76: California drought, sheep under vines and the beginning of Fibershed

76: California drought, sheep under vines and the beginning of Fibershed 150 150 Farmerama Radio
Image of sheep grazing from Paicines Ranch

This month is a California focused episode! We begin by hearing from Sallie Calhoun at Paicines Ranch, on her journey in bringing back Californian cool season grasses on the grassland, and working towards increased drought resilience through regeneration of the land.

We also hear from Kelly Mullville, director at Paicines Ranch Vineyard. Kelly shares about how his training in holistic management informed a design for year-round sheep grazing on the drought-prone vineyard there, and the benefits that this grazing brings.

Finally, we hear from Rebecca Burgess, on the origins of the Fibershed movement in North Central California. Rebecca shares about the beauty of regional textile economies, and the power of sheep grazing in reducing forest fire risk in arid climates. This story is a teaser to get you ready for the Farming Fashion mini-series from the Fibreshed UK team that we’ll be bringing to you next month!

This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barratt, Abby Rose and Olivia Oldham. A big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team: Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt. 

Full episode transcript: 
Hello and welcome to Farmerama! We haven’t said that in a while, we hope you’ve enjoyed the recent Cultivating Justice series and then our bonus shorts where we featured a few different millars from our 2019 series, Cereal.
We’ve just celebrated our 7th birthday. 7 years of sharing the voices of the regenerative farming movement. We want to take a moment to thank everyone who has been part of Farmerama episodes in that time. To the farmers producing food and fibre for us whilst rejuvenating the ecosystems they’re working in.
This month we hear how one ranch is managing to build green cover in its 22nd year of drought in California.. And about the vineyard they’ve designed to allow for grazing sheep below the canopy all year round. And we learn about the roots of the Fibershed movement, again in California, ahead of the release of our upcoming mini-series Farming Fashion from Fibreshed UK.
Sallie Calhoun owns and manages the Paicines Ranch. She’s also an impact investor, activist, and philanthropic funder in regenerative agriculture. She shared with us signs of hope in the drought-stricken area of the world in which she lives.
So the ranch is about 7600 acres. There is the San Benito River, which is a very seasonal small river runs through it. We have about seven miles of meandering, that kind of splits the ranch in half. We’re in a very low rainfall area. In the midst of so far 22 years of drought. So we usually get between 3 and 10 inches of rain a year and sometimes less these days. So when we arrived on the ranch I was very interested in regenerating both the Californian Perennial grasses and also the Riparian corridor. The riparian corridor had historically been used to graze 500 cows from the middle of June until the middle of December, and it was basically dust. And so we really are starting in around 2004, we immediately fenced the river, so that would not be grazed all the time, stopped utilizing it in that way, and then have progressively adopted holistic planned grazing. So the river has been grazed almost every year for the last 20 years, and what we’ve seen is really a regeneration of the riparian corridor. We were very optimistic, we have a lot of willows and mulefat and all kinds of salt grass, creeping wild rye, very interesting things happening, and we thought it was good.
And last year we spoke to some restoration biologists to see if we could get some mitigation credit or some credit for the ongoing river restoration and they said, you’re pretty much finished. So it’s super cool that by just changing the way we manage the grazing in 20 years of drought, but with a river, so there is a lot of water, that we really didn’t plant a single plant, We didn’t have a plan about what should grow here or what should grow there. We said, we’ll see what the river and the land and nature give us. And it’s super cool what we’ve got now. I mean, they figure that 95% of the riparian corridors in California have been destroyed usually because they’re on the flood plains and they’re a really good place to farm. Right. So it makes sense that they got destroyed.
But we were told this is the only corridor like this on the central coast anywhere. And if you fly from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, it is so obvious when you fly over this corridor, cuz it is by far the largest thing like it that you’ll see in that whole trip. So yeah, we’re super psyched about it.
I wish we had done some analysis and figured out how much carbon we’ve sequestered, so maybe we’ll figure out how much carbon is there now, and they’ll tell something. When we got here, I didn’t know anything, but I was introduced to Allan Savory’s work and I’d been growing California native perennial bunch grasses in my backyard for 15 years and was intrigued by the idea that they might be able to come back here because they’re viewed as being mostly extinct in California rangeland.
And in fact, when we got here, we could not find a single cool season Californian bunchgrass anywhere. We did finally find some very sad looking ones on North facing slopes, so we knew they were. Here in California it’s painful because you have to assume that they’re there and graze accordingly, even if you can’t see them, which is kind of frustrating. But we did that. We assumed they were here and with pretty minor improvements in grazing, like just less overgrazing, we began to see pretty dramatic returns of the Purple needlegrass in particular. That’s the one that’s really come back. And the other one is the salt grass, which is a C4 grass, a warm season grass. The only one left here, it’s resurgence has also been pretty dramatic. It’s kind of come out of the river and is heading up slope. So, yeah, it just seems like if you just, you know, if you just take your foot off their necks, it’s amazing what can happen even in such a low rainfall place with really degraded soils and a totally crashed ecosystem.
So sitting as a person who’s 22 years into this giant drought, I mean, it just really, I sometimes think I’m so sad, with this change in management, if it kept raining, what might have been, which we’ll never know. So I don’t know, over the next 10 to 20 years if the rainfall stays down at three inches, five inches a year, I don’t know that a lot is gonna change, to be perfectly honest. And we know we have not increased soil organic matter, and we have increased biodiversity. And we’ll keep working as hard as we can at increasing biodiversity. But I’m really struck by the realization that if it doesn’t rain, it’s very hard to to improve. Or to create any change in the system. So I’m optimistic, you know, that the great flood will come and then I think, I think if it would rain, we would be totally astonished at what would happen. I think we have no idea what could happen, but it just takes water. My joke is that if it just stops raining, um, we’ll put in solar panels and we’ll mine the 500 year sand and gravel pit. It’ll be about sun and sand if it just doesn’t rain anymore. It’s important to have a backup plan in the 21st century! We need functioning ecosystems. That’s the goal here. At this point, we’ve just gotta have them all over the planet. We should manage every square foot of the planet to sequester carbon and create functioning ecosystems.
Kelly Mullville is vineyard director at Paicines Ranch where he’s planted a vineyard that looks a little different. Originally trained in holistic management – Kelly’s designed a vineyard that allows for animals to graze in it all year round.
The first thing that most people notice with a vineyard is that it is a tall trellis. So we are using a system called the Watson System developed by a retired petroleum engineer in Texas, and it actually was not developed, designed for sheep, it was rather designed for climates that are very hot and humid to help prevent the mildew and make it easier to manage in those situations.
But when I saw that, that trellis system, I realized that that would probably work very well for sheep. And so one of the aspects of our design is we wanted sheep to be able to do most of the work for us. I had done a trial of a vineyard in Sonoma County. I set it up to graze throughout the growing season, and we had some really dramatic results in water savings and labor savings and fertility benefits.
And so the, the next step was actually to design something from the get go that we could graze without having to do so much modification. So the idea with this is that we have a trellis system that enables grazing throughout the growing season of the grape vines as well as during the dormant season. And so in order to do that, we have to raise the trellis system up so that it’s out of reach of the sheep, the important parts, the fruiting zone and the the shoots. But we also want them to do our suckering for us, which are the shoots that come out at the base of the vine and along the trunk, and we want them to do our shoot tipping for us as well. So those are the shoots that hang over. They grow up and then they hang over and come back into range of the sheep. And so most of those tasks are generally done by machine or human labour. So we have that design so that the sheep will do that. Just through their browsing practices. So the first thing people notice is that the trellis is higher above the vines, it’s a partial overhead. It’s a V trellis. And so that provides about the row spacing is 12 feet and the vines are six feet apart. Once those vines are full, they take up about probably five to six feet of the row in a partial overhead canopy, which allows dappled light and good exposure to air and partial exposure to the sun.
So it’s almost like being in a small orchard rather than a vineyard. The fruit is up higher and the vines are up higher and it has a different feel than when the vines are in rows or head trained on close to the ground. So sheep are a critical part of our management in this vineyard, and actually before we even planted, we were using what is called holistic planned grazing. Some people refer to it as mob or intensive grazing. And what that means is we keep the animals bunched up fairly tightly, and they move very often so that we’re not overgrazing or over trampling the site. And having the vineyard high like this, including our drip water is high as well. So both humans and sheep can go any direction in the vineyard and they’re not restricted to just the row itself.
And that enables freedom of access and it also makes it easier for us to set up temporary fencing inside the vineyard. If we want to have a higher impact of animals for a shorter period of time, then we can have a very small paddock. And it isn’t necessarily restricted to just one or two rows to do that. So that offers a lot more flexibility, and we are running sheep in the vineyard during, a lot of it depends on rainfall. We’re in a very low rainfall area, about 12 inches a year as the historic average. The past two years we’ve about five inches. So we’re in a pretty good drought. And so the amount of grazing is dictated by the amount of rainfall we get.
And we are in a Mediterranean climate. So we get the rains starting, the typical rainy season would be October through the end of April or so. Our rainy season seems to be shrinking with the drought. But that allows us to graze during the non-growing season. We can graze sheep in the vineyard and we don’t have to worry about the vines at that time. And then during the growing season of the vines, our summer, we can graze as well. But because we don’t get rainfall in the summer, that means that the flock is generally smaller. And typically we’re just using the rams. Our flock here is about 2000 sheep, so we have somewhere around 25-30 rams. And that’s a good number for grazing kind of quickly through the vineyard during the summer season because there’s just not much vegetation most of the vegetation is under the binds themselves. The initial goal of this was to create an agricultural system that encourages biodiversity and builds biodiversity back into the ecosystem. Most agriculture actually reduces biodiversity sometimes really severely, to basically one crop and all insects and most life is kept out of farming systems. And so we wanted to do the exact opposite. And I was a bit inspired by something, Aldo Leopald said in that when we restore ecosystems, we may use some of the same tools that we use to destroy them.
And so you just have to change your mindset on how you’re using those tools. Animals, for instance. So we’re using livestock not to overgraze and over trample and create erosion and reduce biodiversity. We’re using them for the opposite reason because the grazing practices that we’re using basically mimic natural grazing animals in an ecosystem that includes predators. The idea of this is that basically we’re testing all of our decisions, our management decisions, our design decisions, and saying, will this increase biodiversity or will it reduce it? And so that means we’re not doing tillage, we’re keeping the soils covered. We’re using all of the soil health principles plus some additional ones. We have a page that we’ve put together of principles that we’re working on, working with that allow us to achieve these goals. And one of the things in order to verify this, as we’re doing a lot of monitoring, so we’re monitoring soil health, soil biology. We’re monitoring insect populations, insect communities. We’re monitoring bird populations, plant species, and obviously we’re monitoring things like a normal vineyard would do, like your wine quality. And all of that has led us to some interesting results. We’re seeing a lot of benefits in all of those. All of those areas are good. But one of the really exciting things that happened this year is we had an endangered species that’s endemic to California show up. We’ve always had a few of these birds called the tricolor blackbird. And this year we ended up having a large breeding colony. We had about 800 birds that were flocking in the vineyard every day, and they were nesting just below the vineyard in a small pond that we have. And so that was very exciting for us. And it was also exciting for a lot of the folks that are watching this bird and trying to figure out how do we stop the decline of it so that apparently they found the vineyard an exciting place to be.
And that was a real affirmation that we are on the right track. One of the things that I really appreciate in having worked with a number of ranchers and farmers, and farmed myself, is that when you do the right thing, you get unintended benefits, and when you do the wrong thing, you get unintended negative consequences. And so we are seeing a lot of sometimes expected benefits and sometimes things that totally did not expect. For instance, the increase in bird population, we didn’t expect that we would have an endangered species that would fall in love with the vineyard and, and park itself here. So that was, we had hoped to increase some bird species, but that was, so that was definitely an unintended benefit.
The other things we are seeing is that the overhead trellis, as you mentioned, does provide shade and it provides shade in a large portion of the vineyard. So what we are seeing is that we are creating resiliency in the face of climate change. And so the higher. Being higher up from the ground means we’re higher, we’re cooler. We have a microclimate that’s cooler than being close to the soil. And oftentimes vineyards have been planted low, specifically, so they could be warmer in cooler climates. So we’re a warm andhot climate, so we don’t need things to get any warmer and, and things are going towards the hot direction for us for sure. So having the trellis, the canopy up high. Helps provide shade. It provides shade for people when you’re harvesting, provides shade for the animals when they’re in there grazing. And it’s also providing habitat for things like insect-eating birds for spiders. And so we’re, it’s expanding the habitat niches for a lot of life. We are also seeing, in addition to making it cooler in the hot season, it’s helping to prevent frost damage when we get frost. And we used to not experience frost here to the lateness that we are right now anyway. We’ve had frost as late as towards the end of May, and those have been very damaging to the vines, the young vines that are still on the ground.
But those vines that are up on the trellis, we might see a little frost burn, but we’re not getting any serious damage. So that is helping us mitigate this climate change, which brings both heat and cold extremes. So that is helping us in that way. And so those are just a couple examples of things that we’re seeing that were not necessarily, we didn’t, I’d kind of thought maybe that it might be helpful for Frost, but not to the extent that we’re seeing. It’s pretty dramatic how much benefit it is having the vines up higher. One of the things that we have been experimenting with over the past two years is having an internship program. And that has been a fascinating experience, learning experience for all of us, and it’s great having younger people at the vineyard who are very passionate about what we’re doing, because we have not figured out everything yet. We have a lot to learn. We’re just scraping the surface here. And so bringing young folks that are interested in this, on this journey with us and sending them out there to do and take what they’ve learned from here and what they learn from other places too, and expand on this is I think a great opportunity of sharing and learning from each other cuz the learning definitely goes both ways. And so that has been another fun and sometimes challenging aspect I’m sure for both sides, that is happening here.
Rebecca Burgess is an indigo farmer, author, and community organizer. She’s the executive director of Fibershed. She set out to develop clothing made from fiber grown, woven, and sewn within a single bioregion – North Central California. As she began to bring ranchers, farmers, and artisans together she discovered that even in her immediate community there was ample raw material being grown to support a new regional textile economy rooted in climate change prevention and soil restoration. This is a teaser to get you ready for the Farming Fashion mini-series from the Fibreshed UK team that we will be bringing to you next month.
What inspired me to start Fibershed was that I had already initiated a project to establish a one year wardrobe challenge for myself, working with fibers and buys and community members to generate something I would wear over the course of a year and after that year, which had been successful, there was more fiber than I knew what to do with, an incredible natural dye palette, and incredibly talented community. I realized that there was more to this that might even end up looking like a new regional economic lens to evaluate our community through, because most of the clothes, if not probably close to a hundred percent of the clothing in our community is imported. And it has very little to no transparency. I mean, now it’s getting better. Small and medium brands are really pushing the edges on, and even a couple of big brands are trying. But I felt like there was this need to codify the value system in something more structural than just in personal endeavor . So that’s when the community who had already participated in the one year wardrobe challenge, they also started to participate in the board of directors and the structure to define the org came a lot from their input. I just went and did all the legal work and got pro bono help and set it up as an org that would yes, evaluate the future of economic, regional economic sovereignty, fiber sovereignty, you know, what does it mean to be able to process our own materials in ways that allow us to provide for our communities. I think a global advocacy is the opportunity, I think being able to say from a series of grassroots organizers who work in these food fiber, natural medicine, I mean everything, the land, everything that comes from and yields from healthy, productive landscapes, all of us who are part and parcel of those processes, we are part of the carbon cycle and we acknowledge it.
What does reparative justice look like for the communities that we have forced to become the means of production, in some cases against their will, You know, tearing people out of their traditional culture to become means of production for Western culture, which is what fast fashion has done. Now that you’ve concentrated all those women primarily in these huge sewing factories from Vietnam to Bangladesh to Myanmar. And China’s pretty much moved cut and sew out of their country. And Ethiopia is now a new, you know, landscape for exploitation. What is the just transition? How do we as Fibershed organizers reach out to the communities that have been so imperiled by fast fashion and say we’re taking responsibility. We’ve always needed to. We’re doing that, but we know that you got caught in a conundrum that we got caught in too. But you have more to lose because this is your, this is everything to keep your family going. So I think we have to address re reparative justice in this transition. It’s so interesting to see the achievements to me, on community organizing, which is an achievement in itself to be a community organizer and actually say you can call something something cuz you’ve invested your time and attention into getting people to work towards something together that’s an achievement and that that’s happening globally is awesome and there’s a beauty that it’s also happening in, primarily it’s happening in Canada, the United States, Australia, Britain, somewhat in the North Atlantic, a little bit in Central and Southern Europe, but it’s happening in countries that are my own, it’s interesting, it’s my own ancestry. So my family is originally, you know, more Irish, Welsh, a bit Scandinavian. You know, the islands, the North Atlantic Islands is where we’re from. And to watch it kind of birth out of these locations, it feels, I mean, if I were to go very personal, it feels like a healing of a very long ancestral line that, you know, we were starved out, the commons were enclosed, our family had to leave, we were exiles.
And so, and then the exiles, my ancestors. Not specifically my ancestors in so much, but a lot of European ancestry did atrocious things in Australia and Canada and the United States cuz we recreated the oppression that we’d experienced in our home country. So I think what this means is a full circle achievement to say we’re going to now include everyone that was dispossessed on the continent that we colonized and we tried to, we almost destroyed and in some cases did destroy so much. Now it’s time to repair. Now it’s time to apologize. Now it’s time. I mean, it has been forever, but it should have never happened in the way it did, but we can really just try now our best to be humble and thoughtful. The thing I keep hearing about, or that we would see is like, oh there’s a lot of, you know, lack of understanding of how, what our future looks like because of all these extreme climactic changes. But what I keep seeing is every time something catastrophic happens, like in my community, like a big fire, it’s the sheep grazers who come out the next year and start a matchmaking process between themselves and landowners to get all the fire fuel load out of their communities.
And I watched, I’ve driven, I’m gonna drive there tonight, an entire mountain that was covered in conservation ethos, which is ‘don’t touch it’. And this mountain now, the community was so scared it was gonna burn, and so I’ve driven out there and grazers that I work with have been working on this landscape now for two years. All of the under story is healthy and low, but the tree branches don’t start until maybe like eight or 10 feet up. So fire can comb through and smolder, but it can’t get into the catastrophic element of the tree canopy. And it was just to me to see the resilience of fiber systems. Just, it’s like, Oh, I love it. I love that we’re ameliorating catastrophic fire with fiber producing animals. So that’s something I haven’t, yeah, we’re gonna, we’re talking about, we’re gonna talk about it more, but you know, people who are like a fire burned my house. I rebuilt my house. I’m still having to evacuate. But my house isn’t burning anymore because I have been working with this forest proactively now for two years. Like people are staying and they’re trying to figure this out, and the fiber systems are hugely integral to how they’re staying. So anyway, just a little anecdote of positivity.
This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Jo Barratt, Abby Rose and Olivia Oldham. A big thanks to the rest of the farmerama team Katie Revell, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Dora Taylor. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt