Native Plants in the Vineyard: Enhancing Ecosystems

Robin Dobson and Kathleen Perillo know they will have succeeded in designing a resilient farming system when the Western Meadowlark returns to nest under their grapevines. At Klickitat Canyon and Columbia Gorge Winery and Meadowlark Vineyard in the Columbia River Gorge near Lyle, Washington, restoring native habitat is front and center.On a warm, sunny Earth Day among blooming meadows, ancient oak woodlands, and stunning views of Mt. Hood, participants on a farm walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Program and Tilth Producers of Washington were treated to an insider’s look at what Dobson and Perillo call ecodynamic farming.

“Native plants growing within a cropping area enhance ecosystem services, for example the natural functions provided by native beneficial insects. We call this ecodynamic agriculture to distinguish it from other types of landscaping. The concept here is to add natives within the cropping area. It’s a form of restorative agriculture,” Dobson said.

Dobson, who has a Ph.D. in plant pathology from Washington State University, has been restoring native plants and woodlands on the property since he acquired the land to establish a vineyard in 1992. Together, Dobson and Perillo have established the Center for Eco-dynamic Agriculture, a non-profit organization on a mission to teach and promote sustainable farming techniques.

All 35 of their acres, including the vineyard, are stocked with plants native to the Columbia Gorge, including blue bunchgrass, arrowleaf balsamroot, lupine, and groves of Garry oak. Native ground cover from the surrounding woodlands grows seamlessly around neat rows of grapevines that are carefully pruned to produce high quality grapes. Asked how he does it, Dobson’s reply is “patience.” “It takes eight years for balsamroot to bloom after planting, yet, once established, it is extraordinarily drought-tolerant and resistant to trampling, and it lives for decades,” he said.

Participants take a farm walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Program and Tilth Producers of Washington. Photo courtesy of Marcy Ostrom, WSU
Participants take a farm walk sponsored by the WSU Small Farms Program and Tilth Producers of Washington. Photo courtesy of Marcy Ostrom, WSU

Plant diversity breeds system diversity
David James, an entomologist based at WSU’s Research and Extension Center in Prosser, has been monitoring beneficial insects and pests in this habitat-enhanced farming system and comparing it with a conventional vineyard in the same region. “Natural insect enemies available [to do] biological control here far outnumber those in the conventional system and corresponding insect pest populations are much lower,” James said.

James also found nine butterfly species compared with only one in the conventional vineyard. Next, he plans to figure out exactly which plants are attracting which beneficial insects so that recommendations for specific plantings can be shared with other producers. James has been awarded a BIOAg Grant from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources to further his research on this topic.

James believes that a farm like this provides unique research conditions that could benefit the entire Washington wine industry. He explained that what Dobson and Perillo have done allows him to carry out research trials that would have been impossible under the standard three-year grant funding timeframe.

“The types of native plants that flourish at Meadowlark Vineyard could not have been established in such a short time,” Dobson said.

Unfettered terroir, unbridled customer loyalty
Dobson claims that the carefully cultivated native vegetation in his vineyard can be tasted in the grapes that go into his handmade, organic estate wines. Dobson uses no additives to ferment or flavor his wine, simply allowing sufficient time for the natural yeasts found on the grapes to do their work.

The payoff for such an approach is found in the marketplace. A unique terroir, combined with meticulous organic growing and processing techniques brings a premium for Dobson’s wines and cultivates loyal customers. Klickitat Canyon Winery sells all the wine as they can make through an on-site tasting room as well as one in the nearby town of Stevenson. While some of their wines are composed solely of grapes from this vineyard, others incorporate grapes from neighboring small, organic vineyards, thereby creating an outlet for products from like-minded farmers following similar practices.

This farm walk, just one of many offered each growing season, demonstrated how information needed for sustainable farming is discovered and shared among producers and scientists. Farmers’ local knowledge, with outcomes carefully documented by WSU researchers, was shared through dialogue and demonstration. The information was hungrily absorbed by an audience of aspiring and established farmers, as well as by agricultural professionals.

For more information about the WSU Small Farms Team farm walk education series: http://smallfarms.wsu.edu/farmwalks/index.html.

-Marcy Ostrom