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
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In Frank Herbert’s book, Dune, giant sandworms produce a drug called “melange” (known colloquially as “the spice”), which is highly prized across the universe for its medicinal and mystical properties. (wikipedia.org) Although wildly fictional, some truths linger in that account. Melange is created when excretions of the sandworms’ larvae react with water and sunlight. At this point the tale gets a bit, shall we say, “messy”. In the real world, worm excretions, castings, are an indication of healthy soil and contribute to it. Can they eat sand? How big do they get? What is really going on down there?
These persistent questions kept making me think of someone one of my grape plant customers mentioned, “Marvin the Worm Guy” in Spokane. So I Googled it. Well the closest thing is Marle Worm Growers in Otis Orchards. As it turns out, the worm guy is Jeff Wood, who runs Marle Worm Growers, and indeed knows a lot about worms. I finally got a chance to meet him in person and we talked and walked around his place for a couple of hours. It could have been much longer. Jeff does educational presentations for Spokane Community College, Master Composters and Master Gardeners. He looks at worms as not just a commodity he grows and sells, but as a highly valuable component of healthy soil. Building healthy soil is his passion.
Jeff called microbes “engines of the soil”. Carrying that analogy a little further, worms are trains full of microbes spreading them everywhere they go. Worm castings are not just good plant food, they are highly refined and PH-balanced food that has some surprising qualities. Seeds drenched in tea from worm castings produce long healthy roots even before emerging from the ground. In a recent episode of the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, Nicole Masters describes this effect as the highest yield per cost of any enriching application you can do to a crop, costing mere pennies per acre. (I highly recommend Nicole Masters book, For the Love of Soil.)
It is not surprising then that Jeff makes several kinds of compost tea and says that using compost tea on your plants is a technique that everyone can afford and is tremendously beneficial. He has a large tea brewer that preheats water, introduces air and grows microbes essentially overnight. So yes, he sells compost tea as well as a huge inventory of other products, besides worms, that are good for the soil. He also sells soil itself to landscapers, gardeners, greenhouses and farmers. He points out that crucial consideration are how much time you have and the nutritional needs of plants which change through the course of a season.
Foliar applications of tea enhance growth and can also control insects. They last 3 to 5 days and need to be modified and applied frequently. A root drench tea will last 7 to 10 days. Worm castings added to the soil last a couple of weeks and granular fertilizers, which Jeff also sells, can last a whole month. Every step of the way means more cost but more time to work with.
When they are young, plants might need some insect protection, mild nitrogen fertilizer and some soluble seaweed extract for its mix of minerals. With more growth in the middle of the season, plants can feed on more nitrogen-rich fertilizer like aged manures and of course worm castings as the plants put out green leaves. Toward the end of the season, plants don’t need as much feed but you want them to settle into the winter with organic matter that is composting and retaining moisture.
Through all of this, worms have their cycles too. Being so closely aligned with composting, worms like what compost likes: temperatures from 55° to 77°. Temperatures above 90° will kill them. At temperatures under 55° they are not very active. I asked about compost piles that can get to 160° F. Jeff told me that the worms will move away from the hot compost, usually to the bottom of the pile. When the compost is cooler but still gooey, they come back to eat.
Worms don’t have teeth. Like chickens, they grind up their food in a gizzard. So a little dirt or light sand can help break down the rotten vegetables and fruit (as long as it is not acidic like citrus) that is their main diet. If you are growing them in a worm bin, it is harder for them to get away from hot compost, so Jeff just adds a little vegetable matter in spots near the top of the bin. It takes 3 to 4 days for worms to eat a feeding. They eat their weight in food every day. If it takes longer, you may be feeding them too much. They like a combination of green (vegetables, grass and leaves) and brown food (wet bedding and rotten fruit) , with an emphasis on the green.
Marle Worm Growers sells a variety of worm growing equipment. A common thread is that worms move on to new food when the old is exhausted. So some systems have you add another box of bedding and food on top of the old, the worms move into the new food after a few days and you can remove the old box to get the castings. Similarly, some systems have two sides with a screen between them. Feed on one side and the worms move there. You can encourage the move by letting light shine on the old side and exposing it to a breeze. Worms hate that. Remove the castings from the first side and it is ready for new food. Keep in mind that the bedding, which can be shredded black and white newspaper, cardboard, peat moss or decomposing leaves in any combination is also consumed. Keep it as wet as a damp sponge but not too wet. Worms need air as do compost and roots.
This does sound a little complicated and there is even more equipment in Jeff’s operation to separate worms, castings and unused material. For small scale growers Jeff is a big proponent of systems that integrate the worms with growing plants. The most straight forward is a “worm tube”, basically a 6” or so plastic pipe perforated with ½” holes that the worms can crawl through. Place it straight down in a raised bed or vegetable garden with a fly-proof screen that you can take off to add ground up kitchen waste. Don’t add meat or oils, they smell and attract pests. The worms do the work of composting the food waste and transporting it to the roots of the plants for 4 to 5 feet around the tube.
Taking it one step further, there are “garden towers”. These are essentially worm tubes in the center of a 4 foot high structure that lets plants poke out the sides and feed off the worm castings carried out of the tube by worms. Additionally, you can pull the worm castings from the bottom of the tower and put them back in on top of the soil. This is great for gardening on your patio or porch.
What I have however is a vineyard with sandy soil. I learned from Jeff that the red wiggler worms are going to avoid the sandy soil. They want several inches of organic material on top of the sand. They will however bury themselves deep in the ground during the winter to avoid freezing. Even deeper, 3 to 5 feet, are nightcrawlers. They also produce castings from compost. Their deep holes help aerate the soil. They make great fish bait, but are harder to propagate.
There is a lot more to worms than meets the eye. The cast of worm species goes on and on. I am tuning up my compost pile to feed the red wiggler worms. I’m also covering it to keep in moisture and encourage worms to get closer to the surface. I noticed after uncovering it once that robins were right there pulling out some worms for themselves. You might want some worms for yourself. Feed them and they will help feed you.
Under an orange sun the sky is gray and the shadows are blue. With temperatures above 100° for many days in the last month and the air quality often in the unhealthy range, today (August 8th) is very rare since it has been raining since early morning. At first smelling like wet smoke, it is now cool and humid enough that you can see your breath at 60°. We can add that to the long list of strange changes this summer.
There may no longer be any such thing as a “normal” day, but our habits have definitely changed. Those precious hours when there is morning light and cool air, prompt us to rise at 5:30 am or earlier and work outside for hours before making breakfast. Often we nap in the afternoon and go to sleep at dusk when the outside temperature finally slips back below the 75° indoor temperatures and we open the house and office to cool them down.
Then there are the fires. The Chuweah Creek Fire near Nespelem is 50 miles away (95% contained), but we are directly downwind. It started on July 12th and is now 36,752 acres. Another fire, the Summit Trail fire, started in the same lightning storm and is now over 28,000 acres (30% contained), just to the southwest of that is the newer Whitmore Fire. that is at 55,970 acres (20% contained) started from a thunderstorm on August 3rd. We are directly downwind of all three of these fires most of the time.
Not to be outdone, we had our own local fire, the Goddard Road Fire, now at 800 acres but contained. Contained fires still burn. None are considered out until winter, although this rain really helps. It was July 16th. We had already purchased more fire extinguishers and a backup generator. In the morning I picked pie cherries and made a pie. That afternoon I had planned to mail rock club newsletters in Kettle Falls and go on to Colville. (From my journal.) “I was pulling out of the driveway after a vehicle had gone by with the siren wailing. Then a plane went in the same direction. I had a bad feeling about that. As I drove to Kettle Falls to mail the newsletter more and more emergency vehicles passed me going south. I knew there was a new fire and it was close by. On the way, (our neighbor) Vern texted a picture of the plume and Cheryl texted that the fire was 50 acres. I had intended to go on to Colville but scratched that, picked up some water, mailed the newsletters and headed home”
Thus began a long night of preparing for level 2 evacuation (be ready to leave at any minute). We were packing clothes, valuables, important papers, photos and other memorabilia. We were on the shortest route to Lake Roosevelt from the fire. Soon a line of six Fire Boss airplanes was flying over us one after another dropping 800 gallons each of water on the fire. They were joined by helicopters of different kinds sucking up water or lifting it in buckets. A huge red jet followed to dump fire retardant on houses, some owned by friends of ours. A spotter plane flew in circles higher up running the show. After dark they went home. We stayed home, alert for the smell of smoke. So much for going to the Farmers Market in the morning.
Two days later my daughter, Bina, and her children, Ovid and Nala came to visit. The evacuation warning had been lifted but it came back on because the Goddard Road fire flared up again. So they got to see the air show for themselves. They also were put to work around the farm. Ovid used the battery-powered trimmer in the vineyard. The whole family helped unload wine bottles and break down cardboard boxes. Then Ovid and Nala came with me to drop the cardboard at the recycling center, talk to the Real Steel junk yard people about our Subaru body and get a load of sawdust dumped into the pickup at Webley Lumber. And oh yes, they went swimming at nearby Bradbury Beach on Lake Roosevelt every day.
We also had another visitor, our neighbor’s cat, Pete, who evidently loves kids. He slept with them in the back of their pickup truck.
Other critters added to the cats. A large gopher snake fascinated Gray-C but left with no harm to either. Gray-C did surprise us with a dead weasel. A small frog decided that the spout of our watering can was its favorite place and returned there day after day even though he was washed out each time I watered the grape cuttings. Maybe the strangest critters were not here but were spotted by Forest Service rangers travelling with Chris Wujek, who I wrote about last year, camping in the Kettle Range. Son-in-law, Tony Houston, sent pictures of the camels and the rest of the herd, less one goat, that the herders were roasting for dinner over an illegal fire, which caught the attention of the Forest Service Rangers.
Despite the drought, summer brought a bounty of fruit, which also kept us busy; drying cherries; making pies; freezing strawberries, blue berries and apricots; spreading peaches and other fruit on corn fritters and looking mostly “fruitlessly” for huckleberries. The few that survived were shriveled and small. The forest roads were empty and lined with dried up bushes and trees. The irrigated grape plants like the sun and are growing a large crop if it survives the bugs, the birds and the intense heat. The young plants in pots have been gathered under our big filbert tree for shade.
The fires spurred an uptick in map sales. But washing fire fighters clothes has been taking up the morning hours of the local laundromat. We wear masks for ash and smoke some days as well as for Covid 19 on others. On the evening of August 3rd and 4th, thunderstorms crashed around us all night. Thankfully, they brought a lot of rain and very few new fires. We didn’t get much sleep but will trade sleep for rain any time.
When I was younger, not very studious and there was no Internet, I decided to add pigs to our menagerie of goats, chickens and a donkey. We had extra milk from the goats and I could supplement the pig diet with culled potatoes from the Doukhobors in Grand Forks, British Columbia. The pigs didn’t put on a lot of weight during the winter because they didn’t have much shelter, just some bales of hay. Realizing that was a problem, I built them a solar-heated pig house.
Actually that worked well and they loved it. Here’s the thing, pigs are naturally happy. They love to dig for food. Well they love food period, hence their reputation. You can’t really herd them, but you can lead them around with a bucket of anything tempting. They are smart and not really that dirty. They only pooped in one corner of their pen. Still they do get big, too big to wrestle or do much with. So eventually we gave our big sow to a neighbor and she didn’t last long there. Too much trouble I guess.
That was a different time and place. I didn’t get into the craze of pot-bellied pigs as pets which followed by a few years. At least it recognized the Marvelous Pigness of Pigs, which is the title of a book by Joel Salatin. Joel uses pigs as a study in the divine nature of nature. I would have preferred a little more direct description of pig farming. Salatin used them to transform a run-down family farm into a thriving regenerative food source by letting them graze on acorns in the woods.
Thinking back on my experience, I realize that I could have used them to plow and fertilize patches of ground for a garden. The old Case 22 bulldozer with a hand-cranked starter that I bought was lousy for plowing and hard to start. I would have had happier pigs and more pork. Common practices in raising pigs had skewed my understanding away from their real nature.
So it was with some surprise and enjoyment that I recently saw an email from Eileen of Ramstead Ranch near Ione discussing their use of pigs to prevent forest fires. No. We are not talking about Smokey the Pig. But remember those fire lines that fire fighters dig around a wildfire to contain it? Pigs do pretty much the same thing naturally but over a wide area and they love doing it.
So naturally this left a lot more questions in my mind and I arranged to talk to Eileen about them. Remembering how hard it was to keep these four-footed track hoes from digging under fences I asked how Ramstead kept them in. Eileen said it’s no big deal once they become familiar with electric fencing. At Ramstead they start them young getting to recognize electric fence wire. Being pretty smart they tend to stay clear even if it is not turned on. So a little electric fencing that can be moved to rotate pasture areas is all you need.
They do well on grasses and friends of ours have used them to root out quack grass, which has LOTS of long-running roots. But bushes and their roots, thistles and a wide variety of plants are all dinner for the pigs. At Ramstead they can use a one-two punch by having cattle trample bigger woody material and pigs rotovate it into the ground. After a season or two of this kind of rotated grazing, their brushy woods with lots of “ladder fuels” (small trees, brush and low branches that fire can climb up into tree tops), are eliminated and the woodlot turns into “silvopasture”, grasses under trees where cattle, sheep and pigs can graze comfortably away from scorching sun.
Don’t get the idea that these are far-flung fields where wolves and dogs can become a problem. Pigs still need fresh water and supplemental feed that needs to be hauled out to them. If they are close to where they were raised as young with plenty of food and drink, they are more likely to stay close even if they escape the electric fencing.
So remember what I said about pigs being naturally happy? I’ve heard stories of them digging head first up to their hind legs in pursuit of tasty roots and then popping back up again ready to dig out another. But normally we think of them in crowded pens, making a mess, smelling bad and creating huge runoff problems for streams and neighbors. Salatin notes that “Factory farming pigs makes them stressed, so they fight each other and develop other problems.” He decries efforts to find a “porcine stress gene” and genetically modify it as if that would eliminate those problems.
Eileen is proud of how low-stress life is for Ramstead’s pigs. She notes “Our pigs live outdoors in the sun and shade. They run, root, wallow, lounge and get to behave like real pigs.” The waste they produce is worked directly into the ground where it does the most good. As a result the meat is cleaner, leaner and tastier than factory-farmed pork. That is the kind of benefit from recognizing the marvelous pigness of pigs that I didn’t realize when we had them.
Actually I’m also recognizing the difference between how a city boy (that would be me 40 years ago) sees animals as cows, horses, chickens, sheep and pigs but a country boy (not that I am entirely there yet) sees breeds of cows, horses, sheep and pigs. Beyond that if you really raise these animals, you see personalities. There may be general tendencies of breeds but for instance can you really say that since you have known one cat, you know them all? Both nature and nurture make a big difference.
Eileen prefers Berkshire pigs, a heritage breed recognized as far back as 1642 in Reading England as renowned for its size and the quality of its bacon and ham (thepigsite.com). They are also known to be gentle and friendly to other animals and people. So pigs just want to have fun. Let them be themselves and we will all be happier and safer.
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