The Poor Ranch, Hopland

by David Runsten, Community Alliance with Family Farmers

The Poor Ranch, run by John and Susan Poor in the hills above Hopland in Mendocino County, was homesteaded by the Poor family in 1888, and has expanded to over 1,000 acres. The Poors have 90 acres of wine grapes—80 are organic—including Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Carignane, and Grenache. The Poors have always dry-farmed their grapes.

All of their vines are on St. George rootstock. They report that this rootstock will “seek the water.” The Carignane is now the oldest vineyard (1942). The original vineyards were not on rootstock, but though the first wave of phylloxera missed them, the second wave hit in the early 1940s. The vine spacing is 9×9 or 9×11. They want enough space between the vines so that they can disc in both directions. Some vineyards are planted in diamonds, some in squares. They use no irrigation when planting, just put the plant in a hole and cover it. It takes about 5 years to get a crop after planting this way.

The Poors have no sprinkler system or fans for frost protection, so they use the technique of pruning twice to trick the vine. Frost is only a problem in the spring, as the plant starts to bud. They leave sizeable pieces of cane as they prune and then cut back again. If it freezes, only the ends freeze and they can cut it off. The vines are head pruned; there are no trellises or wires.

The Poors’ dry farming practices, step-by-step:

(1) Disc two ways: The first discing is the most important in terms of capturing moisture and keeping it. You have to judge when the rains have ended, because often a freeze follows a spring rain. You want to disc in the moisture, otherwise it will evaporate.

(2) Springtooth harrow to create “dust mulch”: It had just rained for two days when I visited and a crust had formed on the ground. The harrow was then used to create a fine-grained soil mulch. It’s important not to get real dust because it will just blow away.

(3) Cultivate once more

(4) Might hoe some weeds

(5) Harvest

The Poors purchased wider discs so that they could cut down the number of passes through the vineyards with the tractor. They have been trying to limit fuel use.

Because the grapes are on hills, there has been some erosion problems over the years. One hillside eroded so badly that they didn’t replant it in the 1940s. They are planning to plant some cover crops to help with erosion.

The Poors productivity averages just under 3 tons per acre, with a range of 2-5 tons per acre. They sell most of their grapes to Bonterra (Fetzer).

Susan Poor and her grandson checking the vines with Ann Thrupp of Fetzer.