Cotati man's owls put vineyard rodents on the run

  • Paul Dykstra, with the Wild Wing Co., cleans out the remains of last seasons nesting barn owls from an owl box on a vineyard west of Healdsburg on Tuesday, July 22, 2014.

Vineyard managers have wrestled for years over how to control pests, including gophers and other rodents, that can destroy their vines and fields. For old-timers, there was the do-it-yourself option of tying a hose to the exhaust pipe of a tractor and placing it into the rodents’ burrows. Once popular, toxic baiting has fallen out of favor in the era of sustainable farming. Traps are useful, but very labor intensive.

The challenge has been to find an economical and environmental friendly way to rid farm fields of gophers and voles without resorting to the escalating measures epitomized by Bill Murray’s groundskeeper character in “Caddyshack.”

One Cotati man has an avian solution: planting nesting boxes for barn owls in vineyards so they can prey upon rodents. John Schuster, owner of Wild Wing Co., said his boxes have helped put a significant dent in gopher populations in North Bay vineyards and beyond, using nature to protect a multibillion-dollar crop.

“The thing about barn owls is that they are open habitat hunters. It’s a fabulous way of combating both of these pests (gophers and voles),” Schuster said.

A former professional musician with a passion for conservation and forestry, he formed Wild Wings in 2000, and a part-time vocation eventually became a full-time business.

“I’m not really making a lot of money here, but it’s not about the money for me,” Schuster said. “I’m very passionate about it. I love what I do.”

His small business has spread mostly through word of mouth among vineyard managers, who are looking for new pest control tools as the wine industry moves to become more eco-conscious. Locally, the push includes the Sonoma County Winegrowers’ pledge to make the county completely sustainable in its farming practices by 2019 through a checklist that covers issues such as energy efficiency, water and pest management.

For an increasing number of grape growers, using natural predators to address an age-old rodent problem makes good business sense.

“If you have property in Sebastopol, you have a gopher issue,” said Steve Dutton, president and co-owner of Sebastopol-based Dutton Ranch. Wild Wing recently installed nesting boxes on an eight-acre of Dutton Ranch vineyards where gophers are threatening the vines. Dutton said he hopes the move will help, noting he has heard positive reviews from other managers.

Mike Doyle, co-owner of CD Ranches, said he has seen a significant decrease in the rodent population after Wild Wing’s nesting boxes were installed about a year ago in his vineyards in Cloverdale. “It’s made a big, big difference,” Doyle said. “We hardly have none compared to what we used to have.”

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