History of Ag in Napa

Harvesting wheat, ca. 1920 - Photo courtesy of the Napa Historical Society
Harvesting wheat, ca. 1920 – Photo courtesy of the Napa Historical Society

Napa agriculture has a unique heritage. Early farmers and ranchers cultivated a variety of food and wine grapes, creating a legacy of farming still present today. Napa County remains one of the most important agricultural locales in California and the world, and in the face of food insecurity, growing locally and sustainably is still a major goal. Learn more about this history by reading below!

History of Napa County Agriculture: from fruit orchards and grazing pastures, to wine grapes and the Ag Preserve

Sheep shearers, ca. 1880. Photographer: V.H. Henry
Sheep shearers, ca. 1880. Photographer: V.H. Henry

Napa is famous for fine wines, exceptional dining and scenic vineyard views. Its temperate coastal climate makes the region less foggy than San Francisco, and cooler than the much hotter inland areas of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, with many diverse microclimates. The Napa Valley is only 30 miles long and about 5 miles wide at its widest point (only 1 mile wide at its narrowest). Surrounded by volcanic mountain ridges, the steep hillsides and fertile soil have historically provided the perfect environment for producing an abundance of agricultural products. Napa County agriculture includes a long heritage of raising livestock, and pear and prune orchards that once stood where acres of vineyards now produce some of the world’s finest wine grapes. Ranching in Napa County goes back to when California was still part of Mexico in the early 19th century. Napa County was one of the original counties, created in 1850 when California became a state. The county’s population began to grow as pioneers, prospectors, and entrepreneurs settled in the Valley and started raising cattle and farming fruit and grain crops. This farming legacy thrives today, where Napa is one of the most productive counties in the nation. Visit the Napa County Historical Society website for more information on the history of agriculture in Napa.

Early Challenges

Blackberry pickers at Charles Stelzner Farm, ca. 1915

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, early Napa Valley wineries responded to the challenges of a Phylloxera outbreak, a vine disease that nearly decimated the vineyards, followed by prohibition and the Great Depression. Until the mid-1960s, there were only about 25 wineries. At that time, the State of California was making plans to put a major highway through the Valley, regional planners wanted to develop a major airport south of the Carneros region, and the Army Corp of Engineers was recommending that the Napa River be turned into a concrete channel.

The First Agricultural Preserve in America

In 1968, the Napa County Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission established the Agricultural Preserve to preserve, promote, and protect agricultural land in Napa Valley for future generations. Napa County’s Ag Preserve was a visionary land-zoning ordinance developed by the vintners and growers of Napa Valley’s wine community and was the first of its kind in the U.S. The ordinance established agriculture and open space as the “best use” of the land and kept Napa County from being over-developed. Today, the Ag Preserve enjoys widespread local support and continues to play a key role in preserving and elevating Napa County’s agricultural heritage.