Profiles in Conservation
Many times local landowners and the RCD are so busy doing good work for the land that we don't have the time to reflect on our accomplishments and share them with others.
The goal of our Profiles in Conservation program is to tell the stories of landowners that have been implementing innovative conservation practices for many years, sometimes even across generations. We feel lucky to have worked with so many innovative farmers and growers throughout our district, and we look forward to sharing their stories with the community.
Murphy Family Vineyards
East of the town of Healdsburg, in the sprawling hills of Alexander Valley, lies Murphy Vineyards, where brothers Jim, Denny, TJ, sister Patty and mother Doreen Murphy produce premium wine grapes on their 270 acre vineyard. In an industry that faces a myriad of challenges including increased regulation, restrictions on water use, and a drop in the price for grapes, Murphy Family Vineyards sits at the illusive point where conservation meets quality and production. At the helm is Jim Murphy, who has managed to cut irrigation water and energy use by 40%, amongst a multitude of other conservation strategies, through a combination of new technology and good old-fashioned diligence.
In 1967, the Murphy family, then living in Berkeley, purchased a hobby vineyard in Alexander Valley. When the grape industry began to boom, they moved north to expand their hobby into a business. Like many growers during that time, they learned by doing, and by 1985 they were not only growing grapes, but also making wine. Their business continued to change over time with changes in factors such as trellising methods, pest issues, available rootstocks, and demand in the marketplace. Their operation changed dramatically in 2005 when they stopped making wine to focus on grape growing. And most recently, in early 2010, they entered the winemaking industry again, not with their own label, but with a custom crush facility where local growers can have their grapes processed all the way through bottling, or crushed for bulk sale. Every member of the family has a hand in some aspect of the business, working together to run a true family operation.
But throughout all these changes, two things have remained constant for the Murphy family: a commitment to producing high quality grapes, and an interest in exploring new technologies that conserve water and energy while still producing the same high-quality product. And they've tried everything. Hydrometers, real-time soil moisture sensors, neutron probes and subsurface drip irrigation, among others. At the end of the day, Jim says, technology is good, but it can only be as effective as the people who operate it. While some technologies have become important parts of the Murphys' vineyard operations, others have ended up in boxes in the farm shed, and have been replaced by traditional methods that make more sense for the people who have to use them each day.
Case in point: a dramatic reduction in water and energy use through irrigation management that combines technology and careful record-keeping. According to Jim, there exists an ideal range of irrigation application rates in which a certain block of vines will produce high-quality fruit. The first step in managing irrigation is to find this range. Then one can make small adjustments over time to find the minimum amount of water that can be used to maintain that same quality. The Murphys have done this by keeping records each year of how much water was applied, and how the vines responded. These records are based on visual observations of plant growth and vigor, combined with pressure bomb measurements that indicate level of water stress in the vines. These records allow the Murphys to make informed decisions about how much water to apply each year, and through automation of their irrigation system, they can apply water very precisely where and when they choose. All of this has resulted in a cut from 20 hours of irrigation per week during peak irrigation to 12 hours per week, a reduction of 40%!
Jim pointed out to me what many growers would tell you - when you make a living off the land, you want to take care of that land. When you deplete soil or water, you've lost one of your most important tools. Growing high-quality grapes in a sustainable way is very hard work, but it's work that Jim and his family believe in. When I asked Jim about all of the challenges associated with his business, and where he saw the industry going in the future, he talked about regulations, pricing changes, and the regional adjustments in production that would result. But despite these challenges, Jim says, "I've always had optimism about this business, and I always will." And after talking with a guy like Jim, I can't help feeling optimistic as well.