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Water Into Wine: Interview with water steward Mike Benziger

When Mike Benziger and his family began growing grapes and making wine in 1970s-era Sonoma County, the prevailing agricultural style could be described as “scorched earth.” Agrichemical concoctions fed the vines, killed the pests, and flattened the weeds; plentiful well water provided easy irrigation. But such practices not only kill soil, they also deaden wine. Over time, the Benzigers began to rethink modern viticulture. One motivation was improving the product, making it stand out from the gusher of wine coming out of Sonoma. Another was the sinking water table on Sonoma Mountain, where the family keeps its vineyards. Faced with surging water costs, the family began searching for new farming methods that didn’t treat water as a cheap and easy resource. Thus started an odyssey that inspired the family to convert its Sonoma property to biodynamic growing practices in the mid-1990s — and that named Mike Benziger as a Water Steward in NRDC’s second annual “Growing Green” awards.

Animals are integral to biodynamic farming. What kind of animals are on your farm?

In biodynamic farming, you try to eliminate the use of inputs by enabling natural systems, through use of  plants and animals. We use plants as habitat areas to bring in good insects that eat the bad bugs, which eliminate the need for pesticides, and we bring in the caretakers of soil biology and that eliminates the need for fertilizer. So we have cows, which provide the manures for our compost, and sheep, which are out in the vineyards every day during the fall, winter, and the early part of spring. With every step, sheep do three things: they eat, they shit, and they till. They’re pretty cool animals and they really invigorate the soil biology by keeping the grasses down low, that way we don’t have to bring our machinery in early when compaction is a problem. They also provide the ability to turn their manures into grasses under, so that they break down and they keep the soil biology humming. They also put little dents, not too many, but little dents in the soil that act to hold water and help to recharge the soil aquifer faster. The other thing they do, which is really important, is they take care of disease protection by turning under with their paws all the litter that’s left over from last year that usually has mildew and other bacteria in it; they turn it under and the soil bacteria take care of it right away. Virtually all farms had animals for 10,000 years. They’ve been pushed off most farms over the last hundred years because we decided that monocrops are more efficient. But we really didn’t look hard enough to see the real reasons why our ancestors were using animals.

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