- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
After earning a bachelor's degree in botany at Humboldt State and a master's degree in plant, soil and water science at the University of Nevada Reno, McGourty worked as a Cooperative Extension urban horticulturist in Las Vegas. Later he was a lecturer in the Environmental Horticulture Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and managed his family's walnut farm in nearby Paso Robles part time.
When McGourty was named a UCCE farm advisor, UC was beginning to endorse a systems approach to sustainable farming.
“I was certainly one of the people who took it to heart,” McGourty said.
In the late 1980s, most grape growers in Mendocino County disked the soil in vineyard rows every year to reduce weeds. Insecticides were applied that kept workers out of the vineyard for three weeks.
“Vineyards seemed pretty barren and not friendly to nature. We had a lot of soil erosion and water quality issues,” McGourty said. “My colleagues and I tried to find solutions that would boost soil organic matter and encourage beneficial insects and mites. One of our landmark research projects was coming up with good cover cropping systems for wine grapes.”
Those practices are widely implemented today, and across California interest in soil health and sustainability continue to grow. McGourty was assigned to also serve Lake County, where wine growers there adopted a strong interest in sustainable wine-growing practices.
“We have the Healthy Soils Program, in which CDFA is paying farmers to grow cover crops and use compost to sequester carbon in the soil. This came out of our research on alternative farming systems conducted in our region,” McGourty said.
Another research interest has been evaluating wine grapes from the Mediterranean region adapted to warm climates.
“After many years of working with ornamental plants, I realized that the plants that do best in California are all from a Mediterranean climate region,” McGourty said. “It made sense for me to look for wine grape varieties that like that climate, too.”
His research included trips to the Mediterranean area where he visited the wine grape varieties he had evaluated in their native habitat. He was invited to speak at foreign universities and conferences in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Australia on projects focused on alternative wine grape farming systems, including sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming in California.
McGourty has been honored by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources with emeritus status. As an emeritus advisor, McGourty plans to work on a national online database of wine grape varieties adapted to warm climates. In addition, he will be involved in a Lake County research project conducting a detailed evaluation of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on multiple clones and rootstocks.
Retirement promises to be busy for McGourty. In March, he received the most votes in the primary election for a position on the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. He will be immersed in campaigning until the runoff election in November.
Even if the election doesn't go his way, McGourty won't be idle. He manages a 10-acre wine grape and walnut farm on the Russian River, where he farms with the sustainable practices he taught local farmers during his career.
“I am so lucky! I have had one of the best jobs in UC and live in one of the prettiest places in California,” he said.