Farming the natural way
World-class products are produced organically
Distinguished Alumni a continuing series
Few people have the twists and turns in their lives weave into a pattern as perfect as that of Ted Hall '70.
He was introduced to organic farming by his mother, who practiced organic gardening in rural Pennsylvania long before it was fashionable. At Princeton, he studied electrical engineering and economics, both of which provided practical knowledge for operating a farming enterprise; and his career at McKinsey & Co. Inc. exposed him to economic policy on a grand scale. All these components are essential to his current enterprise: producing world-class farm products using simple, organic, sustainable farming methods.
"I have been working on this my whole life," said Mr. Hall, coowner and operator, along with his wife, Laddie, of Long Meadow Ranch, located in California's Napa Valley. "It has roots in the organic farming my mother did when I was a child. Certainly mom takes enormous pleasure in this."
His integrated farming system has five categories of economic activity. He grows grapes and makes wine. He grows olives and produces olive oil. He has a specialty beef herd of Scottish Highland livestock and is raising organic beef. He breeds Appaloosa horses and has a small organic vegetable garden and an egg-laying poultry flock. But it's the grapes and olives that are at the heart of Mr. Hall's operation.
"I started making wine in 1971," he said. "I made wine as an amateur from '71 to '86. We did 17 consecutive vintages as amateurs. That was long enough that I made some really wonderful wines and some really terrible wines. We decided in the late '80s that we really wanted to do this on a larger and more permanent basis."
Finding a farm in the Napa Valley was not an easy task. Mr. Hall said he and his wife negotiated on one parcel for almost four years before giving up in frustration. They "stumbled" upon Long Meadow Ranch, which was first farmed in the 1870s, although at the time of the Hall's purchase the farm had not been active for quite some time.
"Our intention from the very beginning was to farm organically," he said. "I knew we would grow grapes, but I wasn't sure about the rest of it. I knew we would have some livestock and a small piece of an old family farm. What we have developed is a truly integrated, organic farming system."
The Halls had to start from scratch. They planted new vineyards on the hillsides that had produced grapes in the 1870s. And as they reclaimed the vineyards from the second-growth forest, they discovered what would become the second leg of their farming enterprise: substantial olive plantings.
Above, Long Meadow Ranch's
Prato Lungo extra virgin olive
oil is described as the best
California olive oil and is named the top recommendation of all
U.S. oils in A Buyer's Guide to
Olive Oil by Anne Dolamore.
Below, the 1997 Cabernet
Sauvignon ranked at number
90 in Wine Enthusiast Magazine's list of 170 top-rated California Cabernets (November 2000).
"We did not know about the olives when we first arrived," Mr. Hall said. "The trees had probably been abandoned in about 1920. A second-growth forest had grown over them, so you literally could not see them. By '92-'93 we knew that we had enough historic olives that it could provide the second leg in creating our organic, integrated farming system. So we set out to build a farm around making wine and olive oil."
Fellow Princetonian William Turnbull '56 *59 was enlisted to design a combined winery and olive oil processing facility, or frantoio.
"We are the only combined winery and frantoio in North America, although wine and olive oil have been grown together for centuries in Italy," Mr. Hall said.
They first dug a cave in which the wine would age. The soil from the cave was used to build the building. Mr. Hall said his winery and frantoio is the largest rammed-earth structure in North America.
"It's 99 percent dirt and one percent portland cement," he said. "It is the first modern winery built in this area that has no mechanical heating and cooling system. It relies on passive systems, so it is extremely energy efficient."
Mr. Hall said this reflects his core idea, that world-class products can be produced using sustainable organic farming practices. The timbers in the building are recycled and remilled timbers from an old railroad station, and all the lighting fixtures are made from recycled metals. The stone wall outside the building was made from serpentine quarried on the ranch.
Long Meadow Ranch operates a composting facility, from which naturally created fertilizers are produced for use on the grape vines and olive trees.
"We don't use herbicides or pesticides," Mr. Hall said, adding that he also doesn't use poisons to try and control rodents.
"We use raptors...hawks and barn owls...to help us control the rodent population," he said. "Most people try to bait rodents. The problem is that the rodent eats the bait, birds eat the rodent, and the birds die. And guess what? Before you know it you have more rodents than before. We encourage the growth of wildlife populations to help us in our farming."
Throughout the vineyards, Mr. Hall has raptor perches that provide ideal locations from which the birds can scan the fields for dinner.
Two types of plants flourish under the grape vines: clover and wild mustard. Both plants help fix nitrogen into the soil and make it available to the grape vines. The clover and wild mustard also help prevent erosion, and in the case of mustard, which has an extremely long taproot, helps aerate the soil.
"We actually manage the height of these cover crops so that we grow large populations of beneficial insects," Mr. Hall said. "We see lots of bees, and usually at this time of the year if you walk a little way in, you will come out covered with ladybugs."
Mr. Hall said that the basic problem with chemical farming is that destroying one life form in the eco system leads to the destruction of other life forms. Because the lower life forms always come back fastest they have total run of the place because their natural predators have been destroyed.
"What happens is that you use a pesticide to kill the pests, the pests come back and come back bigger than before until you finally kill everything that's there and basically create a sterile zone," he said. "We start every season with some aphids in the vineyard, because if we don't have aphids the ladybugs can't get established. A key concept of managing these integrated organic systems is one of diversity--trying to create a competitive environment that allows the grape vine to be able to succeed in a healthy fashion."
Growing grapes and olives means that the farm works year-round. Grapes are harvested in September and October. Olives are harvested in November, December, and January. The grape vines are pruned in late January and early February. The olive trees are pruned in March and April.
"We are able to cultivate on alternating cycles and that means that a farm worker who works here has work year-round," Mr. Hall said. "We are truly an integrated operation. We have wine and olive oil working together in that recycling cycle. We use the bedding from the horses and the tree prunings in our compost facility. The cattle operation allows us to effectively graze our olive trees.
"The whole farming system is structured as an interlocking system," he continued. "If you pulled out any one of these pieces, it would be much more difficult to accomplish what we are able to accomplish here. Long Meadow Ranch is a manifestation of the kind of opportunity that exists if people start thinking outside the box of single crop mentality."
Long Meadow Ranch released its debut 1996 vintage cabernet sauvignon in 1999, just 10 years after the Halls acquired the farm. Mr. Hall said it will take about 15 more years for the ranch to reach its production capacity of 6,000 cases, which is about 100 tons of grapes.
His Princeton education contributes every day to his ability to succeed, Mr. Hall said. Engineering taught him the systems view with multiple variable, multiple actors, and lots of feedback loops.
"We were taught to describe the nature of the system, put some boundaries around it, and generate some expectations of how it might perform and how it might respond," Mr. Hall said. "That's a very powerful, generalized view of the world and its problems. A lot of people think that an engineer is someone who gets very tight and precise answers and that somehow that is constraining and narrowing. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. It's the ability to take very complicated, unstructured problems in very uncertain situations and describe them in ways that allow you to estimate and approximate what might occur."
To learn more about Long Meadow Ranch, call toll free (877) NAPA-OIL, or visit the Website at: www.longmeadow ranch.com.