Lou Preston runs the Preston Farm, Vineyards and Winery, located 10 miles northwest of Healdsburg in the Russian River watershed in California.
In faCE Issue 2 we recommended Preston Vineyards as a stellar example of a successful sustainable family farm. In terms of business models, sustainable family farms are almost as unique as the personalities of the farmers who run them.
There is a lot to learn from Lou Preston and the way he does things at Preston Farm. While their grape harvests and wines are exceptional, they experiment with many crops: kale, lettuce, strawberries, rasp, logan and allies, olives for their special olive oils. They plant special grains, barley, Emmer, Sonora and BlueBeard wheats to make their breads. Livestock include sheep and chickens.
We visited Lou on February 20, 2015 and recorded this interview. Here is part one:
ON ROTATIONAL GRAZING:
Stephen: How do you feed your sheep using your fields and vineyards?
Lou: We follow what's called holistic management which is intensive rotational grazing. This is a practice that was developed by Alan Savory and there are books that are written about it. The idea is that you're mimicking wild animals on the savanna's or on the prairies. Let's say it's a bison or a sheep. They crowd together, it's mob grazing, they stay together to protect themselves against predators.
So containing them but moving them regularly with electric fencing - you could also do it with guard dogs. This emulates this natural movement, this mob grazing of wild animals. And the natural setting.
They stay in one area to graze until the grass is gone and until they’ve fouled that area and then they move to the next area. When they have eaten most of the grass and there’s not too much nutrient left, it's time to move.
Stephen: How often do you move them?
Lou: For us, every two days works. There are some cattle grazers that will move their cows every day or even twice a day. A lot of work but they have found that they can really optimize the amount of weight gain of meat per unit of land.
Stephen: By doing that.
Lou: By doing that. It's very efficient and very healthy. A grass based diet is very healthy. Grass is like a natural antibiotic. It minimizes thes development of pathogens and disease organisms. As long as you have healthy grass and it's fresh, your animals don't need vaccinations unless they get an injury.
Stephen: So you use antibiotics only in the case of injury?
Lou: We have almost never used antibiotics except maybe when there was a difficulty with a birthing or something and the mother had a problem with a uterus issue or whatever. Then we might resort to vaccinating or antibiotics but vets are too expensive. You can't afford to get a vet out here all the time. You just need to keep them healthy, so that's our goal.
Stephen: So these sheep here will go somewhere else in 2 days, into another pasture?
Lou: They will probably move over into this section here.
(We shift over to the chickens in another vineyard.)
Lou: Let's get in there; I want to show you where the chickens are. Our rotation strategy is the sheep which we then follow by our layer hen flock. Hens eat bugs as well as grass, they’re grazers also, and they will eat the larva that develop in the sheep shit. So you take care of this, you avoid the presence of flies by having a flock of chickens following the sheep.
Stephen: I see how you have the sub-sections with the fence. And then you will move chickens into where they just were.
Lou: Right behind them same day we move the chickens from where the sheep were. They say that ideally you might need the space of maybe four days to allow fly eggs to hatch into larva. And then it's just perfect for the chickens but we found that with fly control, moving the engine right away as been fine.
Stephen: There are the chickens. So these coops move with them when you rotate your chickens?
Lou: This is all portable. We move it all. These trailers are our invention. It's just a utility trailer that you buy online or you get at the local Northern Tool or whatever and we build the house on top of it. So this is kind of a re-climate that we installed after we had the experience of a bobcat getting inside one of these trailers and eating a bunch of hens. So there's a timer on it or a solar censor or something, I forget what it is. The door will close at the time when all the hens are inside.
Stephen: How does it know one is not missing? A straggler?
Lou: Well then a straggler risks getting eaten.
Lou: We've already collected the eggs but they have already laid some more. So if you peak in, here’s the laying box. There'll be maybe 25 or 30 hens in here but they share the boxes.
They would rather lay their eggs where there's some other eggs already, rather than start a fresh nest. We put fresh straw in every time we move. My staff used to wash the eggs scrupulously but there's actually a protective coating on here, so you don't want to wash an egg unless it's got poop on it. So we're getting better now at not washing our eggs. If you look inside there, there is a roosting bar. That's where they sleep.
Stephen: Somebody is already in bed. Somebody’s napping. It’s like a little hotel.
Lou: We've got over a hundred hens now. They don't all lay everyday. Winter they lay less because it's fewer daylight hours. I think being out in the pasture, it's not like being in a confined area where they regulate the lights and the feed to maximize the eggs. A commercial hen house - they could probably get 300 eggs a year. You burn it out very quickly, that poor hen. We probably get more like a hundred to 150.
Stephen: That many though? They are amazingly productive, those little birds.
Lou: Maybe every three days, every two or three days, you'll get an egg.
Lou's Neighbor: And I couldn't even buy one egg here the other day.
Lou: Especially on weekends. Somebody is coming here, somebody wipes us out.
Lou's Neighbor: It was mid week! I had to call first and have them set aside a dozen for me.
Lou: Eggs from pastured hens are so healthy. My breakfast everyday is two raw eggs in raw kefir, raw milk and a little bit of apple cider vinegar in it. So I'm getting all kinds of good organisms and Omega 3s and all that stuff.
The second part of our interview with Lou Preston will focus on CROP DIVERSITY and THE BUSINESS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING
Preston Farm, Vineyards and Winery is a beautiful place to visit and to wine-taste. Discover Preston Farm at their website: https://www.prestonvineyards.com Visit them the next time you travel through California wine country. This is one example of a successful sustainable family farm.