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.
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
We attended the party celebrating April Barreca’s and James Houston’s birthdays at their house on April 4th.
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.
I was minding my own business reading email when a document came in from my brother-in-law, Roger, who as I do here, also makes and sells biochar on San Juan Island. It announced that a big company, Myno Carbon, won the 2023 Giuliani Clean Energy Entrepreneur Award and was going to build a carbon removal facility at the Avista Waste-to-Energy Plant in Kettle Falls. So big business was stepping into our gig in a big way. In order to get a grip on the situation, I contacted Myno Carbon and eventually talked to Andy Mercy, Chief Revenue Officer (CRO). It turns out that he also makes wine and is big on biochar. We had a lot in common, except that I make hundreds of pounds of biochar and his company is set to make millions. Roger and I are not nearly out of business yet. Myno will take a couple of years to get set up.
Andy was stepping in for Myno CEO and co-founder Thor Kallestad, (Kallestad’s young daughter, Ella’s first babble when she was learning to talk was “myno,” a sound she used to express happiness, hence the company name) who emphasizes 3 points about the project.
The first impact is to remove hundreds of metric tons of wood waste from slash piles in the forest where it would release hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes of CO2e emissions each year either through burning or rotting.
The second result will be to turn that wood waste into renewable energy at the Kettle Falls Generating Station.
The third major impact is to turn that wood into 40,000 tons of biochar each year where it can enhance soil water retention, increase crop yields, and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
Avista Plant curtesy of mynocarbon.com
While these are indeed huge benefits, that Myno plans to replicate in other areas where wood waste is available, to my way of thinking, they may understate the potential benefits of biochar. To understand the needs of our depleted soils, we need to look back on the past 2000 years of tillage. Soil scientists are coming to understand the soil not as just a layer of minerals, but as a living biome of plants, fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and microbial life that feeds and fertilizes itself without chemicals when given the chance. Plowing the soil breaks critical lines of mycelia, a network of fungal threads or hyphae which exchange water, minerals, energy and communication between plants, fungi, and the rest of the underground community. Plowing’s immediate effect is to hasten rotting of roots and organic material releasing nutrients to plants (and carbon into the atmosphere). But the long-term effect is to destroy the living system of symbiotic relationships that sustains fertility. Adding chemicals to replace the lost nutrients begins a vicious cycle that is ineffective in providing the organically derived compounds that plants need while simultaneously polluting the groundwater with chemicals that further inhibit the growth of healthy microorganisms both in the soil and all the way the ocean. The more agrichemicals that are added to the soil to replace lost nutrients, the more nutrient loss and susceptibility to disease occurs. Chemicals used to kill insects, fungus and weeds hasten the evolution of super weeds and other pests. Great for agrichemical companies’ short-term profits, bad for sustaining farms, everyone’s health, the economy, and the ecology.
This agrichemical cycle also eliminates the carbon which would otherwise be sequestered in the soil as living biomass. Biochar can sequester carbon in the soil but its equally beneficial effect is to retain water. Depending on soil type, biochar can increase the moisture retention capacity by 16-38%. The micropores in pure charcoal absorb water and provide a reservoir of microbes living in that water. “Soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of the carbon they once held. This has contributed about a quarter of all the manmade global greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet” (Columbia University). I use biochar in my compost not just to store carbon but after charging it with microbes, to inoculate the soil with biology.
Spread over an acre, a ton of soil is paper thin. Although biochar builds up and does not need to be renewed annually, up to 10% of soil volume is often recommended to be biochar. So the need to apply and the market for the addition of biochar will be huge. Current application rates of 2 to 5 tons per acre are anticipated by Myno. Providing the science to convince farmers of the benefit of biochar is one of their goals.
The Avista plant already produces a mixture of 75% charcoal and 25% ash (bash) that can be applied to fields. Before this project, it was returned into the feedstock and burned by the plant. Myno will make 5000 to 7000 tons available to local farmers for field trials. They are working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to find a mix of farm situations for those trials. Hopefully those trials will quantify increased crop yields but also show increased soil organic matter (SOM), a key indicator of soil fertility. The new facility will remove burnable waste from the woods and return biochar.
As many as 100 semi loads of chips per day are already being consumed at the plant. Every year in the Spring the plant closes for maintenance. We can expect some of the equipment changes to take place this year during that time. Both construction and operation will increase local employment and the local economy. We are on the forefront of something big and I can let go of doing something small.
Ever since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6th we have seen a lot of pictures of collapsed concrete buildings. You might get the idea that concrete is a heavy and dangerous building material that it would be wise to avoid. That is much more easily said than done. Every year, 30 billion tons of concrete are used globally (Northwestern University). That’s almost 4 tons for every person on Earth. Concrete accounts for 8% of worldwide carbon pollution (Nature, The international journal of science), a carbon footprint larger than any single country other than the US or China (The Guardian). The reason that the impact is so big is not just that we use so much of it but also because of what it is and how it is made. But before we get into that, another question might be “What has this got to do with the North Columbia, where and how we live?”
When you travel north from Kettle Falls to Northport along Highway 25 or more historically, the railroad along the highway, you pass large limestone quarries on both sides of the river. Limestone is the critical main ingredient of concrete. Many of those quarries were used to create Grand Coulee Dam. You can still see concrete silos near Evans where cement was stored and then shipped by rail to the dam site. The Panorama Gem and Mineral Club still collects calcite crystals from these quarries.
Limestone (CaCO3) is a sedimentary rock that formed millions of years ago as the result of the accumulation of shell, coral, algal, and other ocean debris. So those white and gray rock cliffs along the Columbia were once living organisms. Lime, or calcium oxide (CaO), is derived from high quality natural deposits of limestone and is the main active ingredient in cement. Lime is left when the carbon in the limestone is driven off by heating it to 1400º C (Nature). The heat for the process building Grand Coulee was created in wood furnaces. The wood came from the local forests, often those once covering the limestone quarries. The process released both carbon from burning the wood and carbon from the rock. (More modern kilns use coal and gas, fossil fuels). A lot of carbon is in that rock.
Limestone-based cement and mortar have been around well over the 2000 years. The most long-lived and famous structures were created by the Romans. The key to Roman cement’s longevity appears to be the use of volcanic ash, or pozzolana. Where modern concrete is a mix of lime-based cement, water, sand and an aggregate such as gravel, the recipe for concrete set down by architect Vitruvius in the first century BC involved pozzolana and chunks of volcanic rock, known as tuff. When it comes to Roman marine concrete, used to construct piers and breakwaters, research published in 2017 found that the addition of sea water actually strengthened these structures over time, making them harder and harder over the millennia.
In Northeast Washington we find ourselves in a concrete paradise. With volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens and volcanic rock from the Columbia Basin, we could make some very long lasting cement. Concrete is bound together when cement powder is mixed with water and creates crystals. Yes, those same calcite crystals found in our local quarries are what binds to the mixture of sand, small and larger rocks that becomes concrete. If you examine concrete under a microscope, you can see those crystals.
Of course, there is a lot more to making good long-lasting concrete. A big breakthrough was to embed metal into concrete. (Full disclosure) I live in an underground house made with 56 yards of concrete spread over 3 miles of rebar and buried under a million pounds of earth. This has proven to be a structure that is very resilient to heat and cold. It basically absorbs the average temperature of the earth (50ºF) and will not freeze in winter or get very hot in the summer. It could be absolutely air tight but that would be dangerous, so it is not. It should hold up for the next 300 years or so.
In the long term, the problem is the rebar. Water and corrosive chemicals, many of them natural acids, can eventually seep in through spaces between the Calcite and Ettringite (C6AS3H32) crystals and corrode the iron rebar. A few years ago, I had a pad poured from Colville Concrete that was reinforced with fiberglass, basically Silicon Oxide the main component of sand. It does not corrode. (I might not have needed the rebar.)
As you might guess, with the huge economic value of concrete ($330 billion US and growing, worldcement.com) and the corresponding huge carbon contribution to climate change, there is a lot of work being done to minimize the carbon footprint and maximize the strength of concrete so less is needed. Some of the approaches include recapturing the carbon driven off by heating in kilns and turning it back into methane fuel or blending it back into the concrete; using bio-derived fuels in concrete kilns; adding chemicals to make stronger concrete with less cement; adding biochar to cement; building with laminated wood like that created by Vaagen Lumber; and using biological processes such as those in coral to cement rocks together. My favorite approach so far is farming Coccolithophore Microalgae. This is one of the organisms that limestone is made of. A team of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder has implemented This approach. According to the team’s estimates, only 1 to 2 million acres of open ponds would be required to produce all of the cement that the U.S. needs—only 1% of the land used to grow corn. (Technology Networks) Technically, I could grow my own cement. Farm On!
After this article was written for the North Columbia Monthly I had a conversation with Hayden Binde from Biosqueeze. Their core business is using a micro-organism-infused liquid to seal methane-leaking oil wells. But that same infusion can bond soil to make it stronger than concrete using safe biology that actually sequesters carbon. Along with at least one other company they are researching development of the process to make carbon-negative building materials.
The new year begins and along with it comes the usual spate of information on how to lose weight, how to do your taxes and how to clean out all the stuff that is in your house. Driving to Spokane I notice a lot more huge apartment buildings and a lot of big houses built too close together for my taste. Along with the new living spaces there are also major new self-storage facilities. While out under the snow microbes are busy breaking down last year’s organic matter into soil for the new growing season, we are inside coming face to face with our stuff.
Being maybe a little too obsessed with history, I tend to ask how is this different than a hundred years ago and how did it get to be this way. For most of human history all we had to work with were sticks, stones and some animal parts. Then we got into metals. They are a big deal. But even metals, if you ignore the part about mining and chemical extraction, tend to be easy to recycle and valuable that way. One way to see the difference is to look at what’s left after a hurricane like Ian: huge piles of broken lumber, metal roofing, dry wall, fiberglass insulation, asphalt roofing, pieces of concrete, lots of clothing and appliances, a few cars too.
Since a lot of the destruction is on expensive beach-front property, you can expect that it will soon be loaded into dump trucks and carted off to the local landfill. There it will be mixed with the rest of our waste. The top items in a landfill according sciencefocus.com are: Paper: 27%, Food Waste: 14.6%, Yard Waste: 13.5%, Plastics: 12.8%, Metals: 9.1%, Rubber, Leather, and Textiles: 9%, Wood: 6.2%, Glass: 4.5%, Other: 3.3%. So here we have a microcosm of our whole manufactured world. The good news is that 75% of it can be recycled. The bad news is that 25% is very hard-to-recycle and the worse news is that only 15% of stuff that can be recycled actually is.
The 25% hard-to-recycle parts are mostly clothing and plastics. Clothing caught my eye because more than one article I saw mentioned the 59,000 tons of clothing that are shipped to the Adacama desert in Chile every year where it will last virtually forever.
There are good do-it-yourself suggestions out there. The “Buy Nothing, Get Everything Shareocracy” recommends the “3 R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But their favorite is Refuse. In other words, don’t buy it in the first place. Almost 80% of unwanted textiles end up in a landfill (abc.net.au). Another “R” would be to Repair. Loved Clothes Last, a book by Castro Orsola, gives details on repairing clothes. Even theoretically recyclable cloth such as cotton has an environmental cost before it gets sold. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a cotton shirt according to the World Resources Institute.
Plastic is a big deal in landfills and even bigger at sea where incredibly the International Atomic Energy Agency (www.iaea.org) estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic according to the National Academy of Science (www.pnas.org). In my vision for a brave new regenerative world, “Compost Everything” might be the war cry.
Progress is being made on composting plastics. Some excitement was generated when the Japanese Kyoto Institute of Technology found a bacteria, ideonella sakaiensis, that had evolved to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate or Polyester) plastics, the kind found in water bottles and a lot of food containers. Listening to a video by Dr. Ben Miles about this discovery I learned that these bacteria only work on thin bottles or films. But their enzymes are a useful start. To get “soft crystalline” bottles and the “hard crystalline” food containers to biodegrade, a company in France, Carbios, has developed enzymes that can be used in a large commercial facility to break the long polymers of PET into small pieces that can be reused to make new plastic. Without that step, even recycled plastics become less and less reusable after every recycle.
On the other hand, many plastic knives and forks labelled as “compostable” are not. There is no government oversite of that label. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found that often so-called “compostable” serviceware had a higher environmental impact than non-compostable. The private Biodegradable Products Institute checks on biodegradability, and you can trust the BPI label.
Since 75% of the material in landfills could be recycled but has not been, recycling is obviously not working. A lot of energy and research is focused on these issues, but you don’t see much being said about it unless you look. The companies that make money from these products are not inclined to advertise about the issues. It is not a political hot-button issue, so it doesn’t make the news cycle. I am associating it with Critical Race Theory as something people seldom discuss, and that vested interests emphatically discourage discussing.
Imagining the result will be something akin to the world inhabited by Wall-E, the trash robot, I googled Wall-E to check the spelling. The first thing that came up was a very-hard-to recycle plastic toy version of Wall-E available at Target for $54. We’re doomed.
Almost everyone likes sweet things, often to our detriment. Nevertheless sugars are an important source of energy for people, animals and microbes. In the wine-making business, the sugar content of grapes is key to whether a wine will be dry or sweet, also to how well it will keep. The brix scale is a standard sweetness reading showing percentage of dissolved solids in a liquid. When solid sugar is dissolved in a liquid, the density increases and so does the diffraction of light. A refractometer shows the amount of sugar in a liquid instantly by measuring the diffraction of light.
Okay, before you fall asleep, welcome to my world. I will add only one more technical note: A rule of thumb is that a sweetness of at least 19° is necessary to ferment sugars into 10% alcohol. At least 10% alcohol is necessary to preserve wine. Then along comes the winter of 2022-23 and grapes didn’t get totally ripe. Can you boost the sugar up to the level you want? The answer is yes in a number of ways. Many of them are problematic.
Sweet grape juice draining from a frozen container
You can just add sugar. This is basically a chemical solution that dilutes flavor, comes from non-organic sources, and is bad for your health and that of the planet.
You can cook down the liquid by boiling off water and leaving the sugars. This works great. Think of maple syrup. But it uses a lot of energy and it you don’t watch the pot; it can become a huge black charcoal mess. Trust me. I know.
You can put it in a freeze dryer and pull it out before the liquid is totally dry. This one is expensive and you are dealing with small amounts in shallow trays.
You can set it outside in super cold weather and tap off the sweet liquid after the water molecules freeze to each other. This is basically what I will recommend but under controlled conditions. Also don’t use glass containers, they can break. Yes, I’ve done that too.
Which brings us to putting the liquid in a plastic bottle in a freezer and draining out the sweetened juice after most of the water is frozen, which I will describe here.
To make ice wine, when temperatures reach 10° F and wine grapes are still hanging on the vine, a crew goes out in the dark with gloves on and picks the grapes which are crushed and pressed while still frozen to release the sweet juice. It still has a lot of pulp and color. Normal grape juice is much sweeter than most fruit juice (a grape brix reading of 23° as opposed to 14° for apple cider). That much sugar will make more alcohol than yeast can tolerate so some residual sugar remains after the yeast dies, making ice wine a sweet dessert wine.
Most readers will not be making their own ice wine. But this technique in some other contexts can do a lot more than make sweet wine. It is pretty impossible to keep grapes in a small vineyard away from birds until the temperature is 10°. A small empty freezer or a big one with lots of extra room will do. Also, you don’t need whole fruit. Juice is a lot easier. Moreover, you don’t need grapes. This technique works on all kinds of fruit.
What you do need is a big plastic container. I don’t like plastic either but it beats shards of glass and a soggy mess in the freezer. At cold temperatures, plastic molecules will not do much migrating in the short time it takes to sweeten the juice. Usually an overnight stay will freeze the layer near the outside of the container first, leaving the center liquid. You may have to poke a hole down into the liquid part. Two days will usually give you a completely frozen 5 gallon container. Bigger containers are best because you are guaranteed to get a decent amount of super-sweet juice on the first try.
It pours out slowly, the slower, the sweeter. I tip the frozen container upside down into a bucket that is small enough to keep the top of the container off the bottom of the bucket. You could do this in a heated room, but that is a little risky. If left alone too long, water melts, diluting the sweet juice and runs out of the bucket. A cold porch or garage is a safer option. When it is still below 32° outside, the water stays frozen while the juice runs free for another day or two. With grape juice, one run is usually all you need. With apple, pear, peach or some less sweet juice, you may need two trips to the freezer and the bucket. Most berries are just not sweet enough to make this work at all.
What you can do is pick huckleberries, raspberries etc. in the summer and freeze them. When you have apple cider or some other juice, defrost the berries and mix them in. Then freeze the combined juice and drain out a sweet combination of both flavors. You are going to lose some quantity and some sugar. Typically 5 gallons of juice starting at 20° brix will make 3 gallons of sweet juice at 30° brix or more but there will still be 5° of sugar in the frozen water. I don’t pour this down the drain. I pour it on my compost pile. Microbes and fungus like sugar too.
When I hear the term “as slow as molasses in January”, I don’t think of cooked down sugarcane juice as much as freeze-sweetened fruit juice. After all, why stop at just a little sweeter, you can take this method all the way to syrup or into jelly. Think blueberry-apple syrup or huckleberry-peach on waffles. No sugar added! My appetite is warmed up already.