Morgan Doran, a University of California Cooperative Extension agent, reported that almost no regulations cover this practice, though water quality and erosion regulations might apply if you have sheep in fields more than 45 days per year or have more than 100 animals.

Burning regulations
Growers are increasingly chipping and composting clippings rather than burning them, but stringent rules do apply to burning.

These include applying for a permit at the cost of $98, notifying the burn hotline to ensure there’s no prohibition in effect and keeping the pile to 17 feet diameter (about the length of a Volkswagen bus, noted speaker Paul Grazzini) and 11 feet high. Businesses and residences can’t burn landscaping and garden debris, milled lumber or tubing, and they can’t start before 10 a.m. or generate smoke after sunset.

Air and water pollution
The industry faces the potential for new and tightened rules about air and water pollution and water use, but for now, actions the industry has already taken voluntarily and vacant regulatory positions have at least postponed some action.

Hal Huffsmith of Trinchero Family Estates sits on the Napa County Climate Action Plan advisory committee. He reports that though a plan was first proposed, the wine community was able to convince the Board of Supervisors that efforts the industry had already made to reduce pollution like adoption of solar energy and minimal tree removal for planting vineyards had made future efforts unneeded for now. Resignation of key personnel put immediate changes on hold.

Jim Verhey is on the Ground Water Resources advisory commission. The state is moving toward regulation of groundwater, but Verhey reports that the county recognizes that industry efforts like voluntary monitoring of well water level have uncovered no concern in the Napa Valley floor with water quantity.

However, the east Napa MST area water table is dropping (though a pipeline is being built to bring it recycled water, as is being done in the Carneros area), and Carneros suffers from salinity incursion while the area north of Calistoga has boron in its groundwater.

Verhey is seeking growers with wells in the mountains and outlying areas to agree to monitoring. He says it won’t set any precedent for future regulations as far as he knows.

In addition, most growers are adopting practices to minimize water use including minimal irrigation.

Grower Bill Hanna reported that environmentalists have derailed plans to offer waivers on river and stream quality for adjoining vineyards in spite of the Napa River restoration, removal of fish barriers, mandatory erosion-control plans of growers and stabilization of dirt roads undertaken by the industry.

He reported that participation in the Fish Friendly Farming, Napa Green and other voluntary programs could send a strong message to the Legislature and state regulators, and he encouraged all growers to sign up.

Laurel Marcus discussed the Fish Friendly Farming program, its success and reinforced how participation could forestall regulations.

Applying PD funds to fighting red blotch
Pam Bond of Swanson Vineyards, who sits on the state Pierce’s Disease-Glassy Winged Sharpshooter Advisory Board, reported that the panel is deadlocked over transferring funds to research and fight the spreading red blotch virus. “Some members in Southern California don’t even know about it; it hasn’t hit them yet,” she said.

She added that having specific proposals to fund would help free the money. Negotiations continue.

Tradeoffs with the environment
Finally, two researchers shared studies about air-quality tradeoffs.

Michael Wolff of UC Davis reported on a study at the Oakville Experimental station. From a complex study, he reports that minimal tillage and cover crops produce the least greenhouse gas emission compared to regular tilling and no cover crop. However, it may not enhance yield.

He also noted that most vineyards emit little methane or nitrous oxide, the most damaging greenhouse gasses. And he recommended returning clippings and pomace to the soil and minimizing the use of nitrogen additions.

Perhaps the most provocative report came last. Dr. Kerri Steenwerth of the USDA Agricultural Research Service conducted origin-to-sale studies of the impact of various processes used to grow grapes.

She found, surprising even to her, that use of fossil fuels in transport and power generation for pumps and lights overwhelmed other factors.

Irrigation, hand harvesting and organic practices with repeated operations appear worse for emissions than machine harvesting and conventional farming.

She also found grapegrowing in Lodi more environmentally favorable than in Napa with its low yields, intensive hand operations, hand harvesting and widespread organic practices. Needless to say, more studies are under way.

Get more information about the group’s upcoming seminars at napagrowers.org.

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