Local Newspaper Column for Farmers – 1871 – One Hundred and Fifty Years Ago

The large groups of farmers arriving in San Luis Obispo County in the 1870s faced numerous challenges: selecting the location of land for their homes and fields, finding sources of water, learning about weather, crops, and soil. One hundred and fifty years later, we are asking what resources were available to them?

Our county newspaper, The Tribune, started writing a  “Column for Farmers.” in its second year of publication. The topics are intriguing even today;  “Cashmere Goats from the East,” “Planting Peach Stones,” and “Meat Curing Establishments.”

Between the years of 1870-1871, eight articles related to wine history and grape growing were printed in the “Column for Farmers.” The two columns on viticulture are as readable and informative today as they were when our earliest vineyardists Andrew York, Henry Ditmas and Pierre Hypolite Dallidet were in the early stages of planting vineyards and propagating vines.

It is interesting that one article was on Chilean wine production. We will explore that in a future blog post.  The second article, printed March 18, 1871, focused on planting a vineyard, including information on how to prepare and plant the cuttings.

The advice on planting a vineyard is presented in four sections: planting vineyards, best modes of planting, preparation of cuttings, and planting the cuttings. The first section lists three principal methods of planting vineyards:  preparing cuttings, roots, and layers. Cuttings are “severed from the original vine and cut into pieces and planted out”  in rows designed as a vineyard block where the cuttings are to become fruit-bearing vines. The second method of “roots”  uses cuttings, but they are planted “close together, to remain until they have formed roots” and have been converted into young vines.” The difference between the two methods is that cuttings are planted directly in rows in the vineyard;  the rooted vines are started in nursery plots and will be transferred to the vineyard after a years’ time. The third and final mode is that of layering, in which the new plants are “not severed from the original vine until separate roots have formed for the young vines.” This method is one of grafting cuttings onto rootstock. This section of the column also gives specific detail on how to layout the vineyard for the best possible results.

The article recommends cutting as the best method of planting. According to the article, it was the mode most widely used in the country and “believed to be the most direct and economical.”

According to the writer, the preparation of the cutting also depends heavily on the difference in climate and soil. Sandy, “lively soil” would be the best option to plant the cuttings in, as the article states, and needed to be prepared for the cuttings to be placed in. The length of the cuttings was also a disputed topic. Some claim that three feet long was a good length; others report that 12 to 15 inches was an adequate length. This should be regulated by the character of the soil, a fact the vineyard owner must know in order to plan accordingly for the cuttings. Before placing the cuttings into the soil, an “upper end should be cut off a very little above a good strong bud.” This will cause the sap to flow to feed the bud and “strong vigorous growth” will follow.

The final section of the article gives information on how to plant the cuttings. It again mentions the soil, saying it needs to be properly prepared, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. When plowing, the earth should not be “turned over. . . any deeper than it had been previously worked” in seasons before. It also gives the advice to plant the cuttings at an angle. Then, the roots “will only start at the extreme lower end.” Planting the roots this way may be advantageous because it would cause the roots at the lower end to grow down to where moisture is in the soil.

In San Luis Obispo County many farmers in the 1870s and 1880s grew grapes in the traditional areas where vineyards had been established by the Padres – San Miguel, Estrella and San Luis Obispo where water was accessible. Some farmers selected the higher elevations on what is now York Mountain in North County or the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley in South County. Others planted grapes close to the oceans and others in drier areas east of present-day Paso Robles. It was a time of experimentation and the rise of the professional nurserymen bringing grape varietals from far away places to test the soils and various micro-climates. This history has shaped the wine history and culture of San Luis Obispo County.

–by Libbie Agran and Hayley Goodwein