You’re likely familiar with organic farming, and might even know about biodynamic farming, but Stephen Hagen, farmer of Antiquum Farm, does neither.
Instead, he practices a technique he calls Grazing-Based Viticulture, incorporating a variety of rotating livestock to help manage his crops and provide nutrients for the vines. The result? Wines with a true sense of terroir and land that is responding generously, Hagen says.
He’s obsessed with growing the best wines possible. “My wines are not made, they are grown cluster by cluster, with my own hands. They are a marriage of place, its people, and a moment in time,” he said.
When asked about biodynamic farming, Hagen replied honestly. “I’m not a joiner or team player; I despise recipes and checklists, and I think that certification lists come to the detriment of creativity and innovation. I want to think for myself and work from my gut. I call our method, grazing-based viticulture.” It’s basically agriculture from before the ease of fertilizers and easy mechanization, a method that saves about 12 tractor passes per year. It’s biodynamics with a curmudgeonly old-school twist. “We take the sheep poop and specificity and leave the moon and stars to wiser people.”
“I think biodynamics are awesome and I deeply admire the commitment to something deeper and more meaningful for anyone moving in that direction. We’re all on the same team. Any farming method that makes a farmer have a more intimate connection to their place is a very positive step,” he added.
But he also wants to keep the conversation going and continue to think critically. One of the things he loves about grazing-based viticulture is the fact that machinery use is so diminished. There are no machines building, turning and distributing composts. It’s always being applied in live time. There are no machines doing the mowing. The livestock takes care of that. Mechanical tillage is dramatically reduced and even eliminated in most vintages and sections of the vineyard where chickens taking over the weeding duties.
So, what exactly is grazing-based viticulture? In its simplest form, it means that the livestock are not left on large pastures for extended periods of time, maximizing and multiplying the grazing potential of any piece of ground. Hagen believes that ultimately, his vine quality gets better and better and says the animals get healthier too. In fact, they haven’t wormed or given any medications to their flock in over eight years.
Rotational intensive grazing mimics the natural migratory patterns of herd animals in the wild and their symbiotic associates, such as birds. The grazers graze the area cleanly and evenly and then they are moved to a new location.
“Everyone gets amped and super stoked on moving day, Hagen said. “ They know that when we say, ‘Come on sheep,’ that something delicious is about to happen—fresh grass is coming— They will follow for quite a ways.”
Hagen rotates the whole system about every three to five days, making it both a challenge and an art form. Every few days, he is planning size of the next graze, and how long the animals should be there. The animals seem to be constantly moving; everything in this system moves. The waterers, the shelters, and all the animals—everything is mobile.
“Fresh ground, sunshine, rain, and fresh air are the most reliable and constant sanitizers and balancer outers of all things,” he said.
The animals may rotate through the vineyards anywhere from 12-20 times a year. Each time they graze the forage, the root mass of that forage material recedes and dies off in proportion to the amount grazed.
“That recession of the root mass is where the magic is happening.” he said. The root die-off introduces a host of biological stimuli whose importance cannot be overemphasized.
“As we graze the site repeatedly, the soils begin to buzz and hum with the smalls and creepy crawlies,” he continued. “These microbial colonies break down the vast sea of insoluble nutrients that are inherently present in the soil. These newly broken-down nutrients are given as an offering to the godlike vines and the vines return their blessings to the microbes in the form of a generous portion of their carbohydrates.”
Hagen firmly believes that over time, as they’ve stopped disrupting the soils with cultivation, herbicides, and fertilizers, the wines have changed dramatically, becoming more exotic, and, more authentic expressions of Antiquum Farm.
“I feel very strongly that all fertilizers wash out opportunities for articulation and expression,” he said. “I don’t think they have any place in the pursuit of terroir. They have nothing to do with any specific place; they are an amalgamation of a few very distinct locations. The source materials for fertilizers are not from this valley, let alone our vineyards”
When asked about how his practices have affected the vines, he responds, “We’ve seen an incredible movement in the vineyard toward greater range of expression and articulation. Clonal material became irrelevant; in some places two clones act as one, in others, one acts as three. The color of our fruit has changed. Some vines have shifted their physiological growth habits, and the chemistries have moved into some really interesting and uncharted territories.
“I believe that any homogenized fertility input subjects a field full of potentially different personalities to behavioral therapy,” he said. “You are grabbing that poor soil by the back of the head and saying ‘Stop acting that way. Sit straight and be this.’ I guess you can maybe see my politics in my growing.”
One of the greatest shifts that Antiquum Farm has seen is the extreme physiological balance of the vines. They don’t see excess vigor or exuberant spring growth that then needs to be hedged or pulled out by hand. Instead, the vines seem to have this beautifully slow and steady growth rate, with even internode spacing throughout the season. They hit the top wire of the trellis and pretty much just stall out as the fruit begins to ripen. The vines essentially crop themselves very predictably.
“They’ve balanced themselves over time; it’s pretty beautiful,” he said. But the proof in the pudding can be seen in the wines, distinctive and exotic wines that are showing brilliant acidity, ripe fruit with great structure, and an almost ethereal quality.
“One of the main pillars of this thing is to get farming back to a time where we weren’t so damned specialized. Specialization is the death of creativity and independence; we treasure both,” he said. He believes that in order to function properly, the farm must breathe in and out with the seasons and the ebb and flow of the shifting forage availability.
To those who may tell Hagen he’s crazy, saying his methods are slow, difficult and too much work, he says, “Life is work; it is a gift to work at something you love.” He explains one of his particular personal joys is standing quietly and listening as people tell him that he can’t do something that he’s been doing for 15 years.
He’s frequently told that his sky is about to fall. “Maybe they’re right,” he said. Some may not understand how using draft horses, grazing livestock or infinite hours of meticulous hand labor grows a wine that is infinitely more intense, more unique and full of life. To that, Hagen replies, “I don’t understand how it couldn’t.”
TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.