Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Yes this is a website about our vineyard and we do sell wine from it. Typically the shipping charges cost as much as the wine, so we sell most of our wine directly from the winery, at the Northeast Washington Farmers Market, or through local stores: Meyers Falls Market, Ferry County Co-op and Colville Liquor and Wine. We also sell biochar and have another business, Map Metrics, that sells map books of Northeast Washington.

More important than wine for this website is that it displays blog posts about regenerative agriculture and personal posts about our life here. The latest is on top and a topic index is on the left site of the page. A printed compilation of articles, Nurturing Abundance, is also available from this website.

Grape Selection

As the temperatures warm up and everything seems to be in bloom, many folks are contemplating planting grapes.  It is a good time for that, but caution is advised.  The biggest danger this time of year is a late frost. We have a short growing season even at lower elevations.  It’s best to plant grapes after the danger of frost is past. Grapes will survive a frost.  Each bud has 3 baby buds inside.  But by the time they come out to replace a frozen leaf, there is little chance of bringing in a ripe harvest. An additional perk to waiting is that the buds eventually show themselves and you will be able to select very viable plants.

Historically, wine grapes were grown in Europe.  But grapes are also native to North America.  This leads to feuds and a sorted history.  When American grapes, were introduced in Europe, they brought with them a disease called Phylloxera which is caused by an aphid. The blight from this insect quickly spread throughout Europe devastating crops.  Eventually grape growers realized that grapes grown on American rootstock were immune to the disease. After grafting the true vinifera grapes onto new rootstock, the European wine industry revived but not without grudges. French/American hybrid grapes are often banned in Europe.

Another contrast between American grapes and European vinifera is in the heritage of the French/American Hybrid grapes, many of which are grown in Northeast Washington live in forests. True vinifera from Europe tends to be “well behaved” meaning that they grow new canes every year from set locations on the cordon, (the arms of a grape plant trained along a horizontal wire).  Pruning consists mostly of cutting back last year’s canes to a single bud and letting a new cane grow there.

Hybrid grapes, however, love to climb to the top of trees as they would have done in their New England native habitat.  This makes pruning more challenging since they resist being limited to sprouting from last year’s canes. This leads to a discussion of cane vs spur pruning which is beyond the scope of this article.

Determining how you want to trellis your grapes is an important factor.  Generally speaking, grapes like air and light.  Having a wall to the north of the vine is usually helpful.  Not only is soil an important factor, exposure to sunlight is also key to planning a vineyard.  The higher a plants canes are off the ground, the more impervious it is to frost.  Selecting the strongest shoots to attach to a vertical stake or rebar when they are first planted is a good way to insure that they will attain a good height. Sometimes this takes a couple of years. In the meantime, trimming off potential clusters of grapes promotes growth.

Another perpetual source of grape confusion is seedless, vs wine, vs juice.  This aggravates me not only because historically I have grown wine grapes, but also because wine grapes have been selectively bred over thousands of years to produce great tasting juice.  If you are aiming to produce juice, consider wine grapes.  They produce abundantly and the juice can be pressed out easily.

Another pet peeve is steam extraction.  The extra-ordinary amounts of sugar in grapes – typically twice the amount in pears or apples – is significantly degraded by steam extraction. Granted, the juice can be too sweet and steam extraction dilutes that.

Sometimes I compare growing grapes to getting married.  They need attention and care. Maybe it’s like the police “protect and serve”.  This year is stacking up to be very dry.  I wasn’t aware of just how dry it was last year until I got a soil probe.  It is easy to push it into the ground and see what color the soil is and how damp it is.  Already the soil here on a bench by the Columbia is very dry.  Watering grapes is another skill that sometimes becomes lost in translation.  Grape expert Wes Hagan says “Vines that are “trained” to learn that their water only comes from one place (a drip emitter or a hose) will develop a root ball near the surface of the soil and will not develop a deep and wide root system. Deep, infrequent applications of water are, in my estimation, best for the vine.

I use a sprinkler system that spins water out near the surface of the ground.  In my experience growing grapes, their roots tend to spread out. To get water to them, you need to spread the water out too.  Overhead sprinkling is a no-no.  Water on grape vines leads to mold and powdery mildew.  Those two culprits will shrivel the grape clusters and rot the leaves.  Conversely, too much water in the ground will not allow the roots to breath and will kill the vine.

So go ahead and grow yourself some grapes. But plan ahead and be prepared. It’s a long-term relationship.

Seed Savers

…What I came to say was

Teach the children about the cycles.

The Life Cycles. All the other cycles,

That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.

— Gary Snyder, “For/From Lew”

Today is the Equinox.  By the time this magazine is ready, Easter will be over. The Full moon will be passed.  Earth’s cycles will be changing quickly. Before Europeans, Native people would be digging roots or gathering camas, wapato, or cattail shoots.  The Salish word for Spring is “a Time of Gathering.”  Gathering was a matter not just of time, but of place and people. Different plants grow best in different places.  Indigenous people went to those places. We try to make wherever we live a place to grow our food. 

We try to make our same foods grow in every place. More often we try to get food from every place at one grocery supermarket.  Often, we can even get seeds there.  This consolidation of supply and access to food has dramatically diminished the genetics of world food production. Maize, rice, wheat, barley and sorghum are the 5 main world food crops.  No fruits, vegetables, animals, spices or many other things are on the list. If you buy seeds to grow any of those things, they were probably grown in huge quantities in the Midwest and sold worldwide, often in patented varieties.

Looking at the brilliant pictures and glowing descriptions in seed catalogs we lose sight of the inherent nature of seeds to adapt to individual climates and locations. A lot of local people are trying to change that perception and the supply chain.  I met several of them at a seed swap held at the Fruitland Valley Winery recently. There was a lot to learn.

Bezaleel Israel has been collecting seeds from his gardens for over 25 years.  You can order the seeds BZ grows through the website, BZFarm.org. Click on the button to “buy seeds” for a list of 20 kinds of vegetables and 70 different varieties of seeds within them.  There are regulations on seeds for sale. Seeds must be tested every five months for the percentage of germination expected. For these 70 varieties, BZ and fellow farm collective member Chrys Ostrander must do germination tests in addition to collecting, cleaning, storing, packaging and labelling the seeds. 

Developing the best seeds is another story. They have drier upland sites and bottomland sites in at their Eco Village site near the US/Canada Border north of Northport. Within one kind family of plants, say corn, the plants different varieties can cross-pollinate if near to each other.  Sometimes crossing is done intentionally as with the Yukon Standard hybrid corn BZ breeds. Planting and pollination need to be controlled closely. ”Hybrid vigor” is the tendency for hybrid crops to grow more vigorously than their parents.   By crossing varieties, you can create new ones and the seed saver only needs to choose seeds from the best of the offspring. From the third generation on the plants self-select so the new variety becomes “stabilized”. Carefully avoiding crossing keep the traits you want. This is the principle of Heirloom seed preservation. Another key to understanding the process is that seeds adapt progressively from generation to generation when grown in one location. This is the principle of seed localization.

There is another philosophy and approach. At that same seed swap Dana Combest represented the Huckleberry Range Community Collective (HRCC) (www.facebook.com/groups/thehrcc). It is a private group. So, you need to enter some information about your name and generally where you live. This serves the purpose of making it truly local. They began in 2019 as mostly a tool-sharing group. In 2023 they branched out into seed and plant sharing.

HRCC’s new hammermill for cracking grains etc.

Dana introduced me to a new term, “Landrace Gardening.” It doesn’t have anything to do with the land speed record.  Landrace is actually an old term meaning “a local cultivar or animal breed that has been improved by traditional agricultural methods” (Oxford Dictionary). HRCC offers for sale a small book with excerpts from a larger work by Joseph Lofthouse on Landrace Gardening, How to grow food when you can’t buy seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides. (lofthouse.com) His philosophy is that the best cultivars for our gardens are grown as genetically diverse, promiscuously-pollinating crops.  He uses examples from his own experiences in a high-altitude farm where he could not grow many warm weather crops until he started saving his own seeds.

The method could be called “survival of the tastiest.”  But it starts with just plane survival.  Lofthouse does not fertilize, irrigate or use pesticides.  In fact, he welcomes weeds and pests. It is a little like a mosh pit. You plant seeds from a wide variety of sources, trust that they will cross-pollinate and that the genetic diversity will overcome all obstacles in those plants that survive with the gardener having to amend the environment very little to ensure survival.  Lofthouse does select for the tastiest survivors because that is what his customers value in his seeds more than toughness, abundance, shipability, storage etc. Rather than lock on to a likely survivor to keep pure, he encourages the continued introduction of genetic variety so that plants can respond immediately to changing climatic and soil conditions.

Although many of the seeds provided by HRCC may be landrace varieties, they received donations of seeds in bulk which are distributed through their seed library for free. They buy fruit plants at wholesale and pass the savings on to members. They sponsor seed and plant swap events like the Slow Food Event at Fruitland Valley Winery.  Others were held in partnership with the Hunger Coalition (https://newhungercoalition.org/) and the Permaculture Guild (inlandnorthwestpermaculture.com). Check those sites and the HRCC Facebook page for more information. There will be a Plant, Seed & Root Swap on April 6, 2024 at the library in Kettle Falls, WA., and another May 4th at Stranger Creek Grange.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer has a story, Mishkos Kenomacwen: The Teaching of Grass. In it a student proposes a study to determine whether picking sweetgrass using traditional methods increases or depletes the population.  Learned professors dismissed the premise saying that “Everyone knows that harvesting a plant will damage the population.”  The student persisted and proved that by picking the sweetgrass respectfully, only taking half and leaving some soil disturbed she had created room and light for the remaining plants to expand and grow more vigorously than the test plots which were left alone.

A traditional harvest of root crops in the spring has a similar effect. If you thank the best plant in a group, leave it there, promise to take only what you need and leave the rest, you are selecting the best plants to survive and leaving enough for diversity. The effects will be similar to the sweetgrass story and the landrace practice.  Learn the cycles !

Indian Hemp

I became more intensely interested in Indian Hemp after hearing Bill Layman talk about how strong it is during a presentation on the fishery at Kettle Falls.  The J-traps that hung in the falls to catch salmon could hold 250 fish, many weighing 50 pounds each.  That’s 6 tons of fish. Add several strong men to throw the fish to shore for another half ton, all suspended by Indian Hemp ropes.  What is this stuff?

You can be thrown off immediately by the term Indian Hemp. Just as natives of North America are not from India even though called “Indians”, Indian Hemp is not “hemp”. “Hemp” is a German word referring to the plant known in Greek as “kannabis”.  Switching from Greek to Latin is not much help.  The Latin name for the plant is Apocynum cannabinum, which perpetuates the cannabis confusion.  If we get back to the Arocynum part, it breaks down to “Poisonous to dogs”, “Keep away from dogs” or more

Image From Emily S. Kloosterman, Wikimedia Commons

commonly “dogbane”.  This is referring to the fact that indian hemp is related to milkweed.  They both have a sticky sap that protects them from most insects and is slightly poisonous to humans though it can be used as medicine.  Although the sap is toxic to browsing animals, the nectar is sweet and important for the monarch butterfly and some other insects. The plant  is also known as amy root, hemp dogbane, prairie dogbane, Indian hemp, rheumatism root, or wild cotton.  I will stick to dogbane.

There are two main types, apocynum cannabinum and apocynum androsaemifolium.  The cannabinum is typically 3 feet tall and is the preferred variety for making cordage.  Androsaemifolium is also know as “spreading dogbane” and is usually 2 feet tall.  Both prefer sandy but also wet soil with some shade.  Both grow all over North America in abundance.  (It’s nice to have something native and useful that is not endangered.)  Dogbane is a perennial.  It grows from the same roots year after year.  In fact, harvesting it every year makes it grow better, very sustainable and low tech. It would have been readily available on seasonally-flooded wetlands along the Columbia River.

The stalks of this plant have been used as a source of fiber to make bows, fire-bows, nets, tie down straps, hunting nets, fishing lines, bags, and clothing. (Travels into North America: Kalm, Pehr (1772) The Sinixt were known for making rope suspension bridges over creeks along their trails.  The bridges stretching out to favorite fishing rocks at the Kettle Falls fishery were also made of Indian hemp.  It was also used to make cloth and bags.  That seems too tedious to us in the technological 21st Century.  I remember watching a circle of Indian women in Mexico shucking corn together and talking away.  Tedious to us can be fun to others.

So how do you get to the fiber part? It’s easy and doesn’t require tools.  The time to harvest is in the Fall, though the dried stalks make it through the winter and seem to work fine right now.  In the Fall it turns yellow, making it easy to spot. Over the winter it turns reddish and then fades to brown or gray.  Break off the dried stalk with your hands and remove the small branches at the top.  Then squeeze the stalk.  It breaks into several strands with the dried pith in the middle and the fibrous skin starting to peel away on the outside.  To separate the fiber, break off pieces of pith working your way along the strand.  If you try to peel off the whole skin at once, some sticks to the pith and you get less. Now you have a workable length of fiber that is very flexible and strong.  The seeds can be ground into an edible powder and the sap can be mixed with clay to make gum.

The fiber can be twisted into cordage and be built up into rope.  There are plenty of videos on the Internet that will make the method more understandable than I can in writing.  I am hoping to show kids how to use it to make small bracelets as a craft project during the 2025 bicentennial commemoration of the establishment of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile in 1825.  To test the process, I hung a small peg in the center of the strand and twisted the ends together on the other side of the peg.  After a few minutes I had a cord with a loop at one end.  I tied off the ends so they would not unravel but if you were making cords and eventually rope, you would keep adding pieces of fiber to the twisted ends.  Eventually I added a few beads and made the bracelet in the picture.  Before I did that, however I wanted to see just how strong this stuff is.  You could work up a scale to measure weight hanging from it and add more until the cord broke to get a real measurement of test strength.  I just tied it to a ten-pound kettle bell exercise weight.  The thin cord made from just one of four strands from the original stalk held it up easily.  No wonder they thought of it as hemp!

Likin’ Lichen

Wolf Lichen

Sometimes my wife, Cheryl, kids me about staring at the ground.  Admittedly I do that often.  Until a recent snowfall, we were experiencing an open winter.  There was no snow on the ground but lots of other things were visible.  One of the most prominent that caught my attention was a particular kind of lichen, very fuzzy and the color of the Seahawks’ neon jerseys.  When much younger, that plant struck me as something that it would be easy to make miniature trees from for my HO train set.  It still held together well even when dry.

Now I am associating its color with some seen on blacklight posters of the 60’s and 70’s. They would glow under ultraviolet (UV) light, I wondered what that lichen would look like under UV.  (We will get to that later.)  The main question about lichen is more like “What the heck is it?”  It’s basically a fungus with a built-in food supply from algae.  In fact, some forms host both green algae and blue-green algae.  The fungus part needs the algae, but the algae can survive in water without the fungus.

I have some experience with algae.  In college biology I followed up on a suggestion that algae grew quickly in water and could help the world food supply.  I had also heard that adding carbon to the process might speed it up.  This was wrong on many levels but nevertheless I concocted an experiment where I grew unicellular green algae in two carboys, the big glass bottles used to supply water for water coolers.  One was left alone in the sun.  The other was also in the sun but had carbon dioxide injected into it from a simple system that piped CO² off evaporating dry ice into the carboy.  I ordered the green algae and set up the dry ice bubbling into just one carboy.  A day or so later a loud “kaboom” was heard all over campus.  Word got back to me that it was my algae experiment.

Behind the dorm, next to an adobe wall, I discovered the problem.  Very cold CO² condenses water on a copper pipe.  Very cold water, freezes into ice and seals the tube.  A sealed tube doesn’t let evaporating CO² escape.  Essentially, I had created a dry ice pipe bomb.  That took a while to live down.

The algae growth went sideways too.  When I looked at it under a microscope there were lots of living creatures in there moving around.  None looked like the algae I started with.  It turns out that millions of life forms float around in the air column and come alive when they find water.  Looking for answers about what lichen eat and how do they reproduce, I found out that basically they eat air, especially moist air and they absorb many of those other things floating around in the air.  That’s why this moist Fall-Winter had them expanding everywhere and falling to the ground.  They can also extract minerals from rocks and probably tree bark.

Reproduction is a little trickier. Lichens do produce spores. But the spores only produce fungus, not lichen.  They also produce soredia, a cluster of algae cells wrapped in fungus filaments.  Even more straightforwardly, they make isidia, basically miniature lichen.  Since lichen can dry up completely and survive until they get wet again, isidia are not hard to imagine.  They can themselves be spread in the air column or be carried by insects, some of which dine on lichen.

Everything about lichens seems to be a little tricky.  There are about 18,000 named species.  But since many kinds of fungus seem to be able to form a symbiotic relationship with algae, there are potentially 250,000 combinations.  Lichens produce over 700 organic chemical compounds.  Some like Reindeer Moss, which is really a lichen, nourish reindeer and other arctic animals.  Others are poisonous.

That neon lichen that first piqued my curiosity is called Wolf Lichen. It is said to have been used to poison wolves in Europe, which raises questions like “Why would wolves eat something poisonous?” One article noted that Wolf Lichen was mixed with ground glass and presumably some kind of meat to poison the wolves. Indigenous people ate certain kinds of lichen.  Lichen can store vitamin D, that we usually get directly from sunlight, for use in the darker times of the year.  Other uses include clothing, dye, and medicine.

A very common use of lichen comes from its diet of air.  Lichen die in polluted air, a canary in the coal mine kind of “use”.  In fact, the Forest Service tracks the lichen population on over 10,000 plots to monitor air pollution.  Not only does what kills lichen make it interesting, it can live for decades, even centuries because of its ability to dry completely and rehydrate.

Getting back the original question about how lichen responds to ultraviolet light, I got out my handy-dandy 365 nanometer LED UV flashlight and started looking at the ground at night.  Bam!  There are an amazing number of things that light up in different colors at night under UV light.  Many of them are probably lichen, but not the neon green Wolf Lichen.  Not letting well-enough alone, I googled do lichen fluoresce?  Yes!

Canada has a fascinating website, https://Nature.ca with pictures of fluorescent lichen.  One, taken by Dr. Robert Lücking at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, shows five different fluorescent colors next to each other on one branch. I wasn’t so lucky with Wolf Lichen, but love this picture.

Nature.CA features a lichen that grows there, Candy lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum). It is a “favourite” of many naturalists because it’s easy to recognize, with its pink fruiting bodies on a mint green crust, and its memorable alternate common name of fairy puke. It also glows under UV.

rim lichen

Aspicilia fruticulose, rim lichen, grows in Idaho among many places and holds a distinction not claimed by any other lichen.  Samples of aspicilia fruticulosa from Spain survived 18 months attached to the outside of the International Space Station.  Lichens can cope with radiation 12,000 times the lethal dose for humans and still carry on photosynthesizing.  These properties prove the concept of Lithopanspermia, which postulates that life forms could have arrived on earth via rocks travelling through space.  Move over cockroaches! There’s a new player in the game of cosmic survival.

Sipin Cider

Sippin’ Cider

After a brief dip down to overnight lows in the teens and twenties, the weather has been mild for a couple of weeks.  (Of course, that is changing rapidly as I start to write about it.)  The beauty of having high temperatures near 40º is that the whole outdoors is the same temperature as the inside of a refrigerator and the roads are still clear of snow.  Another bonus: no insects. I have been able to visit our local organic orchard and trade for apples and pears for juicing.  You might be able to do something similar since some varieties of apples such as Honey Crisp and pears like Bartletts don’t store well and orchard owners might be eager to pass them on.

Outside in the morning, the summer traffic has died down, but the neighborhood still echoes with chainsaws, tractors, and the occasional gun shot.  The birds are closer in, so louder.  The Chickadees and Nuthatches are literally “all-a-twitter” about having some sunflower seeds and suet in the feeder.  The surprising noise is from Eagles.  An eagle’s cry is a bit like tight barbed wire being scratched with something metallic.  Added to the soundscape lately is my cider press.

My cider press is more of an apple shredder than a press now.  Sometime in the late 70’s there was a group known as the American Village Institute that inhabited an empty high school building in Marcus.  They made cider presses using apprentice labor. I was an apprentice who worked there all of one week casting molds out of wet sand and clay and laying them out in a field.  On the last day we fired up a tower of 55-gallon barrels made into a furnace filled with coal and scrap metal.  We tapped molten metal into a ladle that two people carried to each mold and poured metal in to make cast iron parts.  One part on my press has my initials cast into it from that pour.

Bladder Press and Pear Cider

The original press was not exactly approved by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  A neighbor girl got a tiny finger caught in the gears once.  Her finger is alright now, but I covered the gears with a sheet metal case.  Now even the gears are gone, and the shredder mechanism is driven by a repurposed washing machine motor and several v belt pullies. Still not OSHA approved but quiet and easy for an old guy to run by himself.  The press part was a large screw-threaded shaft that pushed down on mashed apples in wooden baskets.  You needed a strong bar like an axe handle to tighten it.  It was fun at apple pressing parties with several young people cranking the shredder and the screw press. It’s not fun anymore.

Here’s the critical new method.  I hate the name, but it is called a “bladder press”.  A better name would be a “hydraulic press”, but that name invokes images of heavy equipment which this is not.  The hydraulic part is a garden hose.  It fills a column in the center of the press, which looks like part of a tire innertube, with water.  The shredded fruit goes in between that tube and a stainless-steel screen.  Turning it on and off is just a matter turning a couple of valves to let water in and then to release it. 

The process is not only easy, but also efficient.  The mash being squeezed is only a couple of inches thick.  Less pressure is needed to get out more juice.  I make sure the press is full. Expanding the bladder too far can break it.  You can back-fill with already squeezed mash to prevent that.

The best apple cider mixes sweet apples such as Honey Crisp and Golden Delicious with tart varieties like McIntosh and Winesap.  Juice pears as soon as they are a bit soft.  They can go bad quickly.  If you have ever picked pears, you know that a picking bag full of pears is much heavier than a bag full of apples.  A press full of pear pulp gives you much more juice than apples would.

Once you have more juice than you can drink in a week, you need to store it.  Freezing is fast and easy but takes up a lot of room in the freezer and takes time to thaw before drinking.  Canning is a great option if you have the time and equipment.  Or you can make hard cider with raw apple juice or apple wine with sweetened juice.  Cider is nice but the low sugar content can lead to vinegar, which is useful in small quantities only. To make apple wine you need cider that is twice as sweet as raw juice.  I used to add sugar, but refined sugar is not healthy.  I prefer freeze-sweetening. (See the North Columbia Monthly January 2023 or barrecavineyards.com/freeze-sweetening).  It concentrates both sweetness and flavor.  You could push it to the point of being apple syrup.  Yumm! You can even freeze-sweeten the wine and end up with brandy.

The benefits of pressing cider are not just in the juice.  I mix the left-over pulp with leaves, manure, and green material in compost bins.  When they are big enough not to freeze over the winter, worms survive at the bottom of the bin and turn the pulp into worm castings in the Spring. If you can’t wait for compost, consider deer.  They love the left-over pulp.  They are also aware that it is hunting season.  I seldom see them during the day, but sometimes at night a headlamp will illuminate several sets of blue eyes looking back at me from near a bin of apple pulp.  In the morning the pulp is gone.

One last “benefit” was in a song from summer camp years ago.  It started “The prettiest girl I ever saw, was sippin’ cider through a straw.” The song worked its way down to “And now I’ve got a mother-in-law, from sippin’ cider through a straw.”

Second Spring

Thirty-seven years ago, down here along the river (Lake Roosevelt) we could get a frost in the first or second week of September.  An extended warm season reaching into October would have been called “Indian Summer”.  As I am writing this near the end of October 2023, we still have not had temperatures below 40º.  What we have had is rain, quite a bit of rain.  This has spurred behavior not seen before in the vineyard.  Plants that were virtually dried up with grape clusters hanging on bare branches have sprouted new leaves.  Grass that was dry and mowed is now a foot high and green.  I wouldn’t call this an ”Indian Summer”.  I would call it a Second Spring.

Foremost in the renewed activity of this Fall has been the emergence of mushrooms, lots of mushrooms.  The speed at which mushrooms grow has given us the term “mushroom growth”.  It has given me pause to wonder what the heck is going on here.  Having learned from soil testing that my biggest problem during the summer was water draining away too quickly in our sandy soil even though it was given water regularly. I was expecting to soon be spreading an assortment of soil amendments on some parched earth.  I will still spread them, but they will be delivered into the waiting threads of millions of miles of mushroom mycelia.

That might seem like an exaggeration, but it is accurate.  Paul Stamets explains in his comprehensive book, Mycelium Running, that each cubic inch of soil can contain 8 miles of mycelia, or over 50 million miles per acre. Mycelia are the tiny single cell threads that build the web of tissue from which mushrooms emerge.  They are sensitive to pressure, temperature, moisture, and the microbiome in which they exist.  So, walking through my vineyard I am triggering reactions from the matrix of mycelia from which all these mushrooms grow.  I can get used to that but still want to know what they are doing to the vineyard.

We tend to think of mushrooms as related to rot, which indeed they are.  And we tend to think that rot is a bad thing.  That’s where it gets a little trickier.  When humans eat anything rotten and many kinds of mushrooms, the results can go from bad to deadly.  Truthfully, I was thrilled to see so many mushrooms in the vineyard because I know that mycorrhizal mushrooms form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants like grape vines which benefits both.  The plant produces sugars which the fungi can’t produce themselves and the fungi bring water and minerals to the plants increasing the range of their root nourishment uptake many times over.  Questions remained about how different fungi function and why the sudden proliferation of mushrooms. 

Mushrooms are not individuals like plants springing out of the ground.  They are basically the fruit and seeding body of the fungi, a lot like apples on a tree. The cool part is that when the mushrooms come up, they can tell what kind of fungi are growing in your ground. 

The simple answer about why they are abundant now is moisture.  Mushrooms reproduce with spores. Some can produce 30 billion spores each day.  Unlike seeds, in a moist environment, mushroom spores are ready to sprout into hyphae, the fine, branching tubes which make up the body (or mycelium) of a multicellular fungus. With millions of them coming from a single mushroom, they soon join with each other to form a mat of mycelium.  Walking through the vineyard, I found a mat of mycelium already growing on grape leaves beneath a rotting mushroom.  The disintegrating mushroom body is fertilizer for the next generation.  That mat of mycelium will work its way into the soil within days.

White mycelium growing on leaves

As a grape grower I was hoping to find mycorrhizal mushrooms, the kind that form beneficial bonds with plant roots.  The first two pictures in the composite photo are boletes also known as porchini. They are sometimes edible.  This variety is called a Slippery Jack.  The top is slimy.  Once bonded with the roots of plants, they bring them water and minerals.  They can also help fight disease and foster growth in young plants.  Truffles and chantarelles are also mycorrhizal.  Truffles like oaks and chantarelles like fir trees.  Boletes are associated with pine trees.  I am not sure if any of them bond well with grapes.

Another category of mushrooms is endophytic. They are less common to identify because they can live within the plant itself and spread without spores.  They can increase “acquisition of nutrients and the amount of phytohormones in the plant, which is directly related to the increase in biomass production, expansion of root system development, plant height, weight reproduction and yield.”  (nih.gov) Stamets describes a case where wood chips were layered in gardens.  Psilocybin mushrooms grew in those chips even though there were no previous occurrences nearby and they are normally associated with cow pies.  They had to have lived in the chips themselves. Endophytes have also been shown to increase biodefence from pathogens.  I have not seen any psilocybin in the vineyard.  But I have the app now.  You never know…

Soil Field Day

On September 9th, the Stevens County Conservation District hosted a Soil Field Day at Vetter Demonstration Farm near Clayton.  Craig Madsen, Agroecologist Coach, was the presenter for the workshop.  Craig’s first question when we were gathered around a test hole in a just-tilled field was “What is the most important element for plants and animals?”  It took a few tries to come up with the answer: oxygen.  We both need oxygen. With that we were off into a two-hour program on soil structure.

Craig Madsen opens the session on Vetter Farm

In the September issue of the North Columbia Monthly I wrote about my own first steps into soil testing and leaf testing.  Right off I learned that my soil was too dry.  At this workshop I met folks who had much different soil structures: clay, loam, rocks, silt…  Their soils could often be too wet and cut off oxygen.  The season when you test is a factor.  Testing is best done in the spring as soon as growth begins.  In the Fall, soil is not as lively.  Once you have test results, stick with the same lab.  Otherwise, it will be hard to compare changes year to year if the metrics are changing from lab to lab.

I was also under the impression that we would be talking about chemicals and the biology of the soil as a follow-up for me on my recent soil test.  I was wrong again. Soil is more like the blind men and the elephant.  Looking at chemicals and elements tells you a lot about the soil, but not about structure, and structure tells you a lot but not much about chemicals.  Neither one zeros in on the biology in the plant or in the soil. Each approach is a blind man describing the soil elephant.

People gather round to check depth of soil

That oxygen that we all need gets into my sandy soil easily. The soil on Vetter farm had been tilled regularly for years.  Tilling loosens up tiny clay particles in the top layer.  The clay particles wash down to the untilled level and build up a hardpan that water can’t get through.  So, the top layer gets too wet when it rains or is watered.  Then it dries out more quickly with no water sinking deep into the soil where roots can bring it up again.  Craig pushed a soil probe into the ground and 10 inches or so down it ran into a hard dry clay layer that it could not go through.

There are several ways to open up that clay layer.  Plants with big roots such as Diakon radish add organic matter and leave openings for water and air.  Deep-rooted plants such as alfalfa can help.  Worms do a great job but need the right soil, temperature, and organic matter mix.  They don’t do well in sand.  A subsoiler can break open the hardpan but tilling needs to stop or hardpan will build up again. One size does not fit all but notice that the plants and animals can heal their home.

Checking Percolation

We went on to look at how well soil drains; what color it is; how big are the chunks that cling together; how deep existing roots went; if there was a crust on the surface; and what kinds of crops best suited existing conditions. Everyone was hoping for simple solutions that would definitely work. Therein lies the twin trap of reductionism and commercialism.  Science has a hard time determining the effect of one factor in a complicated interaction.  Was it the weather, the soil, the DNA, the residual chemicals…  Reducing a treatment prescription to one answer is bound to be a mistake.  Believing that some commercial product promoted by the people who sell that product is going to solve all your problems is also likely to be a mistake.  The take-away advice was to go slow.  Do things. Maybe do lots of things.  But above all else, be observant. Be patient. Soil health, like human health, goes in a direction.  Watch how the plants respond.

The opposite of reducing analysis and prescriptions to very limited factors is variety and abundance.  Plants, animals, and fungi can all play a role.  They offer resilience in that as conditions change, new biology springs into action.  Monocrops lack the variety that cover crops provide, even if the main crop, say corn, is growing high, legumes and forbs can thrive beneath it adding nitrogen and feeding fungi which boost water and mineral access.  Even just 1% organic matter can add 25,000 gallons of water per acre to a field.  The more variety in a cover crop, the more resilience, resistance to pests and compensation for a lack of mineral nutrients it provides.  Even underground, fungus likes a complex organic environment.  As an underground example, Craig showed us an alfalfa plant’s roots. Normally alfalfa hosts microbes which store nitrogen in nodules along the roots.  If the nodules are pink, they are fixing nitrogen.  If they are white, they are not, often when mineral nitrogen has been added to the soil directly and the plant neglects to store it.  But ammonia and other raw mineral forms of nitrogen leach out of the soil quickly, kill microbes as they go and leave the soil worse than it was before.

The alfalfa plant from Vetter Farm didn’t have nodules of any color.  The roots were bare and smooth.  What you want to see are “rasta roots”, that is, roots covered in the hair of fine roots and fungal filaments. We were taught to think of “survival of the fittest” meaning that all life forms compete with each other for the same food.  In a healthy complex food web, the different organisms thrive symbiotically by converting each other’s waste and extra production into new foods. Early pure chemical analysis of plant nutrition focused on the raw minerals that could be reduced out of organic matter.  NPK is an abbreviation for percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.  Yes, these are important, but plants only take up these minerals when they are bound into organic matter by microorganisms.  Adding nitrogen to soil by applying chicken manure compost, an organic waste product, doesn’t “burn” plants and still fulfills their need for nitrogen.

A diverse biome of plants and animals heals its home better than steel tools and raw chemicals.  At the end of the day – and the session – there was no silver bullet.  We need to earn healthy soil cautiously with attention over time to the results of our actions on our own fields and crops. 

Soil Testing

Our vineyard went from a backyard hobby to a major enterprise in 2004 when I had some logging done to make a sunnier space for more grape plants. I had some soil testing done soon after that but didn’t worry about fertility.  After almost 20 years of dithering about getting some baseline numbers and setting goals for better outcomes, I entered the fray again this summer with soil testing and leaf testing from a company in Oregon, Apical Crop Science.  Times have changed!

Back then I probably used a post hole digger and a couple of cans and sent dirt to a retiring soil guy in Wenatchee.  This new lab suggests 4 leaf samples per year timed to fruit development and a particular kind of soil sample for sandy soil like mine plus others for other types of soil.  That can cost a lot of money.  I am in a position to pay for what I can learn.  You may not be so lucky.

There is a lot to learn even without submitting samples.  The Apical website showed a picture of a soil probe designed to get soil samples easily at depths of up to 1 foot and then again from 1 foot to 2.  It looked so much easier than a post hole digger!  At just an inch or so wide, it was a tube to push into the ground with a crossbar handle at the top to push and twist with and an opening to get the sample out. Goodbye post hole digger.  Online soil probes cost around $100.  I was in a hurry to get samples, so I made my own.

Homemade soil probe and soil sample jars.

I can already see that mine won’t last forever, so a real one is on the shopping list.  Still, I learned a lot from the get-go.  The picture online shows a probe with the open side plum full of dirt.  Mine went in about 4 inches and plugged solid.  This is not a big deal.  You can just pry that out into a bucket and get another deeper sample.  After a few tries, I had the surface to 1 foot sample and then put the next deeper set in another bucket.  I used two different buckets, one for shallow and one for deep samples and moved around the vineyard.

I could see right away that none of my irrigation water was getting much further than the first 4 inches.  If I had been testing all during the growing season, I would have known that.  So, I ran a sprinkler line all night and another soil sample showed that water had soaked in.  Big lesson right off the bat!

Another thing you can do without any cost is to put your first soil samples in a jar with some water and shake it up.  When the dust (so to speak) settles, you will have a stratified look at the percentages of rocks, sand, clay, and organic matter in your soil.  The rocks and sand will fall to the bottom quickly followed by light sand, and clay with organic matter on top.  Even percentages are fairly ideal.  A lot of rocks would be a problem.  My ground is all fine sand, not ideal but usable with a lot of water and added nutrients. Organic matter is the key to fertility.  It holds moisture, supports fungi and bacteria which in turn transport minerals from sand and rocks to plants.  Too much water is an issue of course.  You want your soil to be moist but drain and to ultimately support earth worms.  Earth is not Dune.  There are no sandworms.  Earthworms don’t like sand, so fertility is an uphill battle in my sandy soil.

Another key indicator of soil health that you can measure at home is PH.  You want it near the middle reading of 7.  Some plants like blueberries and rhododendrons can handle low PH (acid soil).  Others like broccoli and kale prefer more base soil.  PH indicates cation exchange capacity (CEC). (A cation is a positively charged particle.) With near neutral PH more nutrients are available to the plant.    We are getting into complex chemistry here.  I am going to leave that out of this article and hope to come back to it later.

Apical offers soil tests but specializes in leaf extract or “sap analysis” testing.  This is a new field.  Apical uses high-end equipment, similar to what the Environmental Protection Agency uses, and they measure mineral amounts in parts per billion.  You can do a crude imitation at home by squeezing a bunch of leaves enough to get liquid coming out of them.  You can measure the density of the liquid with a refractometer to get a brix reading. (Refractometers cost around $60.)  Low readings around 6º are not good but high readings up to even 22 º are very good health.  These readings measure sugar in the sap and as unlikely as it sounds, bugs don’t like high sugar readings and stay away from healthy plants.

Some of the readings on the detailed Leaf Extract Analysis report can change in a growing plant in different weather conditions and at different stages of growth.  That is why four tests are recommended per year.  It is a moving target.  Close observation of your crops is still the best indicator of what you need to nourish them.   Tests can only show what the factors are at any one time.

I wanted simple answers, firm numbers, definite target amounts and a clear picture of what is going on in my plants and soil from these tests.  I got a lot of numbers, differences between shallow and deep soil and between old and new leaves, all illustrated with colorful graphs and charts.  In correspondence with the Apical lab and Craig Madsen, a local soil scientist, I am learning what this all means.  Definite answers, though maybe not simple ones, will come eventually. One analytical tool that keeps coming up is Mulder’s Chart. The Mulder’s chart represents the interaction between 11 of the essential plant elements. Some interactions boost mineral uptake and others interfere with it.  So far, soil testing is a very humbling experience.  I will be looking at these numbers and Mulder’s Chart this winter.  I encourage you to take some steps in this direction too.  It is best to start testing in the Spring. We need to improve the soil as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

Sheep in the Vineyard

Learning the hard way by making mistakes is a tried and true (though often painful) path to knowledge.  Looking back on what I have learned, it seems more like a lifestyle.  It starts by taking chances. You seldom do that unless you think there is something to gain. I get a lot of ideas from reading and talking to people but util I actually do something; I usually don’t know much.  There are mistakes to be made having sheep in a vineyard.  They could break the irrigation, eat the grape vines, or break into the garden. But I was excited to see it happen.

Last year I listened to a Regenerative Agriculture Podcast interviewing Kelly Mulville.  He is a lead man in the United States promoting the sheep-in-the-vineyard idea.  There are others in Australia and around the world.  The possibilities are enticing: very few inputs including no tillage, no mowing, no removing suckers, and no weeding; higher quality and quantity of grapes and soil health; sequestering carbon and retaining water; more diversity of plants, insects, birds, and soil biology…  Also, more profit. 

On the down side: you need sheep; they eat grape plants; they need to be fenced; most vineyards are not set up for sheep; they are smelly and noisy; cougars eat them.  This last point was particularly tough because I had the fencing in hand and some sheep lined up with a friend until a cougar ate one of her sheep, and a couple others were injured. Thus, my first sheep arrangement fell through.  I contacted some nomadic herders as a backup plan. (See Home on the Range, NC Monthly March 2022) They had lost animals to cougars too and were reluctant to leave sheep here overnight.  But they were willing to leave some for a day.  Game on!

Mulville is clear about having a vineyard that is set up for sheep.  His vineyard at Paicines Ranch in California has its grapes trellised over 5 feet off the ground so sheep can’t reach them.  My grapes are much closer to the ground, but many parts were trellised higher following another mistake I learned from.  A couple years ago I let a grape that crept into a nearby tree go.  It did attract birds and produced fruit that I could not protect, which is why you don’t usually do that.  It sent a cane up to the top of the tree. The next year another cane went clear down the other side.  That second cane was loaded with grapes. The robins got them. But I wondered if I tied long canes higher in the trellis, would they produce more.  So, I tied a lot of grapes higher this year.  They are producing more, and the sheep couldn’t get to them.

As for fencing, the nomads had very portable electric fence.  They set up 220 feet in about 5 minutes.  It could be moved just as quickly, and the sheep could be directed more exactly.  An idea for next time.

I knew little to nothing about sheep.  Chances for mistakes were high.  So, I hung out with the sheep most of the day.  I thought I would chase them off if they were destroying vines.  It turns out that these sheep like people.  They followed me.  Well okay, they started to eat my clothing but a couple of bops on their heads dissuaded them from that.  Also, they chew their cud like cows.  When I sat in a chair and read a book, they lay down nearby and chewed away.

They have personalities.  A few were noisy, “Baaa, Baaa” etc.  One ewe always had followers, especially her kids.  But generally, if one got excited about something it was eating, others would run over to check it out.  They do eat grape leaves but not young grapes.  They did eat down the suckers lower on the trunks as I hoped they would.  Things they liked included sweet clover, grape leaves, grass, plantain tops and Brown-eyed Susans.  Things they didn’t like included Oregon Grape, and Yarrow.  They would typically bite off the top of the grass or plant they were dining on.  This left most of the grass about as tall as it was before they came. 

I usually mow the vineyard about now and put the clippings in the compost thinking that I will put the compost back in the aisles between the grape plants.  That’s at least 3 steps: mow, compost and spread.  Truthfully, I often fail to get to the spread part.  The compost has a lot of biology in it that is good for the soil.  But it is nothing compared to the sheep poop and pee that comes straight out of these mobile biodigesters.  As for smell, it didn’t amount to much in just one day except that when our cat came onto my bed that night, he smelled like sheep. 

Was this all a mistake? The real proof will be a noticeable increase in fertility by the end of the season and if the production quantity and quality go up or down.  Video of Mulville standing in his vineyard shows the ground with very little vegetation left.  I’m sure that the grass has already been biodigested and returned to the soil.  Still, I have a nagging feeling that you want to have at least four inches of grass left growing.  A principle of regenerative agriculture is that green plants, even those considered weeds, are sharing the sugars they produce with fungi in the soil.  Those fungi in turn are feeding and diversifying the whole underground biome.  Did Mulville make a mistake? Time will tell.

Luckily or unluckily as it may be, this is a new idea that has not been completely worked out. The nomads said that the Italians have a preferred breed of sheep to graze in their vineyards.  So, there is a lot more to read and learn from others about it, which of course opens possibilities for making a lot more mistakes… 

No Spring

No Spring

We had thunder and lightning here all night.  It is back again now.  So, I have time to write something and not get soaking wet working in the vineyard.  I was ready to write this family blog update almost 3 weeks ago and am just getting to it.  That is the kind of year it has been.  Back then we still needed warm-up fires in the mornings and some snow remained at the shady top end of the vineyard.  Since then, we have had temperatures up to and above 90 degrees on some days.  Thus, the title, “No Spring”.

[Vineyards on April 2nd with part of crushed greenhouse to the left.]

(Thank goodness this computer is battery powered. The power just went off and on in an intense thunderstorm.  Unfortunately, Microsoft Office is very picky about having Internet Access, so I had to take a break and read a chapter from the Shining Mountains, a book I am promoting about the history of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile and its longest serving Chief Trader, Angus McDonald.)  Although it is not a paying job, I have been coordinating efforts to commemorate the establishment of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile in 1825 for a couple of years.  The bicentennial could be a big deal.

Unlike that novel, this blog post will be a less graceful litany of what has happened for Cheryl and myself since her last carotid artery stent surgery. 

Sadly, on March 1st, Jerry Grazer, an old friend died suddenly and unexpectedly at his vacation cabin near Republic.  We had been in close contact in case Cheryl’s surgery went awry and I needed to stay with him and his wife Cathy in Spokane.  We were together in an alternative energy group back in the 80’s and Jerry went on to a career installing solar panels all over the world.

On April 13th an ultrasound exam showed that Cheryl’s carotid arteries were in good shape.  We took the chance being in Spokane to watch Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, a long movie that seemed discombobulated but made sense once you got to think about it.

With little to do outside, I wrote several articles this winter:  Critical Stuff Theory, Past Lives of Concrete and three on the life of Sir George Simpson, former head of the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America.  For the first time in 5 years, I updated the Road Atlas of Ferry County in February, and the Road Atlas of Stevens County in March.  Those books and the series of Geologic Atlases for Northeast Washington sold well at the annual rock show.

In April with the ground thawed it was time to prune the grapes.  At the same time I take cuttings to root and grow new grape plants.  In the middle of that we left for Olympia for a family gathering at the memorial of Bill Yake, renowned poet, scientist, and great brother-in-law.  It was well managed by my sister Jeannette, (Bill’s wife) and well appreciated by a large gathering of friends.  Daughter Bina came up from Alameda by herself and daughter April came with her husband Tony and son James.  We have not had a complete family gathering during the COVID years.

Retro Buckley Inn Appliances

Cheryl and I took the occasion to visit the ocean at Long Beach but only stayed one night and part of a day so we could take a long route home and avoid freeways by staying in the Buckley Inn, which is also where we have reservations for the official family reunion in July.    

The view over the ocean at Long Beach.

We attended the party celebrating April Barreca’s and James Houston’s birthdays at their house on April 4th

James 3rd from left

That was also the day after the Northeast Washington Farmer’s Market started again.  There have been some very good days and some not so good ones.  This time of year, we are bringing grape plants, wine, mapbooks and biochar.  The bottom line is that we have a day before to prepare and most of the market day itself to spend on this business; so, a lot of our time is taken up with the market once it begins.

I have employed some help pruning, thinning, transplanting etc. and may even be making some breakthroughs in terms of production and pest protection.  But more about that in a later article.  This should be enough to explain why it has been a long time between personal blog posts.