The Road to More Sustainable Agriculture Practices at Elkhorn Peak

By Elise Nerlove, Second-generation Grape Grower and Winemaker at Elkhorn Peak Cellars

If you have been with us for a few years, then you’ve been following our journey towards more earth-friendly farming practices. In 2018 we stopped using Roundup and begun looking at chemical-free options to control the weeds. Our research led us to expand our tractor fleet, much to Ken’s amusement, to include under-vine weeding implements. It is a simple concept, but must be executed carefully as not to mistakenly pull out a grapevine. It took us a few years to find the right tractor implement for the job, and Ken had fun researching and trialing all the different options. We finally settled on an Italian tractor implement called a Gramegna (pronounced Gra-MON- ya). We drive this tractor implement down each vineyard row and it grabs and pulls out weeds that grow between the grapevines. Ken says, “the under-vine cultivator weeds very well and eliminates the needs for sprays. I welcome the environmentally friendly approach to farming.”

Now that we have an effective, chemical-free approach to weed management, we have begun to turn our attention towards phase 2: soil health. The soil we farm in is mostly clay loam. It is very susceptible to compaction and 40 years of driving heavy equipment down the vineyard rows has caused serious compaction. Soil compaction negatively affects root development in plants – it leads to fewer fine roots and diminished overall root mass. This causes nutrient uptake problems, low crop yields, and more. Not what we want to see! So, this year we embarked on compaction relief in the vineyard. To relieve soil compaction, we drag a very heavy shank through each row. The shank rips a line in the soil 18-24 inches deep. Then we come through with a disc’er and level the soil back out. We finish by laying down a HEAVY dose of compost. Adding organic matter into our soil will improve soil structure and health. This is the first year we’ve spread compost in the vineyard and we are very excited about it! Compost contains beneficial microorganisms that promote good bacteria growth in the soil. Good bacteria in the soil means heathy soil and healthy soil means happy grapevines. We plan to make another pass with compost this spring so we can apply additional compost at the base of each grapevine.

Phase 3 will be implementing fully regenerative agriculture management practices at Elkhorn Peak. Regenerative farming is a holistic land management practice that focuses on topsoil regeneration and increasing biodiversity and ecosystems in the soil. This will strengthen the health and vitality of the soil, improve water availability and nutrient uptake. The regenerative agriculture movement is new to us and we’re fully on-board with the theory, we are just figuring out how to bring it into practice. We are not there yet, but we have to goal to get there soon, and we’ll keep you updated on our journey.

vineyard soil

Above: ripping the soil to relieve compaction

vineyard compost

Above: Disc’ed rows and compost in the vineyard

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