Tuesday, January 29, 2013

King Estate: Changing Perceptions of Organic Wine

This article first appeared in the January/February 2013 edition of In Good Tilth, the magazine of Oregon Tilth. Because I live in the heart of Oregon's Pinot Noir country, and local growers tend to be progressive and very concerned with land stewardship, I often get to write about the environmental aspects of winemaking. I first wrote about organic winemaking in a story on eco-wines for the 2010/2011 edition of the Natural Choice Directory for the Willamette Valley. Local winemaker Steve Girard of Benton-Lane Winery was a key source for my feature on the Beyond Organic movement in the 2011/2012 edition of the Directory.

In an era of increasing consumer consciousness of the health risks associated with conventional agriculture, organic products take pride of place in the marketplace, usually commanding a premium price–but not necessarily on the wine shelf. In fact, until a few years ago, many winemakers who embraced sustainable farming were uncomfortable advertising their organic bona fides for fear of turning off wine aficionados and being written off as winemaking lightweights with more interest in saving the planet than producing stellar vintages.

But that is changing, as vineyard managers discover the benefits of organic growing and vintners find a budding demand for wines grown with an eye towards sustainability. If organic is no longer a dirty word in the wine world, part of the credit must go to wineries such as King Estate, Oregon’s largest, which flew the organic flag before it was popular and is not afraid to push the message that taking care of the land is a responsibility, not an option.

In 1991, the King family founded King Estate in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range southwest of Eugene. The 1,033-acre estate, crowned by an elegant, European-inspired villa, encompasses 470 acres of vineyards and 30 acres of fruits, vegetables and flowers. A world-class Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris producer, the estate bottles 230,000 cases each year from estate-grown grapes and fruit from a handful of smaller Oregon vineyards.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A real no-brainer

I’ve been a fan of biodiesel for quite some time – locally and sustainably produced biodiesel that is, not the nasty stuff driving deforestation in Indonesia. My wife and I were members of a car-sharing co-op in the day before biodiesel was available at gas stations. We’d have a local start-up, Sequential Biofuels, deliver 55-gallon drums of biodiesel to our house. We’d hand pump the stuff, made from used cooking oil and smelling of French fries when burned, into gas cans to fill an old Mercedes sedan.

Back then, I was pretty excited about the prospect of Willamette Valley grass seed farmers planting rapeseed and canola, related plants whose seed oils can be refined into biodiesel. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Valuable farm acreage currently wasted producing grass seed for the golf courses of Asia could be replanted with food crops in the summer, with the canola rotated in during the winter. It sounded like a great way to increase both local food production and regional supplies of sustainable-produced fuel.

Then, a funny thing happened. Local farmers started pushing back against the whole idea. That didn’t make any sense to me at first. But then I discovered that canola is one of the top GMO crops in the country. Well, I know that GMO crops are a terrible idea; it’s a no-brainer for anyone with ecological sensibilities (a growing subset of people, organizations and countries that, significantly, includes neither the USDA nor the Oregon Department of Agriculture). So, why not push for non-GMO canola in the Valley?

What I didn’t know before picking up last Thursday’s Eugene Weekly was that even GMO-free canola poses a threat to the Valley’s high value seed production industry, which provides highly-skilled small farmers with a lucrative crop. Producing organic seeds for Brassica vegetables like cabbage isn’t easy, and canola, GMO or not, readily cross pollinates with Brassicas and ruins their marketability. The Willamette Valley is one of the world’s leading seed producing regions for these crops, feeding a thriving global market. Why in the world would we want to destroy an established industry supporting small farmers with living wage jobs?

The ODA is taking public testimony through January 25 on the issue before finalizing a rule change that would allow canola to be planted on thousands of previously restricted acres in the valley. Go ahead and let them know that we shouldn’t harm small farmers and sink our seed industry. It’s a no-brainer. Send your comments to:

Canola Hearings Officer,
Department of Agriculture,
635 Capitol Street NE, Salem, OR 97301

Or email: canola-rulemaking@oda.state.or.us

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Part-time farmers

This article first appeared in the November/December 2012 edition of In Good Tilth, the magazine of Oregon Tilth. In the interest of full disclosure, when I began researching this article, my wife Leeann was considering subscribing to Lonesome Whistle's CSA program in order to get whole grains to mill at home. After interviewing Jeff and Kasey, the decision was an easy one. The couple's passion for what they do is infectious. The pictures below show them in the midst of harvesting heirloom  Indian Woman Yellow Beans.

As the sun climbs the sky south of Junction City, Oregon, Jeff Broadie and Kasey White finish a simple breakfast on the porch of their modest, sky-blue two story house. A weathered Allis Chalmers All-Crop 60 combine sits hitched to a red-orange tractor a stone’s throw away. Soon, the Sunday sun will have driven the last moisture from Indian Woman yellow bean plants piled for drying in the field beyond. Forgoing a day of rest, the couple will feed the rare, heirloom beans through the combine, harvesting a crop popular with local consumers eager for regionally produced food.

White, from Idaho, met Broadie, a Colorado native, while both attended college in Fort Collins, Colorado. Neither came from a farming background. “We didn’t even know we wanted to farm,” says Broadie, relating how a food-politics course awakened him to food security and sustainability issues and inspired the couple to head to Oregon after graduation, to take advantage of the Willamette Valley’s climate and farming community.

The plight of the modern farmer is well known: an aging population cultivating a shrinking amount of acreage, a younger generation abandoning the farm for work elsewhere, corporations consolidating their control over the food supply. Broadie and White exemplify a more encouraging agricultural trend–young people moving into farming from other industries or straight out of college while working off the farm to supplement their income or build towards a full-time farming career. Though many do not come from an agricultural background, these new farmers bring a strong work ethic, an enthusiasm for environmentally friendly growing practices, innovative ideas and an interest in building community as well as in producing good food.