As part of our philosophy of organic sustainable farming and in our efforts to be gentle and regenerative with the soil, we ’ve moved from petroleum tractor based farming to using a team of draft horses in the vineyard. Jeff’s main concern
with using a tractor in the vineyard is the soil compaction that the heavy machine creates. We (like some other California vineyards) have a permanent cover crop in the vineyard in order to hold the soil in place and prevent erosion
and to provide beneficial habitat for insects and other animal. However, by not tilling this soil and constantly driving over it with a tractor, we began to notice that the structure of the soil was being damaged. Compaction and lack
of tilth in the soil, prevents rain water and air from easily moving into the soils, impedes the growth of beneficial micro-organisms in the soil, and obstructs root growth of both the cover crop plants and the grapes. Back in the
Midwest, where Jeff is from, most good farmers know about and are concerned with the tilth of the soil; we noticed that in California, many farmers don’t even know what that means!
So, after looking for a few years for a suitable team, we found Bobbie and Betty (Roberta and Elizabeth), a team of mares (full sisters! and yes they bicker like all sisters) from a farm in Southern Missouri. Their
mom was an Amish Morgan, so bigger than what most folks know of modern Morgans, and the Stud was a big Percheron Draft Horse. The combination, French and American; big boned but shorter and stouter; friendly and
calm, but strong and industrious, is perfect for the vineyard.
Come on a calm late winter or spring day, and you might find Jeff, Betty and Bobbie in the vineyard cultivating small weeds under the vine-rows with a 100 year old (but modified!) McCormick-Deering cultivator or even
a walk behind vineyard plow. In grape farming, the area under the vines needs to be relatively weed free during the growing season. Otherwise, the weeds compete with the vines for nutrients and water. Most vineyards
band spray pre-emergent herbicides in this area. It kills everything, and is so strong that it prevents all plants from growing for many many months. In these vineyards (try this yourself sometime), grab a handful
of soil and smell it; it likely has little or no odor – it’s sterile. Come to Pipestone Vineyards and grab a handful of soil and guess what, it smells like DIRT! That’s all the fungi and other micro organisms that
live there and make the soil alive! It’s these micro-organisms that actually release the natural nutrients and minerals into a form that the plants can use.
Working the horses in the vineyard has other benefits too. It’s quieter. All you can hear is the work of the tool, the horses breathing, the birds singing, and your own thoughts. It’s been like this since the beginning
of time! With the diesel tractor, you have to wear ear plugs it’s so loud. The horses work on voice commands, so you are constantly talking to them. When they work, you can see their ears pointing back to Jeff,
listening for either his command or for his praise! (Okay, they might know some four-letter words too!) They work at just about the same speed as a tractor, but because you are closer to the ground, it’s quiet,
and you’re not choking on diesel fumes; you can pay attention to the vines and the soil instead of blindly driving through.
The horses are solar powered and don’t rely on imported oil! Think about it: they eat hay, which grows in the sun. This is the ultimate in solar power. And yep, we’ve taken them on a few trips to town too. And unlike
my John Deere tractor, the horses can replace themselves! Let’s see a tractor do that!