In Oregon Wine Country, One Farmer’s Battle to Save the Soil
This is the second of a four-part series on winemaking and climate change.
HOPEWELL, Ore. — Mimi Casteel hates the word “weeds,” particularly when referring to unexpected plants growing in her vineyard here in this hamlet in the Willamette Valley.
To think of weeds as invasive species, she believes, is to vastly simplify the intricate workings of nature that humans, in their efforts to assert agricultural control, have disrupted with disastrous consequences.
It’s a view that might be dismissed as romantic or sentimental. But Ms. Casteel, who has a background in forestry science, botany and systems biology, is rigorously scientific and empirical.
“There are no bad plants — there are plants that respond very quickly to massive disturbances in an environment,” she said as we walked the vineyard in August. “Weeds? I don’t use that word. The only invasive species is homo sapiens.”
Ms. Casteel, 42, wears many hats. She produces exquisite pinot noirs and chardonnays under the Hope Well label in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation here, just southeast of McMinnville. She’s a farmer who grows apples and vegetables in addition to grapes. She raises animals, and she consults with other wine growers on their own vineyards.
She lives at the Hope Well vineyard with her husband, Nick Gunn, and two daughters, Stella and Nora, not far from Bethel Heights Vineyard, where she grew up and where her family helped pioneer wine production in the region during the 1970s.
But more than anything today, Ms. Casteel is a crusader for regenerative agriculture, a way of farming that emphasizes rebuilding, restoring and supporting the organic matter that composes healthy soils. She has traveled the country preaching its benefits, and she practices what she preaches here at her farm.
Regenerative agriculture, she believes, is not only the best way to grow expressive wine grapes and other foods; it also has the power to undo the ecological damage done by years of industrial farming.
Agriculture is responsible for roughly a quarter of the planet-warming greenhouse emissions each year. It can also play a major role in combating climate change through capturing and storing carbon dioxide in the earth.
“Soil is our largest potential tool in our fight against climate change,” Ms. Casteel said.
Viticulture is just a small link in the agricultural chain, and the number of grape growers like Ms. Casteel, who farm with care to make expressive wines of place, is smaller still.
Yet because fine wine for many people is the most visible agricultural product they will consciously encounter, viticulture is important beyond its numbers in the discussion of agriculture and climate change. What people learn about farming from their interest in wine, Ms. Casteel and others believe, can help to drive a deeper discussion about agriculture and climate change.
“Wine awakens a part of us that is meant to think deeply about things,” she said. “It’s different from eating a great piece of kale. Because it can be emotional and intellectual and natural, the people who interact with wine and take it seriously, once their eyes are opened, it becomes a conversation that otherwise might never have happened.
“They care about climate change, they care about organic food for their children. It’s a gateway drug like no other, and it’s the reason I make wine.”
Over the last 30 years, viticulture has become more important in the discussion of wine then ever before. Before World War II, viticulture, like agriculture in general, was mostly the province of small farmers who worked the earth as their ancestors had for generations.
After the war, mechanized tools, technology and new agricultural chemicals became available. They were marketed as cheaper and labor-saving, and were considered a boon to a world wearied and wounded by two world wars and the Great Depression.
In wine, the consequences of industrial farming soon became evident. In the early 1980s, Claude Bourguignon, a French soil scientist, famously said that the soil of the Sahara had more life in it than the soil of Burgundy.
Today, although mass-produced wines are still largely farmed industrially, the best producers have mostly abandoned the fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and supplements that are the foundation of chemical farming. Many have adopted organic or biodynamic viticulture, and it’s an article of faith that the more time spent in the vineyard, the better.
But these efforts, though a vast improvement on chemical agriculture, did not take climate change into account. Acceptable organic methods release plenty of carbon into the atmosphere. The number of times a tractor passes through a vineyard, compacting soil and burning carbon, and the number of sprays, even of organic substances, Ms. Casteel contends, are not good for the vineyard or the wine.
The 2019 vintage in the Willamette, for example, has been moderately warm but highly humid, which created ideal conditions for powdery mildew, a significant threat to grapes. Organic farmers try to control it by spraying with sulfur.
“The amount of sulfur it takes to farm an organic vineyard with no tolerance for powdery mildew is immense,” Ms. Casteel said, noting that it could require 18 treatments a year.
The solution, she said, is adjusting both attitude and methods. The standard response of intolerance for vine ailments, vineyard pests, weeds and other natural entities needs to become more relaxed, as does the assessment of the threat.
“The problem is never the pest attacking the plant, but the weakness of the ecosystem,” she said.
Aside from revitalizing the soil, regenerative agriculture seeks to strengthen the natural ecology of a farm. Ms. Casteel sees nature as a complex web of forces — animal, vegetable and mineral — that contains everything needed to sustain itself.
When one of these elements is altered — interrupting the natural movement of water, blocking animal pathways or planting crops in places that cannot support them, for example — everything is disrupted.
Modern agriculture, in her view, with its focus on monoculture and cash crops, pares away the complexities in order to simplify and mechanize. But it then must compensate for these alterations: fertilizing soils from which organic matter has been removed, or spraying pesticides because natural predators of those pests no longer exist.
The land becomes dependent. Soil becomes progressively less organic, less able to sustain life and play its role in the natural order. The worst case scenario is desertification, which already threatens vast swaths of the earth.
Ms. Casteel’s goal is to restore the natural balance through enlightened agriculture, as she has been doing at Hope Well over the last decade or so.
“Life moves toward complexity because complexity is stability — it is resilience in the natural world,” she said. “But agriculture is the natural world. We just simplify it to the point of industry.”
Practically speaking, regenerative agriculture means giving up some of the most prized, age-old farming techniques, used even in organic and biodynamic farming. These include regular tilling or plowing, in which the top layer of soil is turned to break and aerate compacted earth while burying weeds and other organic matter. Indeed, the horse-drawn plow has become a benign, pastoral signature of biodynamic viticulture.
Plowing and tilling not only releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but also disturbs the complex ecology of microbial life underground that is crucial to healthy agriculture.
“Nothing in the natural world mimics what we do with a plow or cultivator several times a year,” Ms. Casteel said. “It changes the colony and community that lives below ground and interrupts the cycling of nutrients, leading to synthetic inputs.”
Changing time-honored methods is not easy. François Chidaine, a like-minded farmer who makes excellent wines in the Loire Valley of France, spoke at a regenerative farming forum in New York in May and told of being ostracized in his community, Montlouis, after giving up tilling.
“A lot of it is tradition,” Ms. Casteel said. “The way we view the uncontrolled natural landscape is at odds with a viticultural aesthetic. Bare soil, its smell and sight, is an emotional trigger for people.”
Hope Well looks nothing like the neatly manicured vineyards that so often are the marketing emblem of wine producers. The vines, lush with grapes on my August visit, spread in an ungainly fashion, their leaves a yellow-tinged green — a healthier color, Ms. Casteel said, than deep green, which can indicate nitrogen treatments to the soil.
The vineyard floor was covered in grasses, and Queen Anne’s lace were blooming. Bumblebees buzzed, birds chirped and not a spot of bare earth was visible, unlike a knoll across the valley, a Christmas tree farm, where rows of evergreens stood on bare gray-brown earth. Hope Well, too, was a Christmas tree farm before Ms. Casteel arrived in 2006.
“Because it was Christmas trees, it was nuclear farming — pre-emergent herbicides, chemical insecticides, nothing grew in the ground,” Ms. Casteel said. “It took me a good two years to work at this ground and piece together what to do.”
Can Ms. Casteel’s methods be practiced on a large enough scale to make a difference? Absolutely, she believes, although it will require systemic change.
First, she says, farmers need to overcome fears and make the commitment to changing methods, if not wholesale, one step at a time. She understands their anxiety, and has experienced it herself.
“I get scared, too, when the vineyard looks weak, and I worry if it will not rebound the next year,” she said. “But it always has. It’s a leap of faith.”
Second, she says, farmers need a lot of help, which means government programs that support small farmers and the rebuilding of topsoil, rather than current programs that largely bolster corporate farmers while rewarding them for not planting cover crops.
“One of the major hurdles is our lack of intimacy with the land, and our stereotype that farming is for unskilled people,” she said. “Wine and wine growers have the opportunity to lead the next agricultural paradigm.
“The care of the landscape was informed exclusively by a familiarity with the natural world,” she said. “Learning how to do that was first formed by a relationship with the natural world, and we have moved completely away from that.”
Sometimes, she says, the obstacles appear immense. Other times, the path around them seems clear.
“It’s a great paradox,” she said, “to be so cynical and so hopeful at the same time.”