Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986


Most of the posts on this site are about making pure wine and improving the soil. But this is a commercial website. So by way of shameless self promotion. Here are some quotes about our wine:
We sure enjoy your wine. It is the Best!!!Joe Greco
That bottle didn’t last through the night.” Daniel Kurpis
I don’t even drink red wine and I loved your Baco Noir.” Linda Coleman
I was here a couple weeks ago and bought a bottle of Lucie Kuhlmann. It was fabulous.” Linda Lewis

If you have not tried our wines, here is a special introductory offer:
Buy a 12 mini-bottle sampler pack for $60 and we will ship it to you for $20.
The sample wines are:

Lucie Kuhlmann – a light red semi-sweet award-winning dinner wine
Okanogan Riesling – a drier clean white wine
Leon Millot – a sweeter red wine, Grand Champion at NE Wash. Fair
Baco Noir – Our driest wine, very popular, distinct berry flavor
Siegerrebe – A crisp white wine, limited supply
Muscat – a semi-sweet white wine with hints of citrus
Gewurztraminer – A must-try white wine , limited supply
Apple Wine – made without adding sugar by concentrating the juice
Huckleberry – wonderful wild berry flavor, limited supply
Elderberry – a perfect contrast between strong berry and apple flavors.
Maréchal Foch – a deep red full-bodied wine, great with red meat
French Rocks Red – our house blend of red wines

There is a lot of information on this site. It is programmed to come up showing this blog page. There are a lot of blogs but only a few may be of interest to you. Scroll down on the left side of the page to see the current topic categories and narrow down the range you want to read.

Summer is Gone

Two months and two weeks ago (July 20th) I posted my last blog about what is going on here.  The temperatures were up to 102° and the Williams Flat Fire, the biggest of the year, had just started.  Unfortunately life does not play out like the plot of a cheap novel.  There is no beginning, middle or end and no way to follow a consistent theme – though I usually try to do that.

9/3/2019 Northern Lights photo by an unknown local photographer (has nothing to do with rain or the rest of this blog).

Except maybe the theme is rain.  There was a LOT of that.  Within 2 weeks the Williams Flat fire was under control due to a heavy rainstorm.  From there it has been a downward spiral until Saturday September 28th, the coldest September Day since 1926.  Over 30 Inches of snow fell at higher elevations.  We got 4 inches of rain here that weekend.  The grape harvest was a month behind already because the grapes were just not building sugar in our live-in outdoor refrigerator.

So extreme measures are being taken to bring in the harvest and make wine.  (More about that later since I’m just trying to catch up with August and September.)

In early August I put up my bird nets as usual to beat the migration and discourage huge flocks from wiping out my grape crop.  We did have a few warblers, but not many.  I was relieved to see that the pileated woodpecker is back.  He (I’m assuming it is a he since he is colorful and makes a lot of noise) doesn’t get under the nets but pecks through them to get to the grapes after pretending to be interested in the wooden post he is sitting on.  Also he eats the whole grape and does not just poke a hole in them – inviting bees, flies, mold and vinegar. So no real harm done.   

There used to be lots of warblers and I bought lots of bird netting to keep them off the grapes.  But every year there seem to be fewer.  I am contemplating just letting them have some to keep their numbers up.  Another bird I love having around

is the cedar waxwing.  (This one obviously had a bit of an attitude.)  It learned to get in and out of the nets and didn’t really do any damage.  You can see in the picture that the grapes are far from ripe.

Other critters in the neighborhood include this cougar caught on a neighbor’s game camera.  I love how slinky it looks in this picture.

Of course you can’t talk about predators without mentioning bears.  So a local game camera struck again with a picture of one of our local bears.  So far we have not had trouble with this one, although it came up to visit earlier in the summer.  An orchard just above us keeps the bears at bay by disposing of spoiled fruit outside of the fences.  But in orchards further north of us there are piles of bear poop all over.  Bears can be very destructive if they climb the trees to get to fruit but if they are able to munch on windfalls and plants, they would rather stay on the ground.

Speaking of pesky scavengers, it has been an epic year for skunks.  You could hardly ever drive the 22 miles to Colville without passing one or two dead ones in the road.  Of course we have our own local one that digs holes at night for insects and occasionally must get excited and spray because we smelled it on a few nights.  I even saw it early one morning heading toward the house and was able to convince it (from a considerable distance) to go in another direction. 

All that was okay until the night of August 30th.   Cheryl woke up sensing that there was something in the house besides our cat and dog.  We leave the doors open at night in hot weather to cool off the house.  She spotted the skunk heading into the bathtub room with its tail high in the air.  We became very quiet and got back in bed.  Wisely our dog Gretchen stayed in the bedroom too although she did growl.  Not that we got any sleep.  But although we didn’t hear anything, by morning light the skunk was gone and “she” didn’t spray thank goodness. (Female skunks reportedly don’t smell as bad as males.) After that we put low barriers in the doorways and didn’t have problems.

Predators need prey and we have a big crop of fawns this year.  They are usually not much trouble since we have a high fence around the garden and vineyard.  They do consider flowers as candy so we have lost a few on that score.  Here they are checking out our old apple tree for downed fruit, or at least low hanging fruit.  But being too familiar with us might have been the downfall of one doe.  On the morning of Friday September 27th, both Cheryl and I smelled something dead when we went outside. I found a dead deer in the brush near our compost pile. I think it was Daring Doe. I got our neighbor Vern to help bury her with his backhoe. He thinks she was shot with an arrow in the gut and went there to die in what she felt was a safe place.  There was no doe season this year, so whoever shot this deer in the gut was doing it illegally.  If it was Daring Doe, she should have been more afraid and it would be partly my fault for not scaring her more.  

I have more stories of course about the night the cat brought 3 different mice into the house, and we had to catch two of them to get them out (She got one on her own), or the turkey invasion in the vineyard.  But enough critters for one blog.

There were a couple of other times that our neighbor Vern helped us out with his tractor.  One was in unloading a pallet of rotten (but non-GMO) feed that Red Bridge Farm gave me to add into compost.

Another was helping move a heavy mortar mixer onto a stand in my soil yard to mix compost for the vineyard and for potting plants.

There will be more about that later.  I still have a few stations to add to the soil yard to make it fully functional.

What I am not able to do right off is write about everything that happened in the last two months without taking another two months to do it.  So this is a wrap for August and September. 

Chips in the Woods

Most of us are very glad that this year’s fire season has been relatively mild.  But if you are a member of a fire-fighting crew like Alan McKee and his Northern Columbia Reforestation team, it’s been a tough year financially.  Fire Fighting pays well, is recognized as necessary, is regulated to provide sustainable working conditions and gets a lot of attention.  To stay employed and productive while not fighting fires, the crew pooled resources to equip themselves for forestry management.  A lot of their work involves forest restoration and fire protection and often boils down to thinning overstocked forest stands, chipping up those smaller diameter trees (up to 8 inches) and broadcasting the chips back on the forest floor.

The chipper crew at work

While this might sound like fun in a noisy macho go-getter kind of way, it is hard work, needs serious ear protection and wears down your body.  The crew is younger, 20-40 years old.  (Of course at my age, 72, almost everyone seems younger.)  The equipment is expensive to own and operate.  Most of the projects are either on government land or subsidized through government cost-share arrangements on private land.  So funding can be minimal and difficult to obtain.

Timber markets are down “In the second half of fiscal 2018…shipments swamped the market, plunging prices by 50 per cent…The outcome is that higher-cost mills in western North America have been curtailing production to contend with below-cost prices.” ( This makes timberland owners more reluctant to plow money back into increasing production.  In short, it’s been hard to stay chipper while chipping.

On the up side, chipping is very good for the forest.  Most land owners will look at it as fire prevention. Spacing trees 14 feet apart on average, cutting off limbs up to 8 feet above the ground and spreading out green wood chips on the ground does make it unlikely that a fire will reach the crowns of the trees and spread rapidly in the wind.  Having an open forest floor makes fighting fires much easier. 

But there are many other advantages.  The chips retain moisture in the ground and promote the growth of soil-enhancing microbes and fungi.  The spacing lets big trees accumulate more water and sunlight which “releases” them to grow bigger and faster. 

Forest Ecologist Jay Berube, explained to me that historically big pine trees were spread thinly over a typical acre and the underbrush was kept in check by frequent fires burning up pine cones and needles every 5 to 10 years.  He had his property thinned and the debris chipped 3 years ago.  Before that you could not see through the woods more than a few feet.  Now you can see hundreds of feet. 

Ground after chips are spread

Considering the historic forest in terms of diversity and vitality Jay noted that mule deer, elk and moose could see a long ways and roam easily through a historically open forest.  As timber was clear-cut or burned and grew back thicker, smaller white-tailed deer became predominant.

When I first heard about Alan McKee and his chipper, it was described as chipping up slash piles.  I thought this would be a great thing.  We have all seen huge slash piles along forest roads and the plumes of smoke from them when they are burned.  Slash piles release smoke if burned and carbon into the air while they rot. Carbon, especially biochar, when sequestered in the soil can promote vitality and diversity.  It is a valued resource that is wasted in slash piles.

The chipper does have a winch that can drag in material up to 8 inches wide.  But forest land treatment projects don’t deal with slash from commercial logging.  This seemed like a big resource issue so I stopped by some government offices to learn more about forest management.

Slash Pile

Mark Simpson from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) agrees that big slash piles left from logging are a wasted resource.  NCRS does not deal with commercial logging although it does support fuels reduction projects.  He recounted how a lawsuit to limit smoke from crop residue fires had resulted in NCRS not recommending burning as an alternative.  He knew of some landowners hiring contractors with wood cutting machines to recover firewood from the piles.  Others were making use of the Waste to Energy plant in Spokane.  NCRS does allow some slash to be piled in 10’ by 15’ wildlife shelters which help porcupines, quail and skunks among others.

Jessica Walston at Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) identified piles of freshly cut pine as a possible source of pine beetle infestation.  The DNR has a program to cost share 50% on the work associated with fuels reduction and forest health that requires a prescription from their forester.  Slash generated from the program is required to be treated. It can be removed, hand piled and  burned, “masticated” (brush hog like treatment) or chipped.  Jay Berube worried that mastication can disturb the soil to he chose chipping. Burning has its own issues and permits but can be done in a way that adds biochar to the soil.  Removal works well for fence posts and firewood. DNR also does permitting for slash piles left by commercial logging and for burning slash.

Both of these agencies often recommend that forest landowners contract a forester to write a land management plan. DNR has a cost share program to help with that.  Historically land was put into a low timber value classification for property tax purposes if trees could be seen on an aerial photo of the property.  More recently guidelines from the Washington State Department of Revenue look for a “copy of the timber management plan for the land, prepared by a forester or a person with adequate knowledge of timber management practices.”  New landowners need to be aware that county assessors are looking for these plans, though implementation varies.

Nicole Vaillant writes in a National Forest Science Update on Fuel Treatments that “The current level of fuel treatment and beneficial fire is not keeping pace with the level needed to fully create and maintain resilient landscapes, especially in frequent fire rotation areas.”  This reflects a national attitude that emphasizes a strong response to forest fires once they are started, but neglects preparation and prevention with fuel reduction and controlled burns.  A nice wet summer like this might be a good time to feel a little more chipper about chipping in the woods.

Cows in the Woods

I was driving north on Williams Lake Road.  The woodland on either side had been managed in a variety of ways.  Some was left alone to fill in with underbrush.  Some had been grazed into uselessness.  Some of the most interesting had been selectively logged and the ground was covered in chips.  That technique minimizes the threat of wildfire.  I was headed north to visit Theresa Everest. She and her husband Eric were managing their 130 acres to raise cattle.

Unlike the Williams Lake Road, Everest Ranch is on a west-facing hillside in dense forest that supports a wide variety of trees.  There is some open pasture, but the majority is forest on a slope, not the kind of acreage you would typically envision for cows.  With a background in farming, logging and service in the Navy, this was Theresa’s dream ranch that she had been planning for 20 years.  She is deliberately initiating development of the property into silvopasture.  Silvopasture is the intentional combination of trees, forage plants and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system. (Wikipedia)

Brush Hog

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.  To get it started is intensive.  The Everests have invested in over $100,000 worth of machinery.  That includes a small sawmill, a Kubota Track Loader and a forest management grade brush hog that will turn pieces of wood up to 8 inches in diameter into chips.  The payback is a piece of property that the livestock can almost manage by themselves, rich soil with a large carbon reserve, lush grass and a lumber-producing forest that can be sustainably logged for generations.

Highland Cattle

Like the Finnish family that homesteaded their property in 1889, the Everests are taking it one step at a time.  They want to see their work survive and still be sound 130 years later like the hewn log buildings that they still use and live in.  Just as having the right tools is critical, so is having the right animals.  Highland cattle are one of the oldest registered cattle breeds in the world.  They eat brush as well as grass. Their double coat of hair sheds water and insulates in the winter.  When it comes to hardy animals, Scottish Highlands rule.

Paired with the cattle are Icelandic Sheep.  Another pure ancient breed, Icelandic sheep are tough. They also have a double coat of water shedding outer hair and light warm inner wool.  The two are often woven together and knitted into lopapeysa, the distinctive traditional Icelandic sweater of concentric rings.  These sheep will graze on bushes and grass, so they are perfect for the transition taking place at Everest Ranch.

The first step is Fuel Reduction.  In practice this means clearing out small trees and underbrush.  Some of it can be used as lumber or firewood.  Other parts can be charred for use as biochar.  Much of the rest is ground into mulch.  Limbs are cut up to 10 feet off the ground so no “ladder fuel” is left in the forest.  While fire prevention is important, creating a rich soil that will support forage grasses is the goal.

Grass coming in after opening canopy

Letting the soil recover and develop a stand of grass takes time.  So cattle are not introduced for the first year while the second step of recovery takes place.

Finally the animals are allowed to graze down the grass, but only for a week.  Then they are moved to another area and not returned for a month or more while the first area recovers.  This technique of rotational grazing keeps the habitat healthy in more ways than one.  The cattle trample small trees and bushes so those are returned to the soil.  The grass flourishes in the manure and urine left by the cattle.  Because of the constant rotation pests and parasites can’t proliferate.  Having long sight-lines also limits cover for potential predators.  The Everests did lose some sheep to a mountain lion when there was dense brush to hide in, but have not had problems since opening up the pasture.  The sheep come back to a holding pen at night.

The ranch has many springs; some that were developed by the original homesteaders are being re-developed for the grazing operation.  But the gullies where water runs free are fenced off to prevent erosion.  In fact an entire 20 acre field is not being used as pasture because it is essentially a wetland and grazing cattle would destroy it.

With thoughtful planning, attentive management and strategic investments, Everest Ranch will become a model for sustainably raising cows in the woods.

The hallmarks of a healthy environment are diversity and abundance.  The Everests are responsible for their income and the future health of their property.  To understand silvopasture practices in the National Forest, I met with Tim Coleman, from the Kettle Range Conservation Group to tour the Lambert Creek watershed in Ferry County where private cattle are permitted to graze on public land.

The cows in this watershed were Herfords.  They are much larger than Highland Cattle, 1200 to 1800 pounds.  I have also seen Angus Cattle of about the same size grazing in the forest along the South Fork of Sherman Creek.   The two scenes were very different.  Along Lambert Creek road the ground had barely enough cover to be green.  This was especially apparent where a fence separated the public grazing land from private property.  Grass and brush stood two to three feet high on the private land and barely an inch on the public land.  The cattle were grazing lush green grass in a logged area along Sherman Creek.

The situation looked bad on Lambert until I consulted with Brandon Weinmann, grazing and invasive species coordinator for the Colville National Forest about how they manage rangeland and saw it from a different perspective.  The Forest Service manages grazing allotments on the “pasture level”, that is they look at the overall health of the plants, water and soil in the whole pasture.  There are usually several “pastures” in a grazing allotment and the Forest Service will determine the timing, duration, intensity and frequency of how they are permitted to be grazed.  The condition of one spot at one time does not necessarily indicate the health of the whole pasture. 

Brandon drove me around an allotment on Deadman Creek where the riparian area was in good shape despite use by cattle, elk and bears.  What I kept learning was that there are lots of variables.

Deadman Creek cattle watering site

Cows, calves, bulls and steers of different ages, breeds and personalities behave differently at different times in different areas.  It is hard to prescribe a set of guidelines that works in all situations.  The Forest Service uses an allotment management plan developed through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) which is tailored to each allotment.

Something cattle have in common is an aversion to wolves.  Tim Coleman is a member of the Wolf Advisory Board (WAG), a group he appreciates because although coming from different perspectives, they speak openly about their opinions.  All members admit that pressure from wolves is moving the cattle in many areas to lower parts of their range. This depletes the lower part sooner and leaves burnable fuel on the higher pastures (grassoline). 

Comparing beginning forage and the amount available at any point after animals are introduced will indicate how much forage has been used and when cattle should be moved, thus gauging the health of the ecosystem in terms of diversity and abundance.

Grasses have evolved to bounce back from being eaten when young.  In his book, Holistic Management, Allan Savory advocates rotational grazing as the most natural way to restore health to overgrazed lands but cautions that it takes thoughtful planning and attention to actual conditions on the whole property to make that work.  That “whole” includes the plant and animal community; the water cycle; the mineral cycle; and the energy flow.  It is an economy that includes but does not equate with money.

The choices are not black and white. (photo by Brandon Weinmann)

The take-away is that one size definitely does not fit all.  A variety of ungulates once ranged in the forests: deer, elk, moose and herds of caribou. (According to Sinixt elder, Marilyn James, caribou herds were once so large that they posed a threat to villages. The natives learned to spook the caribou away from villages by hanging antlers in the trees.)  Perhaps cows are a viable replacement for those herds.  But whether you can afford an industrial-scale brush hog or just a chain saw and safety equipment, promoting diversity and abundance takes attention and intension.  It’s not as simple as putting cows in the woods.

Work Work work

Downward facing Cat Pose

I keep a journal of what goes on each day and intend to write something about it each month, at the beginning of the month.  A quick review of the last few blogs will show that I have been completely blowing that schedule.  A quick review of my notes for June could be summarized “Work, Work, Work.”  Actually that is not fair.  There were lots of animals involved.  Our cat had major (=expensive) veterinary crisis, but survived in fine shape. 

We had visits from a bear, skunks, eagles, turkeys, deer and a 5 foot gopher snake that was following a black racer snake. We had a couple of family reunion events, a smaller one in Curlew and a major one with people from around the country at a resort on the Skagit River just after my father’s 97th birthday.  Cheryl and I have been selling wine and map books at the Northeast Washington Farmer’s Market every Wednesday and Saturday 9 to 1.

But the major event that lets me feel like I have time to write again is that we have completed construction of a high tunnel greenhouse.  It was one of those absolutely, positively have-to-get-done projects namely because it cost several thousand dollars and we need to get that back on a contract with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. They pay for the materials and we provide the labor.  After waiting 3 years for the project to be approved, we had to complete the work in one year, 2019.  Neighbors Jeff Herman and Tom Saxon came over and helped me through some tough spots. Of course no sane person is going to plant a crop in a greenhouse in July, but with crops already starting to come in, completing it during the Fall before winter would have been a huge strain. So it will sit there and I will admire it from time to time, then protect it in the winter. 

This is looking like a bountiful year for lots of crops.  The grapes are looking very good. We just got through an intense run of cherries.  Our neighbor gave us as much as we could pick of some very nice Van cherries.  We had the biggest crops ever on our Royal Ann and pie cherry trees.  So for a few days we were drying, freezing, making pies… if there was a hangup, it is the pitter.  You just can’t trust it.  Even after slicing the “pitted” cherries in half a few pits get away.  But I digress.

Van Cherries and Royal Ann Cherries

I’ve been reading some great books lately, which I don’t have time to write about and gathering material for some articles.  Those will remain unwritten for now too because I need to work, work, work.

Pie Cherries

Spring Happens

I haven’t written a blog since the violets and buttercups were blooming. Now the tulips, fruit trees, dandelions, Quince, Locust, Frittilaria, Iris and Lupine have all bloomed. Is Spring officially over when a bear tears down your bird feeder (5/27/19)? There is a lot to catch up on and nobody needs a really long article to read. So I am going to boil it all down to 10 topic areas and call it good.

Iris from my Brother John, Gretchen in background, photo by Cheryl

Speaking of articles, The local Colville paper, the Statesman Examiner, ran an article about our winery on May 8th. Unfortunately unless you subscribe, you can’t look it up online. So I scanned it and there is a link here. The Silverado Express, another local paper, ran an article about the history of Tatapoo Rock that I wrote for the Heritage Network. That also is not available online so here is a link to the article on Tatapoo Rock, a landmark that is key to a lot of local history. The North Columbia Monthly is printing an article this month, Composing Compost. That article is available on this website. An article from earlier about Biochar published in the Monthly is also on this website . It prompted a talk with my brother-in-law Roger Ellison, who also makes and sells biochar among other things from his homestead, Thornbush Farm, on San Juan Island.

As you might have gathered, many of the articles are on various elements of Regenerative Agriculture . Postings about compost from Barr-Tech near Sprague, Washington prompted two of my friends to order semi-loads of compost and I bought a ton of it from one of them. It is part of the mix in the previous blog post Composing Compost 2 . I also continue to stack up pine straw and other forest litter that my wife, Cheryl, is collecting to reduce fire danger. It will be shredded into compost material too, although I have plenty from pruning the grape plants this spring.

New Grape Plants

Perhaps the biggest boost to my knowledge of Regenerative Agriculture came from attending the Global Earth Repair Conference at Port Townsend. I was pleased to meet Ronnie Cummins from the Organic Consumers Association in person. That is where I first heard about Regenerative Agriculture. I also listened to a talk by Peter Jackson on bio-remediation and decided to buy a book on Korean Natural Farming, JADAM by Youngsang Cho,. There is a lot to learn about growing your own microbes for fertilizer and pest control. It fits in well with making wine. You are bound to hear more about that in this blog. Doniga Markegard did an amazing job of presenting her experiences raising cattle a natural way. Much of it is in her book Dawn Again.

Peter Jackson workshop making micro-nutrient mud balls

Sales of Grape Plants have been big this year despite not having as many plants on hand as I could have sold. I held the line this year and will release several hundred two year old plants next year. Of course it was also the season for pruning and starting new grape plants. There are about 300 of them putting on growth on the greenhouse-crushing pad. Many of this year’s plant sales were through the Ferry Conservation District, a unit of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and I have purchased a very nice greenhouse kit through the NRCS. It is 20 feet by 24 feet, 14 feet high and still under construction. So you may see more about that also.

Our new greenhouse at an early stage of construction

On May 9th, my sister Jeannette and her husband Bill visited and we went hunting for morel mushrooms. The weather was dry and the competition heavy on last year’s Boyds Fire burn. We did alright but the next week it rained hard so we went back and did even better. Younger folks willing to climb steep hillsides are bringing back more morels, but we are still working our way through the ones we have. Our younger neighbors Tom and Amber sold over 10 pounds of them at the Farmers Market today (6/1/2019) for $20/lb.

Speaking of the Farmers Market, it started a month ago. Cheryl and I are there in the center of Colville every Wednesday and Saturday selling wine, plants and maps. It is getting too late for plants, but we will stay on with wine and mapbooks. The rain presented a problem. Since our van broke down last year, we have been hauling the chairs, tables etc. in our 1975 Chevy Pickup. We needed a canopy for the truck and put a request out on Facebook. That worked great and we had one the same day and an even better one the next day. So now the truck bed is dry but that was far from the only “technical difficulty” we had these last two months.

Old Truck with canopy number 2

The Map Metrics website crashed while our host tried to make it more secure. It had to be rebuilt from scratch. My main mapping and finance computer crashed losing all of the programs but thankfully not the data. It ran Windows 7. Some of my programs won’t run on anything later than that and our computer repair guy says that Microsoft made sure that any new hardware won’t run old software. Luckily he found a machine running Windows 7 in his back room and I am using it now. The list goes on including a new WiFi setup and a new satellite TV setup. But you get the idea, lots of down time and expensive repairs.

Installing HDTV

Some things can’t be repaired or replaced. Several friends of ours died in the last two months including our old neighbor, Clarence Tieszen; a fellow member of our Slow Food group, George Wells; an orcharding neighbor Jim Corvino; a long-time rock club hostess, Lucie Bristow, and our one-time dental hygienist, Kelley Wood. So in a time of very good-looking growth in the vineyard and new buildings and ideas we have to remember that most growth relies on a transformative dose of death.

Composing Compost 2

Elements of Compost

To follow up on the last post about composing compost, mostly commercial from Barr-Tech near Sprague, I want to show the ingredients I am adding to the soil mix I am currently potting, planting and adding as mulch.

  1. This tub is composted leaf mulch from the yard waste dump of the City of Colville. It is two years old and has a lot of red worms in it along with a complete set of other micro-organisms. I have to screen out rocks, sticks, clumps of leaves and assorted non-biodegradable garbage to mix this in but it gives the mix a good dose of living critters to spread to the rest.
  2. This is a small bucket of potash, the stuff left when a fire burns all the way out. It has a good mix of minerals that the fungi can carry to the roots. It amounts to about 10% of the whole.
  3. This tub is full of shredded grape prunings, pine needles and other small branches. So it is almost all plant-based carbon. It gives the mix a longer life with things to digest so the initial microbes that break down plant material have a lot to work with.
  4. This is a bucket of biochar, that has been discussed in other blog posts. I could inoculate it with manure tea or other microbe-rich liquids, but that will happen naturally when the whole mix gets wet. It holds water and shelters bacteria. Again it is about 10% of the whole.
  5. This is Barr-Tech green compost. It has been broken down from mostly landscaping waste and is organically certifiable. Because of the high temperatures that produce it, protozoa, nematodes and other “higher” organisms have not inhabited it yet. But they will quickly spread into it and fill the gap between freshly shredded material and a complete living soil.
  6. The last tub (each large tub is about 20% of the mix) is aged cow manure from organically raised beef. It is crumbly and full of night-crawlers. Manure has a lot of nitrogen in it that will promote growth and good green color for photosynthesis. But too much of this good thing could heat up a pile of compost and unbalance the mix.

So that is the basic mix. You could include grass clippings, food waste and a lot of other rotting stuff. If you are building and turning piles of compost, they would be helpful in a mix like this, but not until they have broken down somewhat. Besides, there are some bigger critters that would go for the food waste (skunks, raccoons, rats…) that you really don’t want in your garden.

I tend not to put everything in one pile but to mix it just before it goes in pots or over the ground. That way the mycorrhizal fungi can grow in place and not have their hyphae broken. Just like water starts yeast growing, water starts fungi growing. They are actually closely related. So get out there and make your own mix. Living soil is good for everything in the world.

Composing Compost

Aerial View of Barr-Tech

I could pick it out on the aerial photo, a little brown square next to the freeway by the Fishtrap exit.  It looked small compared to the miles and miles of wheat fields and scab lands around Sprague, Washington.  But when I got there, it seemed anything but small.  I was researching and sometimes just plain searching for compost.  Barr-Tech is the closest and certainly the biggest composting facility in northeast Washington.  It processes 350 tons of compost each day.  As part of a contract with the City of Spokane, green landscaping material, mostly branches and leaves, some wood in need of recycling, biosolids, food and paper waste arrives at the facility in enclosed semi truck trailers that are weighed and dumped one after the other.  Windrows of steaming compost towered above huge loaders and other equipment stretching out of sight.  The spacious modern office is solar powered. I met with manager Scott Deatherage and salesman Mike Brown there to learn how it worked.

Have you looked at bags of compost and potting soil lately?  Gourmet ingredients have arrived, steer manure, sphagnum peat moss, mushroom compost, mycorrhizal fungi, perlite, kelp meal, biochar…   You won’t find those at Barr-Tech.  They have two varieties, BT+ which includes the “green” yard waste mixed with biosolids, food and paper waste and BT Green, which is just green yard waste.  BT Green can be used on certified organic farms.  BT+ cannot.  On the plus side, buying bagged compost at an average of $10 for 50 lbs. would cost $400/ton.  Buying compost at Barr-Tech costs $35- $45/cubic yard.  I’m okay with adding my own ingredients, what I came to find out was what is the basic process.

That can be as simple as stacking a bunch of yard waste and waiting a year or so, or as complicated as layering leaves, branches, soil, grass clippings etc. and adding yarrow blossoms, stinging nettle, valerian flowers and oak back in specific places as prescribed by Rudolf Steiner, father of Biodynamic Farming.  In its favor, Biodynamic researcher, Ehrenfried Pfeiffer pioneered composting municipal waste in Oakland, California in 1950.  It worked incredibly well with bacteria multiplying 300 million times within 2 or 3 days but as documented in [Ital] Secrets of the Soil [end Ital] by Tompkins and Bird, chemical companies opposed its use as fertilizer and the process was stopped until closer to this century.

Barr-Tech is still at odds with chemical companies. I’ll deal with the market end later but on the receiving end just finding organic material not contaminated by chemicals is a big issue.  Any crop, lawn or other waste source that has been treated with a chemical ending in “cide” will kill bacteria.  Even chemicals marketed as fertilizer, especially ammonia, will destroy microbes.  Composting depends on microbes although the plant does not need to add any.  Just truck in a fresh load of tree limbs and they are ready to rip, Pretty much literally.

The Grinder, heart of the compost operation

The heart of the operation in the grinder.  Everything that comes into the yard is stripped of any actual garbage such as plastic bottles and bags and run through the grinder.  From there it is either mixed with other material to create BT+ or used as is to make BT Green.  During grinding  it is hydrated to 65% humidity and then moved to windrows aligned along the aerating system which is more like the backbone and lungs of the operation.  As an aerobic composting system a balance of air, water and temperature needs to be maintained.  The piles naturally heat up as bacteria go to work.  The amount of nitrogen-rich material needs to be below 3% of the carbon mass to limit the temperature rise. Piles need to rise above 132° to kill seeds and some harmful organisms.  But they need to stay below 160° or the bacteria themselves will die.  By covering the piles with already composted material the crew insulates them from the winter cold.  The aerating fans actually suck air into the piles for cooling with tubes placed beneath them.  The steamy air is exhausted through a filter of large wood chips to absorb smells.  I will testify that the plant smells good to a farmer and there are no neighbors to complain. t

That was probably not the case in early operations at other sites.  Now the industry is highly regulated with Washington State statutes similar to those governing biosolids.  All the material is tested regularly for heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  Records are submitted to the State Dept. of Ecology and the local health department annually and to the US Composting Council (USCC) Seal of Testing Assurance program monthly.

The compost turner remixes the windrows

New windrows of compost are left alone for a week and then remixed and moved to a new row.  After another week that windrow is taken off the aerator and left to finish. It takes 42 days from start to finished compost.  The large undigested chips are separated from the pile with a rotating filter and the fine particle compost is stockpiled until sold.

It might seem that a facility that can produce 100,000 tons of compost would be an overwhelming supply, but the numbers don’t say that.  The recommended coverage is 10 tons per acre for a couple of years on cropland.  Many farms in the Columbia Basin and Palouse are 1,000 acres.  So 10 farms using 10,000 tons each could use all the compost produced.  Only 60% of it is used for agriculture.  The other 40% is used for landscaping, often for highway construction.

To understand the pros and cons of compost on a big farm I talked to Lamar Hege.  His family uses Barr-Tech compost on their 800 acres of alfalfa and grass hay near Deer Park.  He pointed out that one truckload of chemical fertilizer contains as much nitrogen as 30 semi loads of compost.  But he prefers the compost.  He read an article in [Ital] Progressive Forage Grower Magazine [end Ital] showing that compost enriches soil long after synthetic fertilizer and even manure have lost their impact.  So he bought equipment specifically for spreading compost and tills in 5 tons per acre before seeding.  Obviously transportation is a big drawback but not insurmountable.  Typical customers are within 50 miles of Sprague.

One ton, (2 yards) of compost

So what I learned from my foray into big compost is that it is not a panacea but it is an option and a starting point.  The bacteria are there and a lot of nutrients for “higher” organisms such as protozoa, fungi, nematodes, mites and worms to develop.  You can add gourmet ingredients such as manure, grass clippings and biochar to speed up creation of a complete fertile biome.  You can also build your own piles.  Grinding, moisture, temperature and turning speed up the process.  If you want fungi, using compostable material as mulch will help them develop in place.  Moving compost slows the growth of fungi that are crucial to root growth. 

What stuck with me is the realization that despite all the organic material I passed through in a hundred miles of farmland driving to Sprague, the most abundant source of organic matter untainted by chemicals was the city of Spokane.

Backyard Biochar

by Joseph Barreca

Terra Flora conical biochar fireplace

Most days lately I look out my window and don’t think twice, it’s all white. But actually if you can get out in this snow comfortably, it is a great time to make biochar.  And biochar is black! Besides that, it is good for your soil.  So good in fact that all of our local northeast Washington state politicians have signed on to a memorandum listing the virtues of biochar.  HOUSE JOINT MEMORIAL 4000 State of Washington 66th Legislature 2019 Regular Session states: “WHEREAS, People working for the United States Forest Service, the Washington State University, the University of Washington, and the Washington State Department of Ecology have been researching the use of biochar and found that several potential markets exist for the product, including as agricultural soil amendments, reforestation treatments, pollution remediation, animal feed, and landscaping material;…decrease fuel loads… increase soil carbon, soil nutrient content, and plant productivity;”  It goes on and on but you get the idea. 

Biochar ready to quench

Suddenly biochar is cool mostly because there is money to be made selling it.  But there is also money to be saved by making it.  (It costs $60/yard from Pacific Biochar with a 40 yard minimum – and that’s the wholesale price.   I already have a lot of dead Ponderosa Pine that leaves a lot of ash and clogs up the chimney when you burn it in a wood stove.  So we mostly burn Fir and Larch for heat.  I used to burn a big 10′ diameter pile of “agricultural waste” every year.  It was spectacular, but not productive.  So now I burn small batches of pine to make biochar and after a lot of trial and error, feel like I have a good system.

You can make fancy biochar reactors.  I’ve tried my hand at that.  A good one is shown in the Fall 2015 issue of The Natural Farmer in the article about David Yarrow’s biochar reactor.  To understand the reactor you need to understand the two stages of burning that go on in a typical fire.  When you first ignite a fire the burning material, (let’s say wood for the sake of simplicity) is heated up and volatile gases vaporize, combine with oxygen and create bright flames.  To the extent that they don’t combust completely, they create smoke.  When those volatile gases are exhausted, pure charcoal is left. It will combust and leave only ashes if it stays hot and is exposed to oxygen.  To get charcoal – essentially the same as biochar – we need to prevent that. This second stage of combustion is preferable for barbeque – even heat and no smoke – hence charcoal briquettes.  The objective of a biochar reactor is to use the flame from the volatile gases to drive all the volatile resins out of the wood while creating very little smoke and then allow the oxygen to be cut off from the charcoal before it turns to ash so you can harvest the biochar.

There are two big problems with that method for me.  One: even simple reactors are complicated and expensive to build and a little tricky to use.  Second: once your biochar is cooled, you need to unload the reactor and start all over again.  What I am going to describe is how to make “Backyard Biochar” with virtually no expense and a semi-continuous process that produces one load after another.  I owe a lot in this endeavor to Gloria Flora and a simple dish that she developed as shown on her blog:   It is a cone about 3 feet across made of sheet metal.  It has a flat bottom and is held together with pop rivets.  The first advantage is that in a cone, the embers concentrate at the bottom even though the pieces of wood are stacked up like a classic bonfire.  The second advantage is that the cone is light and has chain handles so once the embers are quenched, they can be emptied out into another container.  That being said, you can do essentially the same thing with a little fireplace made out of concrete blocks and a flat-nosed shovel.

.   It is a cone about 3 feet across made of sheet metal.  It has a flat bottom and is held together with pop rivets.  The first advantage is that in a cone, the embers concentrate at the bottom even though the pieces of wood are stacked up like a classic bonfire.  The second advantage is that the cone is light and has chain handles so once the embers are quenched, they can be emptied out into another container.  That being said, you can do essentially the same thing with a little fireplace made out of concrete blocks and a flat-nosed shovel.

Advice from Roger Ellison

In a standard cycle you get a big bonfire going of wood that is fairly uniform and not over 3 inches thick.  Any bigger and the piece will not burn through.  Much smaller and there will be hardly any charcoal left when it stops flaming.  You want the whole fire to get burning at once.  It takes a half hour to 45 minutes usually to burn down to charcoal.  You can tell because resins flame yellow, but charcoal just glows red or has tiny blue flames.  When most of the wood has turned to charcoal and just a few pieces are still burning with yellow flames, you make your move.  I use a pair of log tongs from a fireplace tool set to move the burning pieces off of the charcoal into a little stack, usually on top of a piece of bark. They keep burning.  Meanwhile, especially with snow around, you can shovel some snow on the charcoal embers.  It will melt and you can mix it in. (Later in the Spring a hose will work as well.) I do that a couple times until there is some moisture left on the bottom of the cone.  Even though it may still steam, the charcoal is ready.  I dump it into an apple bin and reload.

To reload I put the still-burning pieces in the bottom of the cone.  Then I add some small kindling pieces.  I fan it with an old yard sign until the kindling catches fire.  Then I pile up another round of 3 inch wood and soon there is another roaring bonfire.  The whole cycle takes a little over an hour.  You can cycle 5 or 6 times a day and still have some time for other chores in between quench, dump and reload steps.  After it is cooled and dried out a bit, I run it through a shredder.  (If it is too wet, it will gum up the shredder).

For most uses people till about 10% to 15% biochar into the soil.  Although some benefits have been show for direct use as a “soil amendment”, I think that is a mistake in both thinking and practice.  Soil is a whole biome of living organisms.  It includes fungi, bacteria, worms, insects and year-round cover crops.  Every part of it has a role that benefits the rest.  Plant roots feed sugar to those organisms.  When you till, you break up the hyphae, the branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungus. Those filaments bring water and minerals to the roots of the plants.  Once broken, they take time to reform and the soil is less alive.  You also break the roots of the cover crop that feeds sugar to microbs.

Too often we isolate some ingredient, (nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, potassium…) and think that adding more of that part will help the whole.  An article in The The Natural Farmer , “Biochar a Critical View through the Ecosystemic Lens”, cautions: “In sum, the biochar fad seems to be one more of the increasing number of wishful attempts to prolong the inevitable decline of the industrial way of life. Biochar is promoted as one more technological silver bullet. Seen through the ecosystemic lens, silver bullets don’t exist. Seen through the ecosystemic lens, we do not have a shortage of anything, we have a longage of expectations.”

The best thing for new organic growth is old organic growth, dead or alive.  I mix the biochar with leaf compost, shredded branches, potash and grass mulch then spread it on top of the ground.  Existing fungi and microbes move into the mix and integrate it into the soil. Biochar reverses carbon pollution because it is inert and sequesters carbon.  But it also entrains carbon by promoting more carbon-based life in the rest of the soil.  Alan Savory in his book Holistic Management warns about the dangers of growing a crop that will be removed from its own soil, burned and changed so that it will not be recycled back into living organisms.  So go ahead and make biochar in your backyard. But proceed with caution.

Time Farches On

It is over 40º right now for the first time in over a month. December and January were like Winter Lite. Local folks were scoffing at the weather back then. I’ll try to avoid that in the future, especially if it gets very hot and dry again. February came back with a vengeance. We have not had this much snow in February since 1893 and it shows no sign yet of leaving in March. Thus one long month, Farch. Temperatures were down near 0º for us and substantially below that for most of the surrounding area. Luckily we have a good supply of wood or we would be heating with cabin fever.

During the earlier part of the winter the local birds were not very interested in our sunflower seed feeder or the suet baskets we put in the trees next to the house. But in February it was a feeding frenzy all day. (Click on the picture of the bird feeder for a video of the suet baskets.) The main crowd were Juncos. A surprising addition were Thrushes. Almost missing entirely were Chickadees. But Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are regulars as well as an occasional Nuthatch or Flicker. We hear Eagles every morning. They have a nest across the highway from us. Once in awhile one will perch in the neighbor’s cottonwoods. Turkeys sometimes swarm the area beneath the bird feeder.

Rowan Tree

Before they started on the suet, the Thrushes ate every berry on the Rowan (Mountain Ash) tree. That tree was also popular with the local deer, who cleaned up anything left on the ground. Rocky, the Pine Squirrel had a stash of pine cones in the open ends of the wall of the shed next to the Rowan. Now there is a midden of cone petals underneath a perch by that wall. I think he (or she) may have found a way into the storage shed but so far has eluded capture in live traps.

Meanwhile our cat Gray-C is limiting outdoor time to a half an hour at a shot, taking more naps, staring out the window and playing more enthusiastically at catch-the-string. We try to keep a jacket on our dog, Gretchen when she is outside. But she does not seem to mind rolling in the snow on top of her ball with or without the jacket.

Almost as surprising were the Maple Seed Spinners that have been clinging to the trees all winter. One windy day they broke loose and covered the snow. I had wondered how their shape helped them, but the sight of their dispersal answered any questions. In the past week a new outbreak of pine cones, pine nuts and lichen have fallen around the pine trees prompted by the “Arctic Outbreak” temperatures and wind. I noticed the deer wandering through and eating all the lichen off the top of the snow. They are also eating the prickly leaves of Oregon Grape. (The leaves seem to grow right back in the Spring but there are fewer flowers and berries.)

As for us, there are plenty of indoor things to do and every morning a couple hours of chores outside such as feeding the birds, bringing in the wood, exercising the dog and picking up the mail. Last year at this time we were off on a trip to Hawaii. Right now we will settle for some bare ground and sunshine. Of course that might end up meaning “Mud Season”. And this might be another one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments. But right now If it ain’t white it’s alright with me.