An interview with Ted Hall, of Long Meadow Ranch in California’s Napa Valley.
Ted, Laddie and Chris Hall, owners of Napa Valley’s beautiful Long Meadow Ranch, live and work by four simple words: Excellence through responsible farming. This strict focus on stewardship, respect and balance has helped the Hall family develop quality wines, heritage olive oils, and some of the area’s best organic produce. Since first acquiring Long Meadow Ranch in 1989, the Halls have worked to not only revitalize the land through sustainable farming methods, but also to rediscover and celebrate its surprisingly rich history. In the process, they’ve turned their 700+ acre ranch into a top destination for delicious food and wine.
Long Meadow Ranch is much more than its name implies.
We produce and purvey our wines and food from three locations in the Napa Valley.
Our 650-acre historic Mayacamas Estate is located atop the Mayacamas Mountains above the Napa Valley. Here we produce award-winning red wines and handcrafted extra virgin olive oils, as well as grass-fed beef, eggs, and heirloom fruits and vegetables.
The 90-acre Rutherford Estate is located on the floor of the Napa Valley in the world famous Rutherford AVA, among some celebrated historic vineyards. There, we grow Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 74 acres of vineyard. We also farm organic fruits and vegetables, keep honeybees and maintain an egg-laying poultry flock on the Rutherford Estate, which is also the site of our future state-of-the-art white wine production facility.
At Long Meadow Ranch, our three-acre destination location In St. Helena, we offer memorable wine & food experiences and educational opportunities through our tasting room in the historic Logan-Ives House and our restaurant, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. We also offer our fresh produce, grass-fed beef, and other LMR products at the Farmer’s Market at Long Meadow Ranch.
Your olive orchard in the Mayacamas Range is the oldest in the area, and a great reminder of California’s rich agricultural heritage. Can you share the story of how you first discovered, or rediscovered, it?
The orchards on our ranch were abandoned for years following prohibition, and were hidden by new forests that grew over the original sites. We were aware of a few olive trees when we acquired the first part of the ranch, but no one knew of the significant orchards that were hidden.
Following the purchase of an adjacent parcel in 1992, we discovered more than 250 mature olive trees that had been completely hidden from view. While clearing that second growth forest, 54 trees greater than 75 feet in height were removed. By counting the growth rings of those trees, we estimated that this orchard was last cultivated in about 1920.
The trees were planted in the 1870s by E.J. Church, the founding pioneer on our ranch, and the cuttings came around the Horn from southern Europe. We haven’t been to identify the cultivar (variety) despite numerous DNA tests, but believe it may have come from the south of France.
As additional parcels of the original land grant were re-assembled into Long Meadow Ranch, more trees were discovered. One orchard was found on horseback in 1993 and another was found nearby in dense brush in 1996. Today we have restored to production over 1000 trees with a heritage of at least 130 years.
The farm also raises roughly 350 Highland cattle. How did you select this heritage breed?
We now own the largest herd, or ‘fold’, of Highland cattle in California, and are building a herd with bloodlines that date to the earliest days in the British Isles, where cattle were first developed to produce beef and milk exclusively on a diet of grass. Thanks to these outstanding bloodlines our fold is also among the finest in America.
Highland beef is also considered by many to be the best in the world, and is even raised by the British royal family. In keeping with Long Meadow Ranch’s organic practices, our grass-fed beef is “all natural” – meaning it is chemical-free, hormone-free and free of any antibiotics.
We actually selected this breed based upon a recommendation from a friend who was raising Highlands in Australia. We liked the breed’s characteristics in terms of hardiness, maternal instincts, brush browsing, and even temperament – attributes which have been lost in modern cattle bred for feedlot beef production.
You’ve said previously that your decision to operate Long Meadow Ranch organically was based primarily in economics. What value, monetary or otherwise, do you see in raising produce and livestock this way?
Every farming practice we’ve adopted at Long Meadow Ranch is grounded in scientific principle first. We’ve just learned that organic farming methods produce higher quality produce at a lower cost with real consumer benefit. We hold a well-developed point of view about why it works.
How has integrating bio-diesel and a solar array improved your overall sustainability?
We actually operate three solar arrays, which help us offset the need to purchase electricity for our winery, restaurant, cold storage, offices and pumps. This has saved thousands of tons of CO2 emissions that otherwise would have occurred from the fossil fuels used to generate that same electricity.
Using bio-diesel has also eliminated a need for fossil fuels in our farming operations. Plus, bio-diesel is safer to our employees and reduces emissions. In fact, bio-diesel is biodegradable, which means that a spill on the ground does not create the toxic cleanup issues that would occur from using conventional diesel.
Has Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch had to adjust its menu at all to accommodate the current drought?
We adjust our menu daily based on the availability of produce from our gardens. The drought has had only a small impact on our menu because we can offset the lack of rain with irrigation. The drought has reduced the availability of fruits and nuts, but has had little impact on vegetable production.
Can you share an example of how you’ve successfully integrated modern science and time-honored farming techniques?
Farmers have long known that soil health, or tilth, is very important. Tilth is a traditional descriptor of soil that combines the properties of particle size, moisture content, degree of aeration, rate of water infiltration, and drainage into a single expression of quality. The look and feel of the soil in the hand was an important way of assessing tilth, and over the years farmers learned to discern differences in tilth by feeling, and even tasting, soil. Applying manures and composts, planting cover crops, tilling, and crop rotation were some traditional approaches for improving tilth, and we continue to use these methods.
However, today we know that soil health is also dependent on the level of microbial activity and the proper proportion of organic matter. We now test our soils to determine both the quantity and type of microbes and the percentage of organic matter to give us a more formal measure of fertility. We track these measures closely over time in addition to looking at tilth the old-fashioned way.
How are your various farm operations integrated?
In contrast to the monoculture that has evolved in the Napa Valley, Long Meadow Ranch uses an integrated farming system that relies on each part of the ranch contributing to the health of the whole. Vineyards and wine making, olive orchards and olive oil making, and cattle breeding all work together in complementary fashion (not to mention the egg-laying poultry flock and the organic vegetable gardens).
We also make our own fertilizers through an extensive composting operation that relies on organic material from each segment of the ranch. Soil erosion is controlled and new soils are built through the use of permanent cover crops made up of selected grasses, clovers and legumes.
You’ve referred to your agricultural process as “full-circle farming.” What does this entail, and how do you put it into practice?
The poultry flock and garden at LMR Rutherford Estate illustrate one of the central concepts of farming at Long Meadow Ranch, the notion of ‘integrated’ farming or beneficial, interrelated loops which we call full-circle farming.
We raise many varieties of rare heirloom tomatoes, and sell the best, most uniform fruit to fine restaurants. If they aren’t first quality, we’ll sell them at our Farmer’s Market at Long Meadow Ranch. Third-quality tomatoes are then sold to a great little drive-in restaurant where they’re made into gazpacho.
If the tomatoes aren’t good enough for that, they’ll be fed to our organic chickens. Because they eat fabulous tomatoes and veggies, the chickens then lay spectacular eggs with almost neon-like yolks. We then sell the eggs back to local restaurants!
When we’re done with the crop season, we put all the organic matter – old pumpkin vines, dead tomato plants – into a nearby compost pile, and use the chicken manure as the source of essential nitrogen. By spring the compost is ready to go back on the field as fertilizer and the cycle begins again.
How is Long Meadow Ranch working to protect and enhance its natural resources?
We are very committed to the preservation of agriculture in Napa County. We recently donated a conservation easement over an 11-acre prime agricultural parcel in Rutherford, and have laid the groundwork for continued agricultural use of this land. This easement restricts any future development of this property to purely agricultural uses, and ensures that this portion of the valley will remain uncluttered by new development. The site is a great location for producing high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and it brings the total land under conservation easements created by our family to 395 acres.
How can guests and visitors experience Long Meadow Ranch for themselves?
Guests and visitors are welcome to join us at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch Winery and the historic Logan-Ives House, home to our tasting room, General Store and vegetable gardens. We offer full-circle farming tours, wine and estate olive oil tastings, wine and food pairings and farm-to-table dining. Visitors can also check out our private ranch excursions, culinary education series or our summer concert series.
Visit the LMR website to learn more about their farm, products and restaurant.
photo credit: Long Meadow Ranch