Last month, we shaped vineyards with shears in preparation for this year’s growth. This month, yellow and white flowers sprinkle a fresh green cover crop of good vineyards and foreshadow new life. In wetter climes, the aquatic abundance behind that color is a given year round. Elsewhere, precipitation that gets past groundcover and soaks into the vineyard now will come in handy later in the year, when water is scarce and thirsty vines dig deep to find it.
How do good farmers in drier climes deal with the scarcity they face? The previous generation plowed vineyards bare to maximize absorption, but lost fertile topsoil and much of the water to evaporation. Less extreme farmers try plowing every other row, retaining some of the benefits of a healthy cover crop while providing uncontested avenues for aqueous entry. Still others fashionably employ no-till farming. The idea behind it is a sexy one–let the soil be and it will take care of itself: cover crops fix nitrogen, bug burrows channel water and air, and mycorrhizal fungi enable resource sharing between plants. The catch to no-till farming is it can’t be turned on and off from one year to the next. It requires years of training vines, and if precipitation is not generous during the transition years, crop yields may be severely compromised.
Dry farming is similarly smiled upon at the moment. In a world where industrially farmed grapes are pumped full of water to increase yield at the expense of concentration and flavor, one can understand the appeal. That said, is watering otherwise healthy but hot, dry vineyards a bad thing when neglecting thirsty vines could mean damaging them? Farmers in wetter places might tout the benefits of irrigation-free farming, but one has to ask: what does dry farming mean when it rains every day? It’s all a question of balance.