Modern Day Pastoralism: Re-Defining the Economics of Rotational Sheep Grazing on California Vineyards
When you think of vineyards, you envision the undulating hills of vines dripping with plump grapes neatly organized for harvest. Now imagine this same picturesque landscape occupied by sheep busily moving through vineyards clearing unwanted vegetation and fertilizing the soil below; and that pastoralism systematically increasing soil health, enhancing nutrient food density, and sequestering carbon back into the earth.
This inter-woven relationship between sheep herding and vineyards is not a new one. Over time, however, these traditional integrated crop-livestock systems were replaced with industrial mowing, pesticide use, and additional human labor. By moving back to systems modeled after natural, biological processes we can reap many benefits, in this case, increased biodiversity, carbon sequestration, higher quality food, and fiber, as well as, much-needed fire-resistance.
“This is a win-win for both the producer, the crop, and the sheep; the biggest win is for the land as a whole.” — Robert Irwin, Kaos Sheep Outfit
By introducing rotational sheep grazing, these outcomes are produced organically as the ruminants graze clearing grasses, eating weeds and pests, pruning vines, spreading nutrients, and diversifying grass species across the acreage. When vineyard owners switch to sheep-grazing practices they create additional ecosystem benefits for their farm and have the opportunity to become carbon neutral or negative.
Unconventional Partners — Sheep & Technology
Over the past few years, Regen Network has been working in partnership with Fibershed, a nonprofit organization that develops fiber and textile systems through carbon farming, regional production, and fiber processing. In our pilot program with Fibershed, we’ve helped to provide the remote sensing verification technology for the rotational sheep grazing for vineyards in Northern California.
We at Regen Network are pleased to announce that Phase 2 of this on-going pilot project is now underway. This entails utilizing remote sensing to issue CarbonPlus Credits on Regen Registry for Integrated Sheep Vineyard Systems (ISVS) operations with Fibershed. We are proud to have this project funded by the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program of the California Natural Resources Conservation Services, United States Department of Agriculture.
This Phase 2 pilot builds upon work developed from last winter and spring of 2019, where Regen Network piloted remote sensing methodology and validated prescribed grazing in vineyards at one site in Mendocino County, California. Moving forward, we will be partnering with Fibershed at three new locations in northern California including Nelson Family Vineyard (Mendocino County, CA; 1,500 acres grazed), Treasury Wine Estates (Napa County, CA; 1,000 acres grazed), and Shannon Ridge Vineyard (Lake County, CA; 1,800 acres grazed).
These participating producers are global leaders in winegrape production and play an important role in California’s wine grape industry. The successful implementation of targeted prescribed grazing systems in these operations could lead to industry replication across California’s 3,700+ wine and food grape producers, who collectively manage over 918,000 acres of vineyards, having drastic, scaleable effects on carbon sequestration.
“We are consistently looking for opportunities within California’s complex and diverse agricultural systems to re-couple cropping systems with the animal impact. Ruminants offer the soil biology so many key facets conducive to life and diversity.” - Robert Irwin, Kaos Sheep Outfit
Adopting targeted prescribed grazing across Northern California vineyards will provide benefits to grape growers and shepherds alike through improved soil health, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and greater biodiversity across the grazed acreage. These soil health improvements will also lower fertilizer applications, reduce water-use and irrigation costs, and increase resiliency to severe climatic or water shortage events.
To verify these outcomes vineyard owners will engage with contract grazer Kaos Sheep Outfit, who will run five bands of Corriedale sheep and guardian dogs on their fields. Herders will collect spatial data on grazing operations throughout the project period such as fuel load reduction, vineyard bud break, grass height pre- and post-grazing, whether the forage is mono or multi-species, and so on.
In this next phase, we will be focused on identifying, documenting, and innovating the methods used to verify the environmental impact of farm-scale vineyard grazing practices.
Keeping More Money in Producers’ Pockets
Most farmers are currently excluded from the ecosystem service credits market because of the high cost of monitoring and verification. Our goal is to provide cost-effective remote sensing monitoring and an open-source methodology that Fibershed and NRCS will be able to utilize at-scale across grazing operations in California.
By decreasing the costs of verification for the producer or grazer and improving their experience by simplifying the data collection and reporting process, we can create access to these markets where there wasn’t before. This research supports the financial well-being of farming families and the viability of modern rural communities in California where many farmers are struggling with low margins, pressure from development, and increasing climate-related risks and costs.
In addition to lowering monitoring costs, we aim to provide new financial incentives to land stewards through the issuance and sale of Regen Network’s CarbonPlus ecosystem services credits. CarbonPlus credits allow land stewards to be compensated for the sequestered carbon that was generated by switching to integrated crop-livestock land-management practices.
By exploring the financial viability of implementing grazing in vineyards systems and incentivizes a shift towards ecologically sound practices, we expect to see results such as cleaner water, cleaner air, and ultimately scaleable ways for vineyard owners in California to mitigate climate changes both on a global scale and at home on their land.
Given the unprecedented fire season, especially in the Northern California wine country, there is an urgency for accessible, easy to use, and incentivized ways to scale regenerative land use solutions. Together, we can utilize these rotational-grazing methodologies to draw down carbon into the soil, protect against the effects of climate change, such as wildfire, and ensure that the land will be viable for future generations of California vineyard owners and farmers.
About the Partners:
Regen Network is a platform serving to align economics with ecology to drive regenerative land management. Regen’s Registry allows land stewards to sell their ecosystem services to buyers around the world, functioning to reverse climate change through incentivized carbon removal.
Fibershed is a nonprofit organization that develops fiber and textile systems through a focus on carbon farming, regional production and fiber processing, and public education. Their producer membership includes over 100 agricultural fiber producers in 51 counties in their home region of Northern and Central California. Fibershed cultivates textile cultures designed to build soil carbon stocks on the working landscapes on which they depend, while directly enhancing the strength of regional economies. Through strategic grazing, conservation tillage, and a host of scientifically vetted soil carbon enhancing practices, our supply chains create ‘climate beneficial’ textiles and clothing that will become the new standard in a world looking to rapidly mitigate the effects of climate change.
Kaos Sheep Outfit Run by the dynamic family team, Kaos Sheep Outfit is a target grazing company serving Mendocino, Lake, and Colusa Counties in Northern California. By using Australian Corriedale sheep in such surprising places as vineyards, pear and nut orchards, and even on golf courses and for homeowners’ associations, the Irwins are able to run a sustainable business that focuses on the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and animals. They replace fossil-fuel driven mowers with the digestive tract of a sheep, thereby reducing pollution while at the same time fertilizing the land, increasing carbon sequestration, and producing meat and wool for the benefit and betterment of our lives.
The Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program of the California Natural Resources Conservation Services, United States Department of Agriculture is a voluntary program intended to stimulate the development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies while leveraging Federal investment in environmental enhancement and protection, in conjunction with agricultural production.