Home Wine Business Editorial Viticulture Fish Friendly Farming: Q&A with California Land Stewardship Institute’s Laurel Marcus

Fish Friendly Farming: Q&A with California Land Stewardship Institute’s Laurel Marcus


A conversation with the founder of Fish Friendly Farming Certification
and Climate Adaptation Certification Programs

Based in Napa County, the California Land Stewardship Institute (CLSI) works to improve farming and environmental practices across the state. Laurel Marcus, one founder of the organization, spoke with Wine Industry Advisor about the institute’s important work — past, present and future. 

Laurel Marcus

Marcus served as executive director of CLSI until March 2023, when she stepped back to focus more on outreach and working directly with farmers as science director. She has degrees in watershed science; more than 40 years studying and restoring California’s wetlands, creeks and waterways; and more than 30 years working directly with the state’s farmers to improve agricultural practices.

Marcus will be featured, alongside three Northern California wine growers, at WIN’s upcoming Growing Forward Vineyard & Grower Conference broadcasting on July 19. 

When and why did you develop the Fish Friendly Farming Certification Program?

I developed Fish Friendly Farming in Sonoma and Mendocino counties in 1999 as a tool for working with local farmers and ranchers to improve and protect the natural environment. We later created CLSI, which is a nonprofit, to run the program because it was getting too big for just my business to manage.

What does the program do, exactly?

When you look at the nature of recovering salmonids [restoring habitat for salmon and steelhead in local creeks and rivers], you have to recognize that all the activities in the watershed of each creek  affect those habitats. You can’t regulate your way into improving those conditions. It’s much better to work with farmers on a voluntary basis. 

[Photo courtesy CSLI]
[Photo courtesy CSLI]

Fish Friendly Farming is a voluntary program. It provides knowledge, techniques and technologies to advance the work. The idea being that we could address these endangered species, water quality, pesticide use — all these different elements that growers were getting regulated on, but they didn’t really understand what was required by the regulations. It’s often not clear, when you read a regulation, what it really means. We developed a Best Management Practices workbook and a farm plan template, that helps to direct the grower to improve their management practices to protect the environment as well as support their crops. 

Fish Friendly Farming  incorporates all the regulations into one program instead of [farmers] having to go through so many different programs. This was a way to make farming more compatible with fish. It started with vineyards, because vineyards are the dominant farm use in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. 

How does it work?

[Once someone enrolls their land], we go out to their farm and map where the vineyards are, where the vineyard drainage systems are, where the mix-and-load site is, where chemical storage is, where the creeks are and where their dirt roads are located. We assess and inspect all those things to figure out where there are sediment sources onsite. Fine sediment — that’s dirt, basically — is the biggest pollutant in the north coast watersheds. We prepare a farm plan to apply best management practices to each sediment source and eliminate soil erosion and, thus, the delivery of fine sediment to creeks and rivers.

We look at things such as, is there any rilling [small water flows] in the vineyard or on the vineyard roads? Depending on where it is, they may need to increase seeding of cover crops or put water bars across the vineyard road. With the roads, we look at all the culverts and ditches. Sometimes they need rocks at the outlets of culverts; those are called “energy dissipators,” because they break up all the erosive power of the water after it goes through the pipe. That reduces erosion at the culvert outlet and movement of sediment into the creek. 

We look at the creeks, many of which are highly affected by “incision.” When they put the two big dams on the Russian River — Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino — they stopped the movement of what’s called “bedload, which is large rocks, cobble and gravel, traveling down through the river system. The river makes up for this loss of bedload by eroding its channel. The channel just gets deep, deep, deep and then it starts to widen. The Russian River is as much as 25 feet deep in places — that’s not normal. That drop moves backwards up into all the creeks and erodes them as well. That’s really where the biggest problem in the system is when it comes to fine sediment pollution, but the regulators don’t seem to know how to address that.

[Photo courtesy CSLI]
[Photo courtesy CSLI]

We can help growers when they have a wet year: Let’s set your bank back, let’s put some vegetation on it. Native vegetation is the best way to reduce bank erosion over time. Putting in rock is really expensive and you need a permit to do it. 

Anyway, we do a farm plan and then we work with them to determine what the required actions are to address any problems. We also have an element on labor and workforce rules, community issues and business practices. 

Do you issue certification?

We work with a number of different certifiers. All are government agencies to avoid conflict of interest issues, including the National Marine Fisheries Service [the federal agency that’s in charge of recovering salmonids]. They work as a certifier with our program because they believe it’s a really positive way to make improvements on private land that benefit salmonids. We also have the Region 1  Water Quality  Control Board and County Agricultural Commissioners. The Ag Commissioner is the one that permits all chemical use and looks at, “Where are you mixing and loading chemicals? Could it spill into a well or creek?”

Once [a farm gets] certified, they just have to implement the plan. If it’s a big project, we’ll try to find money to help them. 

Is it a lifetime certification?

No. They recertify every 5 years. 

How many acres are certified so far?

Statewide, we have 280,000 total acres certified — remember, we do the whole property, not just the vineyard or crop. So far, we’re in 13 different counties and certify more than 15 different crops.

What you do sounds very collaborative with the farmer or rancher.

Definitely. We’re not regulators. We aren’t authoritarian at all. We work things out.

Let’s talk a bit about your Climate Adaptation Certification.

The Climate Adaptation Certification started in 2018. We use a model called COMET-Farm to quantify the amount of carbon a farm is sequestering and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions it produces. It’s called a Tier 3 model, because it’s the most sophisticated model you can use. It’s site-specific so we can really model each individual farm. 

We assess irrigation, replanting dates, electrical use, diesel use, frost fans, nitrogen use, tillage, cover crops, compost use and more. Our goal is to help farmers make informed decisions about carbon sequestration while still sustaining their crop size and quality. The California Land Stewardship Institute helps educate growers with site visits, input and ongoing support.

What’s been the response so far?

We recently concluded a successful pilot program with Sonoma County Winegrowers. We learned a lot about what to include in the models. We heard from growers about what they could and could not do to benefit the climate while they’re trying to grow a crop. Ultimately, that’s the big balance: They obviously can’t forgo their crop to sequester carbon. 

[Photo courtesy CSLI]
[Photo courtesy CSLI]

We’ve had quite a few people sign up since then. We’re on our next 25 to 30 climate plans. We model their current practices and then we model two other scenarios. Our models go 10 years into the future. Then they can make decisions about whether to change certain practices. Maybe they want to plant a bunch of oak trees that will sequester carbon, for example. There’s a whole lot of choices they can make.

In January, we’ll be hosting a conference looking out to 2050: What will it be like to try to grow grapes then? Our work focuses on adaptation, not restoration. There’s no going back to the way [farming was] in the past. We have to accept that and look to the future.

In the meantime, interested parties can watch your presentation at the Growing Forward online seminar (July 19). What would you like viewers to take away from that event?

Every year, farmers have to make decisions about how to manage and produce a crop that’s the right size and quality. To do that — which is their real job — they have to have flexibility in the methods they use. 

Our Climate Adaptation Certification program allows that flexibility. It recognizes that not everybody can do the “go organic, never till again” approach. Farmers can’t commit to changes that can impair their ability to grow their crop in such an uncertain climate. They need to be able to use all their tools and make decisions that are best for that year’s crop. 

We’ve designed a program around the notion of flexibility. Yes, we want to improve your soil health and sequester carbon. But we also recognize that you could experience drought and not have adequate water to produce a crop if using no till practices — or other scenarios that require specific actions. That has to be taken into account as much as everything else. It has to be balanced and fair.


Please contact Laurel at laurelm@fishfriendlyfarming.org if you want to sign up for the Climate Adaptation or Fish Friendly Farming  programs.

Editor’s Note: Join WIN’s Growing Forward Seminar July 19 to hear more about CLSI’s Climate Adaptation Certification Program. 



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