A three-hour drive eastward from Portland, Oregon, takes you through the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. This deep, sinuous valley, which separates Oregon from Washington, was carved, as the name attests, by the mighty Columbia River. As you move away from the coast, the landscape dries out and opens up and you witness a striking change in vegetation: the blanket of dense evergreen forests and lush understory vegetation give way to a pattern of scattered trees and wildflower-dotted grasslands and the bones of the land, the underlying basalt layers, become prominent. In this rugged landscape, just outside the small town of Lyle, Washington, father-and-son team of Robin and Kiva Dobson practice what they call “ecodynamic farming” at Klickitat Canyon Winery. The Dobsons’ vineyard is certified organic, but through the cultivation of native plants among the rows of grapes and incorporation of low-impact farm management practices, they go far beyond the letter of organic law in living up to sustainable agriculture ideals.
Kitty Bolte (right) and Eric Lee-Mader (left) of the Xerces Society get a tour of the vineyards and accompanying habitat lead by Kiva Dobson and his son (center). Photo: Liz Robertson / Xerces Society
With fellow Xercoids Eric Lee-Mäder and Liz Robertson, I made the drive from Portland to Klickitat Canyon as part of our efforts to get the farm Bee Better Certified. Bee Better is a third-party verified farm certification program developed by Xerces that recognizes farms that employ pollinator-friendly farming practices, including the maintenance of on-farm natural habitat and minimal pesticide use and tillage. In the past year, I’ve helped several farms write Bee Better Plans detailing how their farm meets the production standards, which are then reviewed and verified by Oregon Tilth. Typically, the first step in that process is to determine the ways in which the farm is currently out of compliance and work together to find opportunities to change farming practices to bring the operation in line with Bee Better Certified production standards. But in much the same way that the Dobsons handily exceed the minimum requirements for organic certification, upon getting out of the car and walking through the vineyard, it did not take us long to realize that achieving Bee Better certification would be straightforward.
No pesticides are sprayed at Klickitat Canyon Winery (remarkable in an industry notorious for its heavy and increasing reliance on insecticides); nor are the rows between the grape vines cultivated. Instead, the vines grow among native bunchgrasses and wildflowers, and the Dobsons are actively working to increase the biodiversity in their vineyard. As Kiva explained to us, prior to his father’s purchase of the land, the area where the vineyard now stands was a combination of alfalfa fields and rangeland used for cattle grazing. In this part of the west, overgrazing by early ranchers depleted the native floral diversity in the area, favoring exotic annual grasses. To correct for this, Robin has spent the past 20 years revegetating the vineyards with native plants by wild-harvesting the seeds of native wildflowers and bunchgrasses growing on the farm to sow among the grapes. When we visited, blooming lupines, desert parsley, and balsamleaf arrowroot carpeted the vineyard floor. Under the shade of trees in the farm’s undisturbed oak woodland, an understory community of woodland star, popcorn flower, and blue stickseed thrived. Down the hillside from the grapes and oaks, a riparian area featured flowering trees and shrubs, including big leaf maple, snowberry, and Oregon grape.
Sucksdorf’s Lupine (Lupinus latifolius) blooms among Klickitat Canyon grapevines overlooking Mt. Hood. Photo: Kitty Bolte / Xerces Society
It is not an exaggeration to describe Klickitat Canyon Winery as teeming with life of many kinds, from flowers and bees to birds and spiders. When I asked Kiva and Robin about the pest pressures they faced on the farm, they shrugged and said pests have never been a serious concern in their grapes, no doubt because the abundant native vegetation helps keep pest and predator populations in balance. For me, a Californian accustomed to the Central Valley’s bare orchard understories, heavy spray regimes, and fencerow-to-fencerow agriculture, our visit to Klickitat Canyon was a welcome reminder of our ultimate aim in working on pollinator restoration projects in agricultural landscapes: With careful stewardship, farming can incorporate ecosystem functions in ways that benefit both agriculture and the natural world. I feel fortunate that we at Xerces are able to work with innovative farmers at the forefront of that vision.
Written by: Kitty Bolte, Pollinator Habitat Specialist