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
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.
When I moved to Northeast Washington in 1974, temperatures got to be much colder during the winters than now, as much as -40° in Ferry County. The past 20 years have been very mild by comparison (http://www.deanfarr.com/state_weather/). So it may be with exaggerated fondness that I remember working in the Golden Valley Mine one winter. While the temperatures plunged far below 0° outside, the temperature in the mine was always around 50°. On the other hand, keeping our house warm with wood heat from a stove in the basement was a constant struggle. Wanting to get a better grip on heating and cooling, among other things, I joined Citizens for a Solar Washington.
This involved a big learning curve for myself and everyone else in the group. I learned a lot about insulation, infiltration and radiation which prompted me to build the underground house where we live now. Joking with each other, we considered renaming it to “Citizens for a Heat Pump Washington”. That would probably rank as one of the nerdiest names in history and was decidedly not going to happen. But the realization that there was a lot more energy to be saved through good insulation and geothermal heat than through solar heat alone, was a lesson I had not thought about for years.
Recently I noticed more talk about geothermal energy, particularly from friends who are using it to heat a new home they are building and decided to catch up on the technology.
There is a lot to catch up on. The first distinction to make is that geothermal energy for producing electricity typically needs much higher underground temperatures than that used to heat a home. Most people will dismiss geothermal as an option except near hot springs or volcanoes. But for heating your home, it is virtually everywhere, especially if you have access to a lot of water.
Thinking about water, I decided to visit folks at Fogle Pump. They promote geothermal heat and in fact their whole new facility in Colville is geothermally heated. It turned out that an old acquaintance of mine, Dave Pehl, is the resident expert on geoexchange (using heat exchangers to provide building heat from the ground). Dave has a lot to say about the subject, having written the information sheets that Fogle gives out about geoexchange.
The introduction is pretty straight forward. Geothermal heating can save you 70% of the costs of conventional heating. The systems are quiet. They are the most environmentally friendly way to heat or cool (yes these systems can also cool) a building. They are virtually maintenance free and are very comfortable because they eliminate cold spots. They are also fairly expensive to design and install, not typically a do-it-yourself project. But the financial drawbacks have a lot of incentive programs to mitigate costs. The selling points left me with a lot of questions. (I’m big on questions.) The learning curve got a little steeper, or in this case a little deeper.
In another water connection, Dave explained the four basic ways that heat from the earth gets into water. We are not talking about high heat. The temperature of the earth below 6 feet is typically around 50° Fahrenheit. (1) You can drill deep holes near a building to place pipes in, which is how Fogle heats their building. (2) You can bury pipes in ditches near the building. Calculating how much pipe and how much ditching you need is based on how many “tons” of heat you need and what your ground is like. Different soils transmit heat differently. (We’ll get back to that.) The calculation is much easier if you can bypass the transfer from ground to pipes and go right to water in pipes. (3) If you can lay your piping at the bottom of a lake or pond, the cost goes way down. No wells or ditches! (4) Better yet, if you have a lot of water coming from a well, you can extract the heat and drain the water back into the ground further away. This is called a “pump and dump” system.
Fogle is great on wells, ditches and pipe. For the technical parts of the design and installation above ground, Dave referred me to Roland Doggen at Norstar Heating and Cooling. Roland explained that a “ton” of heat is equal to 12,000 BTU/hour and explained other design considerations. The best information though was an introduction to Royce Larsen, a retired surgeon, whose childhood home was in Colville. He bought land on Douglas Falls road and built a solar-powered home with a geothermal heating system designed by Roland Doggen. I could hardly wait to check it out.
Dr. Larsen’s situation is perfect for the dual combination of solar electricity and geothermal heat. His home sits above a wetland on Mill Creek and gets all the water needed from a shallow well. The solar system feeds directly into the grid so he gets credit for power. He can take advantage of 26% Federal tax credits for both the solar array and the geoexchange system. There are even more financial advantages available through Washington State. The house has a solar array mounted on a south-facing roof and 5 light tubes which give natural light to indoor rooms. The payback time for the system is 8 years.
We visited the utility area in the basement where the unit works quietly to keep ideal temperatures. You can think of the heat pump as a refrigerator in reverse. The geothermally heated ground water evaporates a working fluid which is then condensed under pressure to release heat to loop of warm water that heats the house. It even preheats the hot water tank to further reduce costs. That is one of the advantages of the combination. You get a savings in water heating costs that make it even more feasible to run entirely on solar. In a twist I didn’t expect, the solar array sends output information over the Internet to the manufacturers so that if a panel starts to degrade prematurely, they can replace it.
With so little maintenance to keep up with, Dr. Larsen can spend more time with the horses and wagons that he uses in parades and even to collect firewood. A wood stove provides him 74,000 BTU/hour backup heat. That would be 6 “tons” of capacity using Roland Doggen’s metric. Since the solar array uses the grid for storage, when the grid is down, their house is without power. That is a vanishingly rare occurrence that Royce enjoys preparing for using a Norwegian round stacking system to dry firewood.
There are lots of resources locally and on the Internet to plan for heating a new building or retrofitting an existing one. Many of them are on https://www.dsireusa.org/, a resource archive maintained by North Carolina State University for the entire country.
The old saying is “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” Well the talking has been going on big time now that global warming is blowing away all high temperature records every day. I even saw an article about new highs for low night time temperatures – ok whatever. Ironically we had 90° temperatures at the beginning of June. Then it got down to 41° on the 6th and froze at higher elevations. Underlying the ups and downs is a severe lack of rain, 4” below normal. Water would ordinarily moderate the temperature swings. Of course there are HUGE implications for fire season.
We are still trying to reverse global warming with regenerative agriculture and simple living, but now every day seems to be structured around functioning in these excessive high temperatures. We got up at 5 am today because there is daylight and a “low” temperature of 70°.
For the past few days cherries have been ripe. It is a week early but hardly a surprise. What was new this year was a substantial crop on our Black Republican tree. (No, this is not a joke about Strange Fruit.) Years ago I made wine with wild cherries – probably old homestead cherries – in front of the underground wine and fruit cellar. A fruit tree sprang up there that turned out to be small, black and very tasty cherries. Our Royal Ann tree and the neighbor’s huge Van cherry tree came on at the same time. The pie cherry is not ripe yet but loaded. So a lot of cherry picking early in the morning…
Cat drama has been reduced dramatically since our friends April Moon and Joe Kiefer took Spicy to their new property in the nearby hills on June 20th and renamed her Cosmo, Mo for short. Now they say they have “Mo Hair” all around their 5th wheel. Since then our 11 year old cat, Gray-C, has become her happy self again, running wind sprints through the house in the morning and sleeping under the filbert tree in the afternoon.
The greenhouse was getting temperature spikes of 110° even before the heat dome. We tried removing the ends of the roof to let heat out. It let bugs out but not much heat. I bought nine 55 gallon barrels and filled them with water to theoretically absorb heat during the day to cool the greenhouse and release heat at night to warm it. But with the greenhouse ends wide open all the time, 500 gallons of water has little effect. So we put the shade cloths over the roof and the large spikes don’t happen. But with daytime temperatures over 100° it is still too hot.
We put light weight remay cloth on a pvc frame over the cabbage and kale plants. They’re in the Kale House now and are cooler and safe from aphids, cabbage moths and other insects.
We wait until it is cooler outside than inside to open the doors on the house and office. Sometimes that is midnight. We also have a new fan that is running night and day. It can use 110 ac and has a lithium battery for the Farmers Market. Around 5 PM the BBQ is in the shadow of trees so cooking outdoors also keeps the house temperature down to 80°, which is still too hot but feels better than 100°+.
We have been watering almost all day. It takes two days to give the vineyard 2 hours on each plant. Cheryl is trying to keep a green space around our buildings but that is tough too since today’s green grass will turn to “grassoline” pretty soon. Thank goodness for a good well and pump. Backups for both of those would be nice.
All of the regular summer chores are proceeding slowly. The grapes are getting thinned. If we can see it through there is a great crop on the vines. New grape plants are getting pots and a shady place under the filbert tree. Biochar is on hold, but we have a decent supply and fuel for more. Wine is getting bottled though wine in every carboy expands during the high temperatures even thought the office is 20° below outside temperatures.
On June 11th Cheryl reviewed her MRI with John Boyd, PA, an orthopedic specialist. The good news is that she doesn’t need surgery. She is seeing a physical therapist in Colville regularly. Progress is slow with new setbacks of a return to pain. At least in this heat the cold packs are easier to take.
As I sat down to write this blog and noticed that I was nearly 2 months behind, that it was almost Memorial Day and that most of what I had to report was pretty boring. Then I got a text from Cheryl, that a black bear had just come up to the bedroom door, a few feet from where she was sitting. She managed to scare it off by clapping loudly. So it may not be as boring around here as I thought.
Spring, supposedly associated with actual springs of water, has been extremely dry. The transition from freezing nights to sweltering days sometimes happens in 24 hours. There is very little moisture to buffer the heat swings. Temperatures are expected to reach 90° in the next few days. Grasses are seeding out early or failing to do so at all. It is light out a 4 AM and is still twilight at 9 PM. So in a big reversal, it is better to work outside early in the morning and late in the afternoon than during the middle of the day.
Although there is only one bear sighting, the deer are showing off their velvet antlers; the turkeys have been strutting their fantails; the hummingbirds are back and fighting over the feeders; and yes, our two cats are still fighting each other if they get a chance. Luckily, being cats, they spend most of their time sleeping.
While the cats have both suffered slight wounds, our health is not too bad. We both have our shots, unlike most people in Stevens County, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the State and one of the highest infection rates. But we are not getting any younger and do have some issues, which will remain confidential for now. In that light however, here is an image of Cheryl rocking a hospital gown before and MRI. We know she has some issues with her back but it is not painful. But a month after the scan we still are not able to talk to an orthopedic surgeon because of a failure to communicate between the primary care, insurance, scanning and analyzing doctor. A lot of stressful advocacy by Cheryl is slowly moving it along.
The seasonal crush of activity in the garden is ongoing. Joe pruned the grape vines and started new plants from cuttings. Cheryl has started exporting plants grown under lights in the house to the garden, and to the Farmers Market.
Yes the Farmers Market has been underway for a month now. It demands a lot of time to get products prepared, loaded and displayed with prices and information – part of the reason for the long pause between blog posts about our personal lives. On the up side, it has been a great year for market sales. Wine, map books and plants have been selling well.
Additionally, Barreca Vineyards has a new product line, biochar. The link goes to a brief description in our products section. For a better understanding, read our biochar handout.
Part of the biochar marketing effort was a workshop on making biochar. Attendees included a couple of agricultural extension agents. The process is not really hard, complicated or expensive. But it does take time that I don’t really have to spare. So if any readers want a new business opportunity, let’s talk.
Another opportunity that would be easy to take on is propagating grapes. I have a couple hundred started as usual. Finding bigger pots, moving them into bigger pots, and making soil for those pots is now on the agenda. It is not so easy that everyone is successful, but again, if you want a growing business. (pun intended), this one is up for grabs and doesn’t have to be done on the farm.
As I was driving down Webley road to the lumber mill, I remembered my last visit there 35 years ago. I needed to have some 1 x 4 boards planed down to ½” from ¾“ so I could bend them into arches for my first underground arch building. That old mill was the only place nearby that did that kind of custom work. The new mill is much bigger with huge logs sitting in the log deck and along the way in many stacks of sawn lumber, some looking to be very old, sticker-stacked for air drying.
The mill was at the end of the road and I was at the end of my rope. My new little biochar business needs lots of scrap wood. Having used mine up, I got permission to cut up the slash piles of a couple friends. But the wood there was still wet inside. It would take dry wood to get it burning and would burn slowly with a lot of smoke. Still there would be a good chance of it not turning completely into charcoal. I was thinking I might find some long dry slabs with bark on at Webley Lumber that I could cut into burnable pieces.
I pulled up to the little log cabin office and inside found some very helpful people. They actually knew what biochar is and had used it. They also pointed me to piles of dry mill ends, clean, already in smaller pieces and FREE for the taking. I drove home intent on bringing my pickup truck back the next day and loading up.
During the night I started thinking about something else at Webley Lumber, huge piles of sawdust. It’s not good for biochar. But so much carbon! As a carbon farmer intent on getting as much soil-enriching rotten wood back into the ground as possible, I couldn’t get it off my mind. After loading up the next day I stopped to chat with a guy walking near the office to ask him about the sawdust. He was Brent Webley, the owner/manager of the mill. Milling lumber has been his family’s business for generations.
It turns out that I am not the only person who noticed the sawdust piles. Farmers come and load it up for bedding. Others come and lay it down around blueberry plants. In fact a blueberry farm near Reardon gets chipper truck loads full and plants berry bushes right into it. This is not a really good idea generally speaking but they were loading up from a pile that is 30 years old, 80 feet high and bigger than 2 football fields. Brent will load a pickup truck for $10, a super good deal. I was eager to get some of this old sawdust and to learn more from Brent.
Brent caught me up on a little mill history. His grandfather had a lumber mill in Orient. His father, Buzz, and an uncle built their first mill a little closer to the start of Webley road which comes off the far side of Gold Hill Loop just west of Colville. In the 60s and 70s they built newer mills on the current site. There was a big fire in 2001 but the mill itself did not burn. I asked him if all of his business is local. As it turns out, only about half is. Webley regularly ships lumber to Spokane. Additionally, one of their specialty products is custom shaped logs that can be stacked into log cabins, such as their office. To do that they need already dry wood that won’t warp or crack. So they have large bundles of big poles aging on a hillside before they are dry enough to use. These cabin logs are shipped all over the west and as far away as Japan. Old sawdust is just a minor income source.
Fresh sawdust is not a balanced soil amendment. It is acidic. While breaking down it draws nitrogen from nearby vegetation as well as water. If you put new sawdust right on your garden, it will pretty-much kill everything. Biochar is a little like that too. It will suck up water and does not have any natural nutrients. Both of these soil amendments have huge amounts of carbon, the main building block of all biological life. The sawdust can only release its carbon as a nutrient after being digested by microbes. The biochar doesn’t ever break down but preserves moisture and millions of beneficial microbes which, among other things, can help break down sawdust.
So let’s “break that down” a little more. There are two main avenues to getting microbes to digest sawdust. One is to get fungi growing in it. Fungi are much better at digesting wood than bacteria. They need water, air and a good source of already living fungi. Mature compost will usually kick start the process, or even old leaf litter from the forest floor.
What fungi don’t need so much is to be regularly turned over and mixed. That breaks up the mycelia, the thin threads of fungi that transport water and other nutrients. You want the mycelia to spread through the sawdust. Eventually you want them to form a symbiotic tie to living plant roots. They get sugar from the plants and bring water and minerals in exchange, effectively spreading the reach of the roots by orders of magnitude. I mix shredded woody material with finished compost, aged manure, rotting fruit pulp and microbe-enriched biochar and spread it under my grape plants to let it mature in place as it would in nature. (Come to think of it, I’m probably maturing in place myself.)
Meanwhile, remember those farmers that use sawdust and wood chips for bedding? That is another great way to offset rotting wood’s thirst for nitrogen by getting urine, manure and moisture mixed into the sawdust so it can be digested by microbes quickly. Animals get the nitrogen in their urine from eating green leaves and grass. Chlorophyll in green vegetation creates sugars from sunlight. After going through a digestive system or even just being mixed in fresh with dry plant matter chlorophyll releases nitrogen that bacteria and fungi trade back and forth to create rich organic soil. One part green vegetation to 3 parts brown is a standard ratio to have in compost.
The key to knowing if it is working is worms. Worms can eat leafy matter and food waste early in the composting cycle. But old sawdust that has rotted sufficiently gives worms a long-lasting food supply. My compost and aged manure piles are full of worms. There is a lot more to say about them, but let’s stick to sawdust for now.
After I had my truck loaded with two big scoops of damp red sawdust I started back toward home. As I got onto pavement and speeded up, the sawdust started to blow around. Out on the highway I was leaving a thin red cloud in my wake and slowing down a few cars in the process. As soon as possible, I stopped to buy a small tarp and cover the load. Take my advice and bring a tarp with you if you go to Webley Lumber for sawdust, but by all means go. Get that carbon into the ground.
When I moved to this property 35 years ago, I put a well ring on top of the ground near the garden. I thought that I could use it to make manure tea and then siphon the enriched water to the plants in the garden to both water them and add fertilizer. That never got going for a number of reasons, but the well ring has served as a contained planting area for crops that spread like strawberries and mint. It actually works well for that but the manure tea idea has fallen out of favor for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the smell. It turns out that smell is a good thing to keep track of, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lately I have ramped up my equipment to make biochar. Biochar is great at absorbing water. It is a little like vermiculite that way. But unlike vermiculite, it also stores carbon in the ground for hundreds of years because it doesn’t biodegrade. That also means that it is not itself a nutrient source for plants or microbes. It’s more like a hotel for organisms that live in the water it stores. You could let it collect bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa from your own soil once it is mixed in and watered. But if you are using biochar to help build your soil, maybe that is not the best place to start. Inoculating biochar with a healthy mix of microbes right from the start really puts the “bio” in what would otherwise just be charcoal.
Compost tea is a great way to get good microbes into biochar. Biochar is created in a fire and you won’t find any microbes surviving the heat. Using compost tea to quench the biochar fire is not an option. You need to wait until the charcoal has cooled down. Just as it is for humans, 70° to 80° is a pleasant temperature for microbes and for growing compost tea. In the middle of the winter that can be a challenge. Ironically, the best place I found for making compost tea was my root cellar. Sure it is near 34° in there, but at least it doesn’t freeze and with a heating pad or two and an old blanket, bingo! 80°.
If it were only that simple… You can’t use manure tea on a certified organic farm. Besides the good result of lots of readily available nitrogen, bad actors like E. coli and Salmonella can breed in manure tea. You don’t want them near leafy greens or any vegetable you are going to eat directly. “Escherichia coli (abbreviated as E. coli) are bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. E. coli are a large and diverse group of bacteria. Although most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can make you sick. (CDC.gov)” That is why my original manure tea well ring was not such a good idea. Not only was starting with manure dangerous, letting it just sit in the water turns out to be frowned upon. There are two basic kinds of compost tea, anaerobic that just sits in water for however long you want and actively aerated compost tea (AACT) that grows microbes in a vigorously bubbling container for 24 to 36 hours and then is used within 4 hours.
Friends told me there was a big difference between aerated compost tea and anaerobic tea, so I looked it up under “aerated compost tea”. There are lots of links. I liked piedmontmastergardeners.org and homesteadandchill.com. The basics are not too hard and I will get to that. The first obvious question is why is aerated compost tea better? The simple answer is fungi.
You want a balance between bacteria and fungi. Bacteria are good at breaking down lots of different nutrients and making them available to plants. But they are not good at digesting wood and fiber. That is a job for fungi. Additionally, mycorrhizal fungi can form symbiotic bonds with plant roots and bring water, minerals and other nutrients to plant roots in exchange for sugar. Most fungi need oxygen. If you need fungi in your compost tea, you need to bring in oxygen, hence the aeration. It also helps to get your microbes from an aged compost pile. The fungi are more abundant there. And you need to feed them starchier kinds of material like grains and potatoes.
Being in over my head at this point, I called on the North Columbia Monthly’s resident fungi expert, James Groth, asking how to know if my compost tea is balanced between bacteria and fungi. He replied “Trying to quantify fungi and bacteria in compost, even with a microscope, is impossible, in my opinion. There are hundreds (probably thousands) of kinds of both, with different life styles. I would agree that fungi are mostly aerobic, but so are many bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria are not desirable in compost.” Remember I mentioned smell in the first paragraph. Articles on AACT like the one in piedmontmastergardeners.org tell us that the finished tea should have a “sweet earthy smell, coffee brown color and bubbles on top.”
In his book about Korean Natural Farming, JADAM, Youngsang Cho argues strongly against aerobic digestion and for anaerobic fermentation. He notes that is used to make wine, Kimchi and yogurt. Aerobic digestion uses up the nutritional elements that humans and animals need. He favors anaerobic digestion because it does not need mechanical aeration and can make nutritional soil teas from simple ingredients like leaf mold, boiled potatoes and sea salt. So both methods of making compost tea have their advocates. One downfall of anaerobic digesters is that they can produce methane. It not only stinks, it is a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and can last over 100 years in the atmosphere (epa.gov).
Luckily, the aerated compost tea in my root cellar had a sweet smell. Oddly enough, it started with socks. Clean old cotton socks to be clear, but I did have to sew up the holes in them. There are lots of special “tea” bags recommended for aerated compost tea, but socks work just fine. The critical parts are the starter microbes from worm castings or finished compost and the microbe food. Recommended foods include molasses, fruit, juice, fish emulsion, oatmeal, rock phosphate and fruit pulp. My best batch (judging by the smell) was from barley and weak apple cider left over from a wine making project.
The trickiest part actually is getting the aeration going. The gismo in the picture is an aquarium air pump, VIVOSUN 317-1750GPH Commercial Air Pump. After I bought it, I was pleased to note that the same pump was pictured in several articles about AACT. It comes with an array of valves that lets you aerate up to 6 different buckets. I used ¼ inch drip irrigation tubing to get the air into the bucket and held the ends down by sticking them through an old metal plumbing part. That air pump really gets the water roiling as recommended. I was glad however that it was down in the cellar away from the house because it is pretty noisy.
Don’t get the idea that AACT is just for biochar. None of the articles I read even mentioned biochar. It can be used regularly to pep up garden plants (but I would still avoid putting it on leafy greens). There were many uses as a foliar spray that acted as a fertilizer and even as pest control on perennial plants. It is supposed to control apple scab for instance. Still you need to think of it as a burst of microbes that need something to live on. Mulch, compost and grass clippings make good food for the soil biome. Add some compost tea and your soil springs to life. Spring time is tea time!
Here it is, the first day of Spring and I’m trying to write a personal blog that I now realize I have not written all winter. To be fair I did write about cats on January 14th and now Spicy is vigorously massaging my arm while I am trying to type. So some things have not changed much. The cats are in a standoff where Gray-C is not allowing Spicy in the house and Spicy is making Gray-C afraid to go outside the house.
Cheryl started seeds today and cut down old flower stalks in the garden yesterday. Snow has almost melted off the vineyard and is gone most places. I’m still finding ice under the compost pile. The living room still feels a little empty without the Christmas tree which adds to the overall feeling of more light and air.
We both had our second Moderna shots as of February 25th. We had sore arms and extra fatigue for a few days but are really glad to feel a little safer. We even plan to go to our second movie, News of the World, tomorrow and eat out afterward. These seem like huge changes but there have actually been a lot of changes so far this year. We have hardly gone anywhere, even to Spokane. So all the “action” has been at home for Joe. Cheryl does most shopping, does laundry and still gets massages.
Last year’s grape harvest was cut down by an early freeze in October. I made some ice wine but the process is all quality and very little quantity. To boost output I reconfigured my cider press with an electric motor (thanks to my brother John) and got very good deals on apples from local orchards. On days when the temperature is above freezing I could press the apple pulp with a press that runs off hydraulics from a garden hose. The process nets lots of raw juice in a hurry. It also generates a lot of apple pulp. I became very popular with the local deer.
The apple cider sugar needs to be concentrated either by boiling it down or freezing the water and draining off the sweeter juice. After spacing out a pot of boiling cider that burnt into a huge mass of solid black foam that took days to clean, I have been going with the freezing method for a couple months and still have some left to process. A bonus is that I have been able to make elderberry and huckleberry wine with the apple concentrate as a base, all without any additives or even commercial yeast. Another benefit is that working outside under the greenhouse cover on the crushing pad, the cold keeps down flies and ants and the juice stays fresh for days.
Making biochar in a 55 gallon barrel took all day off and on. It yielded a couple cubic feet of biochar. I decided to get a bigger burn box and found a used metal diesel engine shipping container at Real Steel, the local metal recycling yard. The new box makes 15 or more cubic feet of biochar in one burn over the course of a day. On the other hand it can use up to a full cord of wood. I have had help with wood from a local orchard and have some other sources lined up. Red Bridge feed provided grain bags and sewed them up with a label I printed. Biochar has been selling well by word of mouth. The two places I have asked about being retail outlets have so far declined. That may be for the better since there is not much time to gather wood right now.
So that was winter. Last night I made pie from a butternut squash that Cheryl precooked. Our tradition of almost always having a pie to eat continues from the Farmers Market. The harvest of 2020 carries us into 2021. And although with big pauses, my tradition of writing a personal blog continues.
It’s early in a new year. People are planning ahead for 2021. Looking back on 2020 for hints of what is to come, we see some long food lines in big cities and shortages of many staples on grocery shelves. There is not necessarily a shortage of food, but a shortage of labor due to the corona virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 5,000 corona virus cases and 20 deaths throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants in April. (cnet.com) In a crisis, long consolidated food sources tend to break down.
Long supply chains and an increased demand for flour emptied many grocery store shelves but supplies were good and so were sales at local flour mills like Shepherd’s Grain, in Moscow, Idaho. According to its COO, Jeremy Brunch, Shepherd’s has grown since its inception in 2003 from one semi truckload to over 600,000 bushels shipped. Based, Shepherd’s markets through health-oriented outlets on the West Coast by having farmers go to speak to their customers there. The farmers also invite customers to come visit their farms. Knowing your farmer turns out to be good for everyone.
People are doing more than just visiting. There are four new houses being built by their owners on property within earshot of ours. Urban refugees are moving to the country. This is another trend showing no sign of slowing down. In fact it reverses one that has emptied the countryside into the cities the past 75 years. We have learned from the pandemic that there are ways to work from home, wherever that is.
Putting these trends into perspective is the mission of professors like Chris Smaje, author of A Small Farm Future. He begins his book with enumeration of ten emerging crises: population growth; climate change; energy shortages; soil depletion; more waste from and depletion of resources used for producing material stuff; water shortages; land scarcity; health and nutrition deficiencies; a political economy that treats environmental impacts as “externalities”; and a culture that pushes the less fortunate to “the margins of sustainability.”
Obviously, Smaje takes on a hefty load in the book and I won’t burden you with all the details. But his conclusion that relief from many of these crises lies in moving to the country is unavoidable. He points to a model of the relation of cities to the countryside first elaborated by Johan Heinrich von Thünen in 1826. It shows dairy and market garden farms close to the city; forestry next (they depended on wood heat in 1826); arable land for grains, potatoes etc. further out and grazing land furthest away.
Petroleum-powered transportation has disrupted that model so that now we can expect food on our grocery shelves to come from anywhere in the world. But that is not sustainable. A 2010 USDA study shows that our current food system uses fourteen times as much energy to get food onto our plates as the energy value of the food itself. But in the future, conserving production and transportation energy will become increasingly important.
To get a picture of what it would look like to base our diets on just what foods we can grow locally, I talked to Lora Lea Misterly, owner of Quillisascut Cheese and co-author of Chefs on the Farm, a cook book. Eating locally means eating seasonally. Some food keeps on the shelf like beans and peas or in the cellar like potatoes, apples, carrots and parsnips. When an animal is butchered, some meats are best eaten quickly like the heart and liver. Steaks and prime cuts can be frozen and cooked quickly. But others like brisket and leg bones need to braise and cook a long time before they are tender. She notes that as a society we have drifted away from the ways every part of an animal can be used. A lot of that is because it takes more time and is not promoted by big business. Curing meat and sausage can make meats last. Cheese turns quickly spoiling milk into a long-lived tasty treat. Canning, fermenting and pickling preserve fruit and vegetables. If this is beginning to sound like a lot of work, that’s because it is.
Preserving and preparing food takes skill and equipment. Food processing has increasingly become large-scale and far away. That also takes it far from the watchful eyes of customers and into the hands of corporations more protective of their processes and preservatives than the health of customers and the environment. Creating local enterprises to process food locally is a big opportunity for rural folks. Creating a mindset to spend more time cooking and acquiring food directly from farmers is both a road block and an opportunity. Serving healthy food seasonally and locally is another challenge that can enhance a local economy and attract visitors. You don’t go to Tuscany to eat hamburgers and fries.
Like Quillisascut Cheese and Shepherd’s Grain, businesses are springing up that make eating locally with regional ingredients easy. I started to name them but realized that there are too many to list without missing many. Certainly the vendors at the farmers markets are bringing products of their own creation usually locally grown. We also have several microbreweries, wineries and coffee roasters. Bakeries make their own products as do pizza places and don’t forget barbeque. It is usually made with less expensive and local cuts of meat. Meat cutters often make their own sausage, ham and bacon.
Speaking of meat, we are close to sources of bison, venison and wild turkey. Those are all meats that will be lean and may need a long preparation time. You can add in other wild foods: huckleberries, elderberries, morel mushrooms and wild asparagus. Really, we have a lot of local flavors to distinguish our local cuisine.
For tasty recipes, Chefs on the Farm is a good start because it is both local and arranged seasonally. Lora Lea suggested some ingredients for each season:
Winter: potatoes, carrots, onions, pot roast and/or chick peas and beans.
Spring: nettles, eggs, spinach, chard, quiche, asparagus, leeks and mushrooms
I’m a rockhound. For years I have gone on field trips with the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club. On a field trip everyone arrives at a rock site and gets out of their cars. Almost immediately they split up looking for valuable rocks. After a while the group settles down into two groups that I call the “scratchers and the pickers”. The scratchers find a spot they think has promise and dig in. The pickers explore the whole site looking for what is already exposed. Eventually most people dig into one spot.
Finding opportunities for enterprises in the countryside is a little like that. Last month I passed on advice from finance and marketing experts. They suggest that any enterprise should start with knowing what you are passionate about and good at. This month I’m following a suggestion from Joel Salatin in Folks, This Ain’t Normal, to look around your place and take note of what equipment, resources and experience you have that could be expanded in a new direction.
For instance Tor Trousdell, who can distill oils from Lavender, as part of his business with his wife Alex and daughter Rya, Flowing Water Lavender, stopped by with a load of grape pressings that he had distilled to make Raki, a Greek hard liquor. The pressings were surplused from Fruitland Valley Vineyard and Winery. I am going to spread them on my vineyard as part of my mulch mix (if the deer don’t eat it first). So there you have Tor’s idle equipment and experience, Fruitland’s wine waste and my soil yard all benefiting from surplus that might have otherwise gone unused.
There are a lot of opportunities like that on a typical farm. One of my favorites is a “chicken tractor”. This is another idea mentioned by Salatin. It really is “starting from scratch”. Part of its beauty is that it is inexpensive but also that it can be a startup enterprise in partnership with someone who has a pasture but no chickens. In an article in the North Columbia Monthly, July 2020, I related how Ramestead Ranch, now a thriving regenerative farm near Ione, Washington, started from a backyard garden. When the owners decided that they wanted to also produce meat, they built a “chicken tractor”, basically a movable fence/cage that let chickens scratch and graze a new area every time it was moved. They moved it around a 2½ acre parcel. Now they have 16 chicken tractors that they run for 7 months during the summer on their pasture after the four-legged livestock have gone through. In the end they have fryers both fresh and frozen ready for market.
Note in this picture the green trails between the pens. Those are areas that where the chickens have already been through once. Chickens till in the manure from ruminants and eat larva of flies and other insect pests, grass and seeds, then they leave their own enriched manure behind. This improves the fertility of the whole field while producing very healthy chickens for very little cost.
There usually is some resource going to waste on a farm. Sometimes it is just a matter of preservation. I made apple cider from lower quality apples in January. I traded for them from local orchards including Cliffside Organic Orchards. The cider will eventually become wine. But it could have become vinegar, jelly or even cooked down into syrup. All of these things would have preserved them and created another product to market.
The real limiting factor is labor. Many organic farms and orchards nearby take advantage of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (wwoofusa.org). Woofers, as they are known, will travel to live on a farm where they can work and learn farming. A farmer should provide shelter, hopefully food and often compensation to the mostly young people in this program. Many times woofers will stay in the area; purchase the farm or one nearby and become neighbors and friends. So it is a good opportunity for everyone but not without its downfalls since some “workers” are not all that motivated to actually work. It is a good idea to screen applicants early in the winter to find the best fit.
Speaking of visitors on the farm, a farm can also host agrotourists, especially if they have their own RV. The website harvesthosts.com is one such organization that features places to stay at wineries, breweries and farms. With over 1500 locations already listed, it gives farmers the opportunity to get income without building and licensing a bed and breakfast.
United States Census Bureau Director, John H. Thompson said in 2016 that 19.3% of the population is rural, living on 97% of the land while 80.7% of the population is Urban (census.gov). Although there are some opportunities for urban gardens, realistically if you want to grow your own food, living in the country is a better bet than living in a city. With the majority of US citizens at least a generation removed from their rural roots, a great deal of agricultural knowledge has been lost. That may be for the better since most “advancements” in agriculture over the past 70 years have fostered a shift to mechanized farming with petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, all three of which kill the microbes in the soil and are not sustainable. Yet authors such as Jason Bradford, (The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification, Post Carbon Institute, 2019) foresee a dramatic retreat to the countryside as fuel, steady employment, healthy foods and safety all become scarce in urban environments.
So scratching away at the resources you know to be close at hand on the farm is a good start, but you might also do well to become pickers by looking around to the urban population that is headed our way. As local realtors can attest, these folks have money but they could use a few more skills when it comes to livestock and farming. One family that found an opportunity in training is Rick and Lora Lea Misterly, founders of Quillisascut Farm School. While marketing their handmade goat cheese to restaurants in Seattle and Spokane, they saw a need for chefs to understand the seasons, resources and techniques involved in getting whole fresh organic food from the farm to the kitchen. Their straw bale classroom and dormitory offers classes in cooking and farming directly to chefs. They have support for providing this training from other culinary institutes. Students walk away with life experiences that can be used to develop their own sustainable kitchens.
There are a lot more opportunities in this arena. Emerging techniques for sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture are building on ancient methods, indigenous knowledge and new science. If the future is rural, it is also local. Best practices to grow crops and raise animals vary from one place to another. If you can make it as a small farmer, you could also teach others what you know. If your business is expanding, you can branch out and cooperate with others to new products, markets and educational experiences. As usual, if you have ideas along these lines, let’s share ideas. There is always more to teach and learn.
Lots of things happened in the world in December and January. But around here it was mostly about the cats. We already had a wonderful little gray cat, Gray-C. She was inside when on December 8th we all heard a cat meowing at the front door. Cheryl went out to check it out and the new cat came right up to her. Cheryl brought out some cat treats and it turned out that this was the most ravenously hungry cat either of us had ever met. Not coincidentally, she was also pretty fat. We could not tell if she was pregnant or just hefty. By now we are coming down pretty much on hefty. We named her Spicy to reflect her tortoise shell coloring.
Gray-C was not thrilled. Spicy went right up to our dog, Gretchen, and both were fine. She also just sat down and was not threatening to Gray-C, but Gray-C was having none of it. Spicy was not getting into the house on Gray-C’s watch. I should note that Spicy is about twice as big as Gray-C. Temperatures were dipping into the twenties at night. We set up a box in the shop with a heating pad in it. Spicy loved that. Cheryl got the wood stove in the shop going. It is a tiny stove and needs to be fed every few hours or it goes out. That got to be old quickly, especially because we had to leave a door open a crack so Spicy could get in and out. A week later I installed a cat door on the office, which has a sub-heated floor. It was a big hit. This is Spicy’s new home.
Meanwhile the two cats did touch noses once on the 12th, but Gray-C immediately took a swipe at Spicy and backed away. It was getting on toward Christmas. Cheryl strung Christmas cards on our wall. We mailed out our cards and newsletters. Cheryl got the tree lit and decorated. Gray-C explored the barrel the tree was sitting in but left ornaments alone.
Things took a turn when Gray-C decided to try entering the new cat door to the office. Spicy bolted out after her and the chase was on. I had to separate them. She took a turn for the worse the next day when I went to feed her and she wasn’t hungry. Maybe it was the egg yolks I fed her the night before. Google shows they are good for cats but I won’t try that again. She slowly recovered both her ambition and her appetite. But she was lonely and not fond of staying in the office all night by herself.
So one night near New Years we awoke to the sound of a cat snarling and found that Spicy had pushed through the back cat door and Gray-C was there to stop any forward progress. We ushered Spicy out the back human door and got back to sleep.
It turns out that Spicy is as good a hunter as Gray-C. When she took over Gray-C’s favorite winter hunting spot under the bird feeder, they got into another fight. Gray-C lost but only her ego seems hurt. There have been an unusually large number of pine siskins around the feeder this year. Unlike the usual customers, chickadees, nut hatches etc. the siskins feed as a big flock mostly on the ground while a few knock seed out of the feeder. Feathers started appearing on the carpet in front of the office toilet. The feeder is gone now and hopefully the siskins will move on too so I can put it back up.
It’s not like cats are the only thing going on around here. Both cats have been out to the revamped crushing pad that has become a small cider mill. I’ll link a video of making cider to this picture. The cats are not the biggest fans of cider operations. That would be the deer. The sound of commotion out there now brings them out of the woods in hope of finding fresh apple pulp to munch on.
Since snow has been light so far, I have managed to shred a lot of pine cones and prunings and mix them with compost, old manure and biochar to mulch the vineyard. On the 29th I brought home a big metal bin to burn wood into biochar. But that will be a tale for 2021. In the meantime, Spicy is snoozing on an old office chair and Gray-c has taken to sleeping on chairs by the dining table so she can spot any potential invasions.
There is a lot to lose as you get older: health, friends, memory, and often dreams. I sometimes think that maturity is just a matter of giving up on things you will never be great at to concentrate on those you can do well. When even those start to slip, I ask myself “who will carry on what I’ve started” and beyond that, “who will take up all the tasks and ideas I would like to see happen but am too old or too busy to start by myself.”
Ordinary people can start organizations that grow and prosper long after they have moved on. Looking at things I have helped start that are still thriving, the ones I cooperated with others on stand out. There is another list of businesses I have been part of that no longer exist. I started out to write this article about business ideas that younger people could develop and make a living at that would change the world for the better and support a family too. Along the way I thought “Why not ask other people if they had thoughts about opportunities they see?” No matter where the ideas come from, I want to relate lessons learned from innovators and entrepreneurs who envision a community they want to help build.
In a very 2020 family Thanksgiving event, I participated in a zoom meeting with my family during which my brother-in-law, Roger Ellison, showed us a brick that he made out of clay and recycled glass. It is part of his continuing series of experiments to develop a way to make his own bricks to use in kilns where he makes biochar. He also announced that he had sold his first cubic yard of biochar. I decided that this called for a dedicated zoom meeting with Roger about opportunities.
I was curious about how Roger makes biochar on San Juan Island but also how he manages to sell it since I also make biochar and am considering selling it. In small quantities it sells for $30 a cubic foot. As you can see in this picture, the startup equipment is not necessarily sophisticated or expensive. The downside is that in small quantities it takes periods of time off and on during most of a day to make a couple cubic feet.
This is not the place to discuss the whole process. But one of my first questions was if he knew of any trials that showed in quantitative terms the advantages of having biochar in your soil. It turns out that he did. Biochar Market Analysis for San Juan County and the Pacific Northwest by the Northwest Natural Resource Group lays out the whole situation for the product and the market. Roger sent me a copy.
One of the first observations in that analysis was that very few people know what biochar is, what it is used for, where it comes from and how much it is worth. It turns out that those are questions anyone needs to answer about any product before going much further and the analysis done for biochar could be a model for any market analysis of any opportunity we want to consider.
Biochar is charcoal without anything added. Think of it as a sponge made of pure carbon. It is usually made by burning off resins from wood or other plant waste to leave only charcoal. In the study, biochar was shown to increase crop production; increase soil biology, increase water and nutrient retention; increase nutrient density in food; aid soil structure and permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. There was no question that biochar was a good and valuable product.
The study went on to point out that even at fairly good market prices 30-40% was taken as retail markup, packaging and transportation took additional time and money. Income ended up around $20/hr. The product faced huge hurdles in retail consumer understanding of its value. Commercial farmers looked at it as an expense meant to reduce costs of other fertilizer additives. That did not often produce sales because many farmers lease land and have little incentive to increase its long-term fertility at the cost of short-term profits. Most farmers prefer to produce biochar themselves but seldom can afford the time or investment to do that in significant quantities. So despite its inherent value and low production costs, selling biochar is not necessarily a money maker. I wondered how Roger managed to sell biochar for a profit at all.
The answer is that he sold biochar along with plants, fruits and vegetables at the Farmers Market. So his overhead was spread out to many products. Additionally, Roger sells all of his products through the San Juan Islands Food Hub, an organization that lists products and takes orders online and lets consumers pick up their orders at a central location. It is a cooperative organization run by the producers (https://sjifh.com). There are similar organizations in other Western Washington counties and near us in Spokane. Local Inland Northwest Cooperative, (LINC Foods), lets farmers list produce they have to sell online (https://LINCFoods.com). Farmers bring their crops to a central warehouse and from there LINC distributes it to restaurants, schools and this year, directly to individual consumers. This cooperative approach diffused the costs of retail markup, sales overhead, transportation and distribution.
Sensing more opportunities, I called Dan Jackson at LINC Foods and asked him what kinds of products they were looking for. He said that he gets that question a lot. His advice was that LINC, and the customers they serve are looking first for quality. You can get almost any variety of food you want from groceries and the wholesale distributors who supply them. If you want the best quality, you look to farmers and more direct sales such as LINC offers. His next piece of advice sounded similar to Aristotle’s “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. In this view there are opportunities everywhere, not just ideas in articles like the one I imagined this would be. It takes passion and dedication to succeed but it also takes knowledge of the market and experience in production to achieve the quality needed to sustain sales.
Realizing that I needed more seasoned advice, I contacted Barry Lamont at Tri County Economic Development (TEDD) (https://tricountyedd.com/). His first advice sounded a lot like Dan Jackson’s and Aristotle’s, ask yourself what you want to be doing. He said 95% of businesses in Northeast Washington are Limited Liability Corporations or Sole Proprietorships started by people with their own dreams. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money or a lot of employees to get started. Jobs are opening up in the service sector such as yardcare, healthcare and home maintenance, because of our aging population (that would be me). Lamont also suggested that tradesmen like electricians, heating and cooling technicians, carpenters and plumbers are in demand.
He noted that if your startup ideas require more money than you have, it is really tough to get money from banks. My father, a bankruptcy attorney, told me “Banks only lend money to people who don’t need it.” The first thing banks will look for is security, what can they grab if the enterprise fails? The good news is that TEDD is a secondary lender, which means if a bank turns you down, you can apply through TEDD. It has government funding sources but doesn’t approve all loans. What they are looking for is experience. You need a good business plan and a history that will make their loan approval board believers in your idea.
Lamont gave me a lead on excellent market research. It is available through the market research guru at the Spokane Public Library, Mark Pond, (509) 444 5312. For example, a watercolor artist wanted to know the market for her art and asked Mark Pond for leads. In a matter of minutes, Pond had a list of possibilities so detailed that he drilled down and found the name and address of a woman who bought a lot of art and lived in the artist’s home town.
I’m still going to pursue describing enterprises I would like to see initiated to help our health and that of the soil, especially if readers like you send them to me. But before listening to anything I have to say, people wanting to start a career need to ask themselves who they are now and what they want to become. In the meantime before I start promoting ideas, I have a lot of questions for Mark Pond.