Sustainable Farms: Lou Preston Interview Part 2

Lou Preston runs the Preston Farm, Vineyards and Winery, located 10 miles northwest of Healdsburg in the Russian River watershed in California. In faCE LOVE in Issue 2 we recommended Preston Vineyards as a stellar example of a successful sustainable family farm.

In terms of business models, successful 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

Here is the second half of our interview: 

 

ON CROP DIVERSITY

Lou:   Some of the things that we are driving by that are of importance to us: Diversity of crop is one thing because you don't over tax one piece of ground with the same mono culture of grapes or whatever. Grapes you can't rotate, but pastures can be rotated with other crops. We also have edge rows everywhere. Here's an edge row of many different species of flowering plants that are habitat for beneficial insects, habitat for other small animals.

Stephen: This is that? Rosemary or lavender?

Lou: That's rosemary there. This is one of our early - we call it a hedge row now - but it was this sort of an alternate crop. Apple trees are mostly what defines the edge of a row of vines. These two blocks of vineyard are now pasture because we have enough grapes.

Stephen: So the plan for this, right now, is just to let it be for the time being? Do you have plans for this pasture for the future, maybe wheats or other grains?

Lou: In fact there were grains here two years ago, three years ago. The grass builds the soil up, it captures and sequesters carbon and you're building up organic matter in the soil and improving the tilt of it. And so when we are ready for this to become a different crop - right now it will be pasture for this year and maybe next year - then we'll turn this under and plant who knows, strawberries or whatever.

Stephen: So this is part of your natural soil nutrition restoration.

Lou: Grass is incredible. There's one book, All Flesh Is Grass, and the idea is that any animal that we eat, it's make up comes initially from grass. That's nitrogen, that's protein and that's a building block of meat. All of this, we can still graze this. It's mustard and grasses and some planted cover crop. Until the vines begin to push we can still graze that.

Stephen: What about the mustard grass? Will the sheep destroy it when they graze? Do you have to replant the mustard or does it just come back on its own?

Lou: It comes back on it's own pretty much. Although when they graze it, they're grazing the flowers, they love the flowers and it's the flowers that become the seed heads that will regenerate the plant. So in grazing it, we get less regeneration of that particular plant but we get enough.

 

ON THE BUSINESS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING

Stephen: It's lovely out here. Tell me about the economics, the business model, of your farm. Winery aside, what factors determine your crop selection strategy? What are the new ways you are marketing your farm’s products? For example your participation in the local outdoor markets, and restaurants.

Lou: (Laughs) That’s an interesting conversation, especially since we haven't figured it all out.

Stephen: Working on this scale it seems like almost everything you're harvesting or growing you're selling.

Lou: Shall we define the topic as, how do you make a diversified small family farm work from a marketing sense, from a cost point of view? It's a major challenge and we're still learning. We've shifted from working with a single commodity, which is grapes, into many different products that potentially all have different customers. Imagine that, let's say, you've got a few loaves of bread and maybe a dozen dozen eggs and you got some cauliflower and maybe some lamb meat to sell. How do you deal with that on a small scale? We’ve found that the people that are interested in locally grow food are interested in the full dimension of it and a lot of our produce goes to chefs in town that have a restaurant that also buys our wine. It's really fun, and it doesn't happen all the time, but you walk in the front door of a restaurant with a case of wine and then you go back out to the truck and you pick up a lamb carcass and you walk back in that same door and maybe if you are lucky you go back out and you get a flat of lettuce. The chefs that we work with most closely will put on their menu a certain dish that is composed of, let’s say Preston lamb or Preston kale, and they will identify that on the menu.

Stephen: They'll cite you. They'll call it Preston lamb or Preston kale.

Lou: Yes. So it becomes sort of free advertising. Now getting that one carcass, that one flat of kale, that one case of wine to a customer can be pretty inefficient and we're still figuring out how to do that. How do you assemble the orders? We have a wine sale director that pretty much concentrates on wine and we have a farmer lady, who has a direct line to the chiefs and we email then regularly. But then somebody has got to take this stuff in, so we're learning how to coordinate across the different departments, the winery, the farm.

Stephen: Making everything run as efficiently as possible.

Lou: We're still building our presence in the restaurant community. Meanwhile we're at three farmer's markets and I'm hoping to add another one in the near future.

Stephen: And you've been instrumental in organizing those farmer's markets?

Lou: I have not, no.

Stephen: But they didn't exist awhile ago right?

Lou: The Healdsburg farmer's market was founded, I think, in the late 70s by a local family, the Bernie family, and they have a number of farming sights in this vicinity. We’ve only been coming for maybe four years and so we're newcomers on the block but we've been selling organic produce at the market. We sell value added things, bread made from our grain, pickles made from our vegetables and it's the diversity of products and the value added character of some of our products that, I think helps to make it successful. It broadens that market for sure.

Where we go with it is a really good question. We would like to take advantage of the fact that we have a destination here with the winery, we have a farm store on the property. We would like to have more people come to the property to satisfy their food needs. And part of the food needs is being part of a food community. It's like the wine club. You guys are part of our wine community and we want to build that on the food side as well. Whether we do it with the CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, where you provide a box once a week or once a month. I don't know if we'll do that, that's a lot of work too but it's a way of building community, that we think is really important. 

Stephen: Could that be another delivery that's integrated in your overall delivery schedule?

Lou: That's right, and instead of delivering three boxes to one restaurant, you are delivering 50 boxes to, to-

Stephen: A distribution hub.

Lou: Yeah - a neighborhood hub or a small town.


ON A MODERN DAY GRANGE, A SMALL FARM RENNAISANCE

Stephen: The groups you mention in your newsletter, the young farmers, you have people over to share information, to share knowledge about how things are done.

Lou: We're getting involved more and more in groups. There's a meeting tomorrow of people that are learning how to grow grain. It's not on this property but it's on another local farm. So we will reach out to groups outside our land and we will invite people here also.

Stephen: You mentioned the Young Farmers Guild and then you also had a small farm conference.

Lou: Sebastopol’s becoming kind of a hot vocal center for young farmers. There is a chapter of the Farmers Guild there and there's a sort of a revival of the grange movement from the early years of the 1900s. It's starting up again, it's a way of again building community and of sharing information and so we're participating in these things. We belong to the Farm Trail, the Sonoma County Farm Trails, which brings people together socially and professionally to share information about farming and then there's this sort of diaspora of customers that they send out into the farm lands to enjoy the adventure of meeting farmers and discovering farms.

Stephen: The great American tragedy of the last 70 years, I feel, is the hundreds of thousands of family farms shuttered, the jobs that have been lost with the advent and growth of factory farming and big agribusiness. Companies like Tyson and Monsanto taking over farming and agriculture and ranching in much the same way Walmart expanded, eliminating small businesses in town after town. I sense a ground swell in recent years. I foresee, over the next decade or so, a great resurgence of small sustainable family farms, that they’ll come back.

Lou: I think they will. It may be different. You think of a traditional family farm. There's a homestead, there was a farm yard, it was self sustaining, you grew what you needed for your family and then you sold the extra. Whether it's going to look like that I don't know. Land is so expensive. Can young farmers afford to build a homestead, have a home site? Or is it going to be rented land? Would they live in town and drive out to a site that's been leased to them or even loaned to them to farm it? I think it's going to be different. But young people are pretty creative. It will get better.

Stephen: I’m interested all these different models. You have the winery. Other sustainable farms are more animal intensive. Others that are more crop intensive. I want to look at the successes, in different regions, what people are doing to make it work. There's a lot of interest in this now. We’re entering a very interesting time. Thank you Lou for your insights and your time.

Lou: Good to spend time with you.  Thank you.

 

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.