One morning each month I spend a few hours with our core vineyard team here at Hilliard Bruce discussing the important topics of the moment. In the early spring it is bud break. Mid-Spring brings flowering and (hopefully) warm temperatures. Early summer is canopy growth and fruit set. Mid-summer is crop estimates and vineyard health. Late summer is veraison, when grapes begin to change color from bright green towards their final destiny. On our July 17th meeting, one tiny section of Pinot Noir had just begun to blush – a very exciting time even for hardened industry insiders. It marks a new beginning of the season as we count down toward harvest.
During our last vineyard tour, Shannon Gledhill, pest management advisor and viticulturist for Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, spoke with me about our SIP program, as she is also responsible for implementing and maintaining our compliance. She is an inspiration to be with as her knowledge, dedication and joy toward her work is irrepressible. I was curious to understand why more vineyards in our area are not SIP certified, as she will often reference the program during the course of our meetings. One of the main issues in understanding what SIP means is connecting simply and clearly to clients and consumers. While “organic” is relatively understood by consumers, “biodynamic” practices are a bit cloudier, leaving SIP – a relatively new program on the agricultural scene within the last 20 years - at a disadvantage in communicating and marketing its message. I have been to general SIP meetings in the past and I had no idea that we (meaning Shannon) had to document how often we clean our drip irrigation lines throughout the property.
While organic and biodynamic farms can also be SIP certified, the standards and rigor of SIP go well beyond these programs. While they all share interests in biodiversity and habitat, soil conservation and approved pesticide use, SIP also includes water and energy conservation, social responsibility and sound business practices. SIP takes the whole farm system into consideration – plants, people and the environment.
What is the goal of SIP Certification?
It is a way of documenting a vineyard’s dedication to sustainable farming. It has parameters that need to be reached and metric goals associated with it, so it shows a farm’s commitment to the process.
How many vineyards in Santa Barbara County are SIP Certified?
The beautiful thing is that John Hilliard was part of the pilot program ten years ago. At the time there were only 8 vineyards involved in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. Locally John was one of 2. Now the program is across California and Michigan and there are over 200 vineyards that are SIP certified.
Why is there still only a small handful of SIP certified vineyards in in Santa Barbara County?
It is really intensive. It takes multiple weeks to fill out the paperwork. To document all of these steps is a huge commitment. It is far more difficult to be SIP certified than organically certified.
Do you think it is beneficial program for a vineyard to be involved in and why?
That is a difficult question. I don’t think the vineyards themselves are receiving any benefits even though it is an amazing program.
Do you mean economic benefits?
Yes absolutely. It is about communicating what the word sustainable actually means to our consumers, colleagues and vineyard clients.
What does sustainable mean?
It means dedication to the environment. To the employees on the ranch. To the longevity of the ranch itself. The details that are covered are incredible. It involves water quality, energy usage, fair treatment of employees, fair wages, insurance, health care, proper training, having good neighbor relations, making the best choices for not only your vineyard but understanding that your choices effect everything outside the property line - everything that you can imagine.
Do you think vineyards that are not SIP certified are less responsible?
No, though if you have made that decision to be SIP Certified it makes you look at your farming practices more clearly and more in depth. I think it makes people better farmers just going through the process. Unless someone actually goes through the process, he or she may not think about these details.
Are you saying that the process makes owners and farmers more mindful of everything they are doing overall for themselves and their neighbors?
Yes, that has been my experience.
Before you got involved with SIP at Hilliard Bruce what are some of the things that surprised you the most?
Probably the water usage. The fact that you have to keep detailed records makes you way more aware. For me it was the water usage, and honestly, we used less than I thought we did.
Would you encourage everyone to get involved in SIP certification?
I feel it is definitely the right way to farm. It is just the economics of it all. That is a really hard conversation to have.
For the consumer then, SIP certification guarantees awareness, consciousness and mindfulness of every facet of farming and human endeavor on the ranch?
More than they would even understand.
For more information please check out the SIP website: