Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

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

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

Freeze Sweetening

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.

This image shows the small freezer used for sweetening

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.

To Compost and Beyond

Compost bin at 20°  Outside and 100° Inside November 20, 2022

“Egad” you are probably thinking, “He is writing about compost again.  Surely his brain is starting to rot.”  This article is not exactly about compost but close.  In Stevens County we have a “Soil Health Stewards” group hosted by the Conservation Districts.  You can check it out or join on Google Groups.  ne-wa-soil-health-stewards@googlegroups.com.  Recently Greg Deponte posted a link to a video on youtube where Dr. David Johnson and his wife and soil research partner Hui-Chun Su talk about their bio-reactor.  This sounds like a science fiction device but there are actually many variations already in use.

I had heard of their bio-reactor before.  It has been around for over a decade.  But this talk was particularly energizing for me because of all the information they included beyond how to build and use a bio-reactor.  I will mention some details about construction but want to start as Dr. Johnson did with some notes on the current health of the world’s soils and their relation to human health.  (You can watch the video yourself by searching for “Static Pile Fungal Compost Presentation”.)  Here are some bullet points:

  • The earth is losing soil at 10 times the rate of soil formation
  • One ton of soil per acre is about the thickness of a piece of paper
  • 40% of our original topsoil is all we have left
  • 60% of the world’s aquifers are being depleted faster than they can recharge
  • Farming takes 10 times as much fossil fuel energy as the food energy it produces.
  • 70% to 90% of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer goes into rivers and lakes.
  • We have about 110 documented dead zones (in the ocean) on this planet and they’re all related to the agricultural systems that we’re using right now.
  • We have 156 species of herbicide resistant plants.
  • In 1975 the chances were about 1 in 5,000 you’d have a child with autism, it’s one in 59 in 2018 (not causation but at least correlation)
  • We’ve seen an 80% to 90% reduction in the nutrient values of food

This talk might seem like it is beginning to be one giant bummer.  But actually it is just the opposite.  Johnson goes on to show that all of these problems are totally unnecessary if we would just start creating soil health with biology instead of chemicals.  Not only that but he demonstrates that these methods can increase production 5 to 25 times, even on played out soil.

He takes some time to describe the evolution of biology on planet earth pointing out that microbes have dramatically altered the gases in the air, the carbon in the soil and their own bio-diversity over billions of years.  This section emphasizes that diversity, energy efficiency, community and abundance always go hand in hand and evolve to reinforce each other, not just in the world of microbes but in above ground crops as well.  Two key points are that microbes can remediate chemically poisoned soil and that the higher the proportion there is of fungi to bacteria, the healthier the soil becomes.

To picture this he sites a common strategy in war.  One of the first things combatants try to do is to disrupt the communication and supply lines of the enemy.  In the soil, fungi are the lines of communication and supply.  Their long hyphae carry signals about supplies and diseases. But they also carry water and nutrients to a plant’s roots multiplying its reach and resources many times. Plowing and tilling break up fungus and degrade the soil. In designing their bio-reactor, Johnson and Su wanted to develop as much fungi in their systems as they could.  The key ingredients are lignins (think wood chips, sawdust, grass and leaves) moisture (They shoot for 70%) and air.  They want every part of their pile of debris to be no more than 12 inches from fresh air.  Manure, vegetable matter and worms are also key ingredients.

Although many composting systems boast that they have thousands of kinds of microbes and nutrients ready to turn back on the soil within 22 weeks, Johnson and Su show that if you wait a full year or more, you get four times as much diversity in the result.  It is not a mulch as much as a squeezable clay-like putty.  They don’t think of it as a soil amendment or nutrient but as an inoculant. They use it to coat seeds by diluting it with water and wetting the seeds.  With just this coating at a rate of 2 pounds per acre, they saw a 5 time increase in production the first year with more each following year, not just on one crop or in a greenhouse, but on multiple kinds of crops from grains to cotton and more and in multiple kinds of soil and water conditions.  No minerals or other fertilizers were added to fields in these tests, but nitrogen, phosphorous and numerous other nutrient minerals increased in these soils though the action of biology alone.

Many other things were covered in this presentation but realizing that biology itself is the key to restoring the soil is the major take-away.  Thinking about this I looked into how to build a Johnson/Su bio-reactor.  This is where the differences between creating a system in California and other warm States and building one in Northeast Washington became apparent.  They want the bio-reactor to be filled all at once with 5 gallon buckets of wet leaf mulch or other feedstock, 75 of them.  They want it to get to 160° for a few days; have worms added when it gets down to 80°; not freeze for a full year and be watered regularly in small amounts to maintain the 70% humidity. Johnson emphasizes that the challenges are constantly changing and you need to be observant and change with them.  This system definitely needs to be reworked for N.E. Washington.

It is 20° or lower outside at night already.  I have been amazed that the layers of sawdust and spent wine must in my most recent compost bin are melting snow on top and staying 100° deep inside.  I’ve read that you can drive fence posts into the pile then remove them after a few days and the hole they create will keep the air passages open.  I’m not sure this is going to give me a squeezable goop after a year, but it’s worth a try.

Earths Treasures

It takes awhile to learn the slow story of geology covering eras, eons and epochs.  The world’s seven tectonic plates spread over time from volcanic seams in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  Within those plates are stratigraphic terranes, large masses of rock with related histories.  The names and times of geologic events become more twisted and tangled as you dig deeper.  Northeast Washington is one of the most complicated geologic areas in North America. There has been a lot of deep digging here but most people just want to find pretty rocks.

That’s where the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club comes in.  On March 11th and 12th they held their annual rock show in the Northeast Washington Ag and Trade Center.  This year’s theme was Earths Treasures. Along the sides of the show are vendors with jewelry, beautiful rocks, fascinating fossils and mysterious geodes that you can buy and have split open to see crystals inside.

Down the middle of the show are display cases filled with treasures from the club members.  They hold interesting and beautiful rocks that are often found here in Northeast Washington or nearby.  The rocks include crystals, metals, fossils, agates and rocks that glow under ultraviolet light.  Each kind gives us a little insight into the geology that formed it.

We have a lot of crystals nearby.  Most are either quartz or calcite.  There are still a lot of smaller quartz crystals in the Horseshoe Mountain area of Ferry County.  They grow in vugs (hollow spaces) in volcanic rocks where hot silicon-rich water has filled the space and the quartz crystals form over time.  Larger crystals have been found in Pend Oreille County buried in sand and clay where the crystals washed into alluvial deposits.

Calcite crystals form from calcium carbonate in limestone deposits.  Cliffs of limestone line both sides of the Columbia River going north from Evans and into Canada.  Limestone comes from shells and skeletons deposited at the bottom of an ancient waterway, the Windermere Rift, which wound through the center of Stevens County.  Calcite crystals can be found in limestone quarries used to make lime for cement along that route.  Cement hardens as calcite crystals form binding the aggregate rocks together.  If you drive that route, you might try to envision how all of that rock was once part of living creatures.

When limestone caves are under warm seawater, calcite crystals are not the only thing that forms in them.  Zinc, lead and silver adheres to the sides of those caverns, which themselves have been dissolved by acids from plant roots.  Since this column is often about microbes in the soil. I’ll note here that microbes often play a role forming mineral deposits.  There are even bacteria that weld powdered gold into nuggets. 

East and north of Chewelah the Kaniksu Batholith has rare blue and green Beryl crystals.  The club sometimes collects yellow barite crystals on Flagstaff Mountain near Northport where they formed on the edges of a skarn deposit which some believe also involved microbial life.

Not far away is a fluorite mine.  Fluorite gave its name to fluorescence, the characteristic of some minerals to glow when exposed to ultraviolet light.  The most common blacklight color for fluorite is green.  Some calcite deposits along the Columbia fluoresce orange, red, green and dark blue. Some near Usk glow bright pink and in tungsten ore near Hunters Scheelite crystals fluoresce a light blue.  (That mine, the Germania, has a fascinating history including German submarines and an alcoholic manager who fought the allies in the Argon forest during the First World War.)  The mine was eventually abandoned because deep in the mine radiation levels were too high to be safe.  Stevens County has two large uranium mines further south than the Germania. They are also abandoned but there are others in the north. Uranium ore glows bright yellow under UV. The rock club has a blacklight cave at the show where these and even more spectacular colors can be seen.

Like the Germania, most mines have a combination of minerals and metals.  Most are mined out of valuable ore but still have interesting rocks in their waste piles.  (The Panorama Gem and Mineral Club does not encourage exploring inside of mines.)  Every metal has some interesting features for rockhounds.  There are several large iron deposits where you can throw a magnet and it will stick to the rocks.  On the other hand, many rocks in an iron deposit will themselves be magnetic and metal will stick to them.

One of the first metals found here was copper near Chewelah.  But Ferry County also has old copper mines in the north.  Chalcopyrite, a copper ore is heavy and shines yellow and green.  It decays into green malachite and blue azurite.  Those colors cover many rocks in the waste piles.  Even more brilliant colors are found on Bornite, an iridescent rock also known as peacock copper. It is a real prize on a rockhounding trip to an old copper mine.

Many mines also have pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.  Pyrite comes in a big variety of shiny yellow crystals, some of which also have real gold.  Speaking of which, the first gold discovered in Washington was in the mouth of the Pend Oreille River near the Waneta border crossing.  The club often pans for gold along the Columbia River downstream from there.  Gold mines abound in Northeast Washington.  The biggest were the Knob Hill near Republic and Buckhorn Mountain near Chesaw.  You can learn to pan for gold at the rock show from Dave Paquette, aka Prospector Man.

Northeast Washington also has two world-class fossil sites.  The Stonerose Interpretive Center makes fossil digging east and foolproof.  It exposes new layers of its large fossil bed each year.  The site opens in May but members can go the weekend of April 22-24.  You can find fossils of the earliest rose, Dawn Redwood and occasional insects and fish. The center keeps extra-special specimens but credits them with the finder’s name.  They ship to research centers all over the world.  Don’t worry.  There will be plenty of specimens for everyone. (https://Stonerosefossil.org)

The second great fossil site has trilobites, 400 million year old ancestors of the horseshoe crab.  The quarry near Metaline Falls is open by permission only.  The club tries to visit every year.  Kids love it and so do adults.  There are other fossil locations but these are the best.

Agates, opals and petrified wood can also be found nearby. Rocks that can be cut into slabs and polished provide beautiful colors and patterns for jewelry and other pieces of art.  Rock club members share experience, outings and sometimes equipment for the hands-on side of rockhounding.  You can see their handiwork at the rock show once a year.  But every monthly meeting is a little rock show in itself.   You can find out more at https://panoramagem.com/.

Nothing is Normal

A lot of things don’t seem normal anymore.  It felt like they were building up as the long “Indian Summer” extended from September through October.  But today only one of them hurts more than the others.  Our dog, Gretchen, always waited for us at the top of the driveway when we came back from someplace like the farmers market.  Today she is still there, but buried in some very cold ground.  Grieving for her comes in waves.  It strikes me when I walk into the house, and she doesn’t bark, see her pawprints in the snow or her hair on the blankets of my bed where she spent her whole last night, breathing, but not able to get up.  The day before we woke up with her struggling to breath and her eyes wide open on the rug by Cheryl’s bed.  She looked like she might die at any minute and on the phone an emergency veterinarian agreed, but she didn’t die.  Her heart murmur had been getting worse, but this was very sudden.  The day before that, she could walk, but after November 10th, she could try but we had to help her move.

We decided that if she lived through the night but still could not move, we would have a veterinarian put her to sleep.  On Veterans Day we comforted her last moments as she died and surely a part of us died too.  The house seems empty.  Yes, we still have a house cat, Gray-C and an office cat, Pete.  Dogs pay attention to you.  They like to play outside and follow you around.  They relax when you relax, and they make you relax when you are struggling.  Gretchen is gone and nothing is normal.

Okay, some other things happened since I last wrote something personal at the beginning of September.  Maybe working backwards will work.  After all, time is arbitrary.  At least that is the theme of an article I wrote to correspond with the end of Daylight “Slaving” Time.  Weather seems to be somewhat arbitrary too.  The same day that the time changed, snow fell, and we got our first frost.  The snow and frost are still here and show no signs of going away.  We went from not having a real Fall to full blown winter overnight.  Many trees still have green leaves on them.  Bird nets still hang in the vineyard or are on the ground under the snow.  (Now they start to rip if you try to retrieve them.)

We did get our grapes harvested and some of the neighbor’s too.  Like much of the State, harvest was late, and the grapes were not as sweet as we like.  My new secret weapon is a freezer.  Ironic I know.  When you freeze a sweet liquid, the water molecules freeze to each other, and the remaining liquid contains most of the sugar.  This is the foundational physics principle of ice wine.  I am using it on some vintages this year.  Not “ice wine” but effectively “late harvest”.  Winemaking started late and will continue for a while longer.

Moving back further still, I had a birthday on September 26th (75).  My daughter, April, son James and her niece, Sadie came to help pick Lucie Kuhlmann, my main variety of grapes October 16th.  That was a great birthday present.  Some other true friends helped harvest the rest.  The crisis of the day consumed much of the calendar. 

  • Printing 16 map books (10/4/2022)
  • Drying Himrod Grapes for raisins (10/7/2022)
  • Fighting off Robins who ate 25% of many of our grapes and getting more nets up(10/11 to 10/13/2022)
  • Attended the spreading of our neighbor Vern DeKinicker’s ashes by the house he was having built but didn’t get finished. (10/17/2022)
  • Started a new compost bin which is now full (10/20/2022)
  • Cheryl finished planting garlic and covering it with straw (10/22/2022)
  • Harvest 300# of Leon Millot from the Colville Valley (10/27/2022)
  • Last day of the Farmers Market (10/29/2022)
  • Pick 200# of Siegerrebe at Down River Orchards (10/30/2022)
  • Picked all the rest of the grapes at home with Joe Greco (11/1/2022)
  • Last of winter firewood arrives (11/2/2022)
  • Picked all our apples in a stiff cold wind (11/3/2022)
  • Picked up scrap wood for biochar and 262# of Fredonia Grapes before it snows (11/5/2022)
  • Gretchen laid to rest. (11/11/2022)

From here on out it looks like a long cold winter.  I have lots of reading and writing to do.  (It is a lot easier on my back.)  Not having the farmer’s market twice a week is like having 3 more days a week.  I’m glad that Cheryl was back on her feet and able to help for the last month or so of the market. Wine making is winding down.  Somewhere in there may be a long winter’s nap. 

It’s About Time

Maple samaras released on January 1st, 2019

It’s too dark in the mornings and evenings to do much work outside.  Long needles on the pine trees have turned brown and rain down with every gust of wind.  Yellow leaves are joining them.  The very long “Indian Summer” has turned cold and wet.  It makes me wonder where the time went during some quiet moments – mostly in the middle of the night – when I actually have time to wonder about time. 

By the time you read this, the Sunday may have already past when it is time to “Fall back in the Fall,” at the end of Daylight Slaving Time.  (Let’s be honest.  Lawmakers developed this scheme to boost the economy, so slaving was just as much on their minds as saving.)  I’m going to miss it a little bit since waking up hours before breakfast and working outside when no one was likely to call meant getting a lot done.

But it also reminds me of how arbitrary our normal concept of time is.  Historians trace the sundial to Egyptians at least as far back as 1500 BCE (“before current era” is now politically correct for “before Christ”).  Of course Egyptians no doubt thought that they were the current era back then.  Their sun dials had 10 daylight hours and another couple hours on each side for sunrise and sunset.  (historyofwatch.com/) Of course this would have been useless in say Alaska where it can be completely dark or completely light. Just sayin’ “Time is Arbitrary.”

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that there are a lot of ways to think of time besides the kind we track with clocks (chronological time).  The Farmer’s Almanac can tell you what to expect on a particular day of the year but like this year, the year doesn’t always cooperate, at least around here. Still the length of the day triggers trees to start reserving the nutrients in the leaves.  They cut off sap flow and seal themselves for winter.  (Smithsonian Institute) Temperature and moisture have a lot to do with the colors.

That is one of the many changing signs of seasonal time.  Another that is still a mystery to me happened on New Years Day, 2019.  The snow was frozen solid and the leaves had fallen long ago. But the samaras on the maple trees (AKA “helicopters,” “whirlers,” “twisters” or “whirligigs”) suddenly let loose on a very windy cold day.  They spread far and wide. With plenty of moisture to work with from the snow, many sprouted that Spring.  Usually if I try to figure out natural events, the why will make sense even if the how is not apparent. 

You can readily see that the leaves change color near the tops of the mountains before they do in the valleys.  Colder temperatures seem to explain that but you can also say that time goes faster at higher altitudes. According to the theory of relativity The stronger the gravity, the more spacetime curves, and the slower time itself proceeds. (wtamu.edu/) So the further away from the center of the earth you are, the faster time goes. There are even arguments about whether time exists at all if there is no gravity.  I will spare you (and myself) those.  But as I said, time is arbitrary.

Getting into the physics of time leads you to the standard light year.  If you are going to measure stellar time, that is the standard.  We all learned in physics that nothing goes faster than the speed of light.  Except that is not true either.  Once in awhile we hear about progress in developing quantum computing which is based on quantum entanglement.  This is a topic so complex many state that if you think you understand it, you don’t.  It works because once particles are entangled; a change in one will immediately be reflected in a change in the other no matter how far they are separated. “Tests have been performed where the locations were sufficiently separated that communications at the speed of light would have taken longer—in one case, 10,000 times longer—than the interval between the measurements.” (wikipedia.org) So much for the speed of light being the fastest phenomena in the universe.

Meanwhile back at everyday calendars with solar equinox and both a winter and a summer solstice, that feeling of time changing very fast is based on simple geometry.  If you shine a light on a world globe and tilt it toward the light, there is always a dark side and a light side, but when tilted very much, the whole top of the globe is always in the light and the south pole is always in the dark.  These solstice positions seem to be stuck there in the middle of summer or winter.  And actually they are.  The length of daylight time changes more quickly at the equinox and the further you are from the equator.  So here near 49° north, the length of day changes a lot faster around the equinox.  This part of time is not arbitrary.

But clocks are arbitrary.  People invented the 24 hour clock, time zones, the 12 hour face of the clock etc.  I think it was just really easy to divide the round circle face of a clock into 12 equal parts.  But we agreed to it and live by it down to seconds measured by atomic clocks.  Truthfully it works well to be able to make appointments and count on ball games being on at a certain time.

Farmers need to keep track of all these kinds of time. We depend on crops, markets and phases of the moon.  I should get some sleep and stop thinking about arbitrary things.

What’s Bugging Me

Most of us have been bitten or worse by a variety of insects, bees, ants, ticks, spiders…  They are the essence of “being bugged”.  The usual response is fight or flight, (see Tina Tolliver Matney’s article on Yellow Jackets in the August, North Columbia Monthly.)  As a farmer, insects can be much worse than annoying.  They can be devastating.  The knee-jerk reaction is to kill them all.  A lot of people think that the only good bug is a dead bug.  That is not necessarily true.  In a couple articles that I have read lately, the authors go on to point out that even wasps and bees feed on destructive insects.  An article in the British periodical, the Guardian, showed posters on the wall of a regenerative farmer in England.  One poster showed beneficial insects and the other harmful ones.  There were a lot more beneficial insects. Praying Mantis, Lady Bugs and most spiders come to mind.  So, knowing your bugs is important.

That is not always easy. Case in point: leaves were disappearing from my apple tree and cherry tree.  There was no tell-tale tent that indicated an infestation of tent caterpillars, though those do show up regularly.  The leaves looked like they had been cut off at the stem and there were branches at the top of each tree where every leaf had been removed.  On closer inspection, I found the culprits, fuzzy caterpillars that I didn’t recognize. I captured a couple and took a picture.

Mystery Caterpillar

That didn’t tell me much.  I looked online with a Google search for “defoliating caterpillars”.  There are plenty but none looked exactly like these.  Therein lies a big problem.  There are lots of insects, an estimated 5.5 million of which only 1 million have been identified. Maybe “bugs” is a better term because there are 1.5 million beetles, and they aren’t insects. Don’t even get started on millipedes, spiders and ticks, which are also not insects.  There is actually a classification of insects called “true bugs”, Hemiptera. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, each insect, very much including these caterpillars of the order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), goes through 4 life stages: egg, flying moth or butterfly, caterpillar, and pupa.  So, there are four different-looking critters to identify depending on the stage they are in. 

Red Humped Caterpillar

I was talking to my neighbor and fellow viticulturalist, Don Worley, about the caterpillar mystery when his wife, Alice, showed up with a container of more defoliating moths, which were different than those I had, and were taking the leaves off their apple trees.  The plot thickened.

Text Box: Red-Humped Caterpillar MothNow I was looking for some serious help figuring out what these things were.  Enter Picture Insect, an app that lets you snap pictures of bugs and uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify them.  I was eager after installing it to see a bug, any bug, and try it out.  The first was a spider.  A few seconds after taking the picture, the ID appeared: hobo spider.  I added it to my new digital bug collection.  Alright, technically not an insect or a bug but the app didn’t seem to care.  The hunt was on.  But it was not always right on.  My mystery caterpillar was not a tent caterpillar as the app suggested.  Realizing that I could enter other people’s pictures into the app, I tried Alice’s caterpillar.  Bingo!  It is a Red-Humped Caterpillar. 

Red Humped Caterpillar Moth

This is what makes the whole good bug = dead bug approach unsustainable.  The Washington Post reports that studies by Entomologists show that Habitat destruction, pesticides and climate change contribute to this potential-but-still-debated “bugpocalypse.” Over 40 percent of insect species may go extinct, according to a 2019 study, with butterflies and beetles facing the greatest threat. Healthy plants and plentiful predators discourage insect pests.  There are biological controls for most of the damaging bugs.  The first thing to think about when you find them is how to encourage these natural controls.  I’m worried now because the grapes I have that are usually attacked by paper wasps as soon as they ripen but Bald-Faced Wasps have taken up the slack.  Wasps will usually stick with whatever they get started on and I have a variety that is not great for wine but is the first on the wasp snack list.

Personally, I’m getting an annual subscription to the Picture Insect app ($30).  I want to be locked and loaded for next year.  Artificial intelligence builds its accuracy by repetition.  The more people who contribute pictures and clarify identification to the app, the more accurate it will become over time.  This is real citizen science.  So instead of fearing bugs, we need to learn what they are and how they live and die.  Finding them is an opportunity to live and learn.

Lazy Science

My farm (and we could insert several other enterprises here) seems to run mostly in crisis-management
mode.  The best laid plans (assuming that you have actual plans and not just good intentions) often go astray.  The Spring is too wet. The Summer is too hot.  The supply chain is slow and expensive…  It’s not like you have control over all these events.  The major impact is on time.  When you think about it, time is all you have.  Your time and attention are your life.  So, saving time turns out to be a big deal.  A good way to save time is to not do things that may or may not need to be done.

So how do you decide that?  The most direct approach is to not do something that you would, should or could do and see what happens.  We could call that lazy.  But hey. Lighten up. Let’s call it an experiment and throw it into the realm of legitimate science.

Supposedly, science involves a hypothesis, a study, a control group, statistics, a critical deciding factor on whether the hypothesis was correct and of course, repeatability by someone else.  Let’s get real.  Who has time for that?  We make decisions every day that have long term consequences.  Often, we don’t know what all the factors are or will be.  We could just roll the dice and accept the results.  But if we make an effort to learn from the situation, that’s pretty close to science.  The critical component is that you keep track of what you did – or didn’t do, and what happened.  You don’t have to publish the results, but you could share them.

For example, in the July edition of the North Columbia Monthly, I questioned whether it made more sense to compost the abundant greenery that I was mowing between the rows of the vineyard, or to let it lay and act as mulch.  Letting it lay was the lazy science approach.  What I did compost was one action, what I did not compost was lazy.  Let’s call it the “control group”.  The clearer answers will come next spring.  But I am leaning toward compost as better because dry mulch does not feed worms and just lying there it tangles up your feet.  The critical component is the compost having a lot of worms or not.

Regularly spaced grapes on last year’s long canes

Figure 1: Cane pruning spreads out the clusters

Another example is pruning the grape vines to leave only the longest canes (cane pruning) instead of pruning all the canes down to just a bud for the current year’s cane (spur pruning).  Some of my vines really like to send out long canes.  So, in several rows this year I let those long canes go whereas for most of the years of the vineyard I would have cut them back.  In this situation, the variety of grape seems to be the best indicator of how to prune.  But cane pruning is definitely looking good on several varieties.

More examples include thinning out all the small and lower canes to open up the center of the vine and cut down on the insects that like a dark cluttered habitat.  I didn’t do that on several rows and the results were bad.  Ignoring gopher mounds might seem lazy, but I check to see if the nearby vines are better or worse off before trapping.  Actually, I am not finding big problems with that and like the idea of getting the soil turned over naturally.  The mounds themselves are annoying, so I rake them flat.

Lazy or not, science itself can be annoying too.  Standard practices based on “scientific” studies financed by big corporations at corporate-funded universities have got to be suspect.  Recommendations based on field studies in some far-distant state with a different soil and climate, also have to be taken with a grain or two of salt.  Often, when practices on a farm don’t seem to line up with industry standards, a look at how those standards evolved reveals a very specific situation, limited resources, unrecognized assumptions, and primitive techniques in the original study where the “standard” was established.  What makes science work is that it continuously needs to be challenged.

I’m not saying that doubting all the standard advice will usually save you time.  Most of what I have learned has been through making mistakes.  That makes me more willing to make mistakes than most people, I guess.  But if you look at it as science, lazy or not, it sounds a lot better. 

Bummer Parade

When you take a trip or finish a project, and someone asks you how it went.  If it goes well, you just say “okay”, end of conversation.  Or you say, “That sucked” and immediately you are into a long tale of woe. Maybe it’s just a perverse twist of nature that pain, trouble, and bad things are more interesting.  Well, it was an interesting summer.

Just to be sure, I made lists of good events and bad events.  There were a lot of good events: I was more successful than ever getting grape cuttings to root; sales at the Northeast Washington Farmers Market were consistently good; biochar orders were healthy; we found plenty of morel mushrooms after last year’s fires; I had a couple big mapping projects; the new apple bin compost system is working; we have a new retail outlet for our wine at Colville Liquor and Wine; articles on canoes and salmon have been well-received; our new Internet service, Nuebeam, is working well; huckleberries were back; and our first load of firewood is in the woodshed.

Okay, that was brief and boring.  The more uphill battles included trying to replace or upgrade my solid ink printer.  In a way I am like the guy with an old car that knows it well and doesn’t want any new-fangled rig.  On the other hand, no printer company seemed interested in making a printer that works better and costs less to buy, maintain and keep in ink.  Without spending the rest of the blog on printer stories, let’s leave it at: “Always buy repair insurance when buying a used printer.”  I am very glad that I did. 

Then there is Windows 10.  For someone who never left Windows 7 because it would mean new hardware, new software and a touch screen, my tax software finally got me.  It would not support Windows 7 and I have to file taxes.  Now I am using this Dell laptop with its own camera and some software.  But I fell for the “One Drive” backup by Microsoft.  Suddenly my Internet usage went through the roof.  Evidently “One Drive” can’t tell when something has actually changed recently on a computer and backs up everything over and over.  Now I work off an external hard drive.  But I had one of those fail too.

Strawberry Time

Another hard lesson was crashed websites.  I try to maintain several, including this one.  One day I noticed that one of them was set back to an older version.  I have been good at getting backup software that works automatically.  But unbeknownst to me, several websites crashed, and my Internet provider restored them from older versions without letting on that they had crashed.  The automatic backup backed up the now older versions and thereby destroyed all my resent backups. 

Canoe Crossing

There were other difficulties like the local bear taking the rest of the neighbor’s cherries before I could finish picking them and our bank selling us out to another bank then having to switch over a bunch of payments and bills, not always smoothly.  But the real doozy was a trip to report on the Okanogan Tribe’s canoe crossing of the Canadian/American line on Osoyoos Lake.  I made it to the Canadian side of the lake and the huge PKMip campground where the canoe team spends the night before the 4th of July crossing so I could talk to them personally without any time constraints.  But they didn’t find room to camp for the first time in 20 years and quietly went to a camp across the lake.  So I never met them. I drove to the American end of the lake and arrived just before the canoes did.  A huge thunderstorm was going on and we all were soaked.  The baked chicken and watermelon were good, but I had to rush home.  I didn’t make it.  Our 1984 VW van with the newish 2001 Subaru engine choked up halfway back.  I managed to coast several miles downhill to a farm.  I “technically” have roadside assistance with Liberty Mutual but had no coverage.  The couple on the farm let me tag on to their Internet and I called Liberty Mutual.  After a lot of talking and waiting they informed me that they couldn’t find anyone to tow me. I was 100 miles from home.  But I was only 20 miles from my daughter April’s house.  She rescued me, got me home and helped find a tow truck the next day.

Our mechanic couldn’t detect the problem on the hybrid VW/Subaru computer system, but I suggested that it felt like a clogged fuel filter.  A new one fixed the problem.  Well, fixed it for more than a month.  It stopped dead last week a few miles from home and is still in the shop after a couple misleading times when it ran fine.

By the end of last week, I got Covid.  At one time I promised myself that when I got old, I would not spend time talking about medical issues.  My own anyway.  But I should mention that on July 21st, in the early morning, Cheryl got a crippling sciatic pain down her right leg and could not walk without walking sticks.  My daughter Bina and her children, Ovid (13) and Nala (11) were almost here coming from their home in Alameda, California.  April saved the day again hosting Bina’s Family early and bringing a walker for Cheryl.  That was 6 weeks ago.  Cheryl is driving, walking without the walker, and often sleeping without having to sit up in bed.  Now she has Covid.  But the sciatica has been gone for a week with chiropractic help and therapeutic doses of new supplements.

Bina, Nala, Joe, Ovid

It’s not too bad, like a mild flu.  I feel recovered and I’m sure Cheryl will soon recover too. 

I could complain about the weather since it was almost 100º again today after the hottest and driest August on record.  But why bother.  We are coping.  Opening the doors at night keeps the house and office in the low 70s all day.  We can work inside when it gets too hot to be outside.  Forest fires are increasing daily but are not like last year.  The grapes are coming around.  There will be a huge crop.  We need to get ready for them and keep up the farmers’ market for another 2 months.  Maybe I will find time to write another personal blog after that.

Grapes with chair repaired by Bina in the background

We’ll Be in Clover

“It’s a jungle out there.” That’s what I was thinking as I prepared to cut down the vegetation between the last two rows of my vineyard. Purple Vetch was draped from one side to another.  Yellow Sweet clover

grew taller than my head.  My feet were tangled in everything underneath.  This very wet spring has really the vegetation in overdrive.  Sure, the grass was tall and green, but then I began to notice the clovers.  If you are looking at the picture, you might be thinking “Whoa, those are not all clovers.”  Technically you are right. They are all part of the bean family Fabaceae whose name goes back to “faba”, the name of an old bean variety (wiktionary.org). (I imagine that my father’s favorite, Fava Beans, goes back to the same word.)

Although they look different from each other, this family has a lot in common.  Above ground they are all very popular with bees.  At some point they are all good forage.  Most but not all of the “beans” are edible.  Underground they all host nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  As a green manure or mulch, they all bring nitrogen into the soil from above.  In concert with grass and other forbs, they very much contribute to the “jungle” effect.  Each however has its own personality.

Most noticeable this year was Purple or Hairy Vetch, AKA American Vetch (Vicia Americana). It is a perennial that thrives in both dry and wet conditions.  Obviously, it really likes the wet ones since it was climbing all over everything this year.  That makes it very useful in reclaiming burned or disturbed land.  Especially when mixed with grasses and grains, it provides good erosion control.  The seed pods are edible when they are young, but the seeds themselves are poisonous when dry (sciencedirect.com). When the pods dry enough, they burst open, throwing a pair of seeds far from the original plant.  I tried to figure out where “hairy” part of the name came from and almost gave up until I noticed that as the flowers are fading, they are covered in a white fuzz.  This is a useful and beautiful plant when it is in its purple haze faze, but as it dries out, it a brown tangled mess.

Although it was climbing over most things, the vetch seemed to leave the Sweet Clovers alone.  Not being able to resist tasting Sweet Clover, also known as Honey Clover, I found out that it is not really that sweet.  After further reading I learned that the sweet part is the smell, which tested out with a wonderful perfume.  Wikipedia says it grows to be 6 feet tall.  Many of those in the vineyard are well over 7 feet.  With up to 350,000 flowers per plant, the nectar and pollen is very attractive to bees.  Beekeepers love it.  Wildland ecologists don’t.  Evidently it is too prolific. It shades and out-competes native plants.  Also, the amount of nitrogen that it fixes into the soil changes the ecology of prairies and forests.  Actually, as a farmer, I like the nitrogen and have already drastically altered the ecology.  So, my only complaint is that sweet clover is too tough to mow down with a string trimmer.  Back to the scythe!

Under all the other plants is a ground cover of what I can now identify as Hop Clover or more technically Black Medick or Burr Clover.  I knew it was very hardy when I found it growing at a high elevation near Chesaw.  I brought home some of the small black seeds.  I’m not sure that is why it is everywhere now but feel that is a good thing.  Wikipedia suggests that those small black seeds are edible and can be made into flour or roasted whole.  (No, I have not tried that yet.)  The vetch and sweet clover dry up in midsummer.  But this species keeps on coming back if there is water.  It doesn’t get mowed out when the regular clovers and grasses do.  I love it.

Speaking of regular clover, I have two kinds, red (trifolium pratense) and white (trifolium repens).  Try googling red clover and you will be swamped with ads for food, extracts, perfumes, and tinctures of the stuff.  Obviously very edible and commercial, both species were imported from Europe and are now found all over the world.  Virtually every browsing animal from rabbits to elk eat it, making it ideal for building “wildlife bridges” to connect fragmented habitats (Wikipedia).  Ironically though, boiling is suggested before humans eat it.  For an added twist, “dried white clover flowers may also be smoked as an herbal alternative to tobacco” (more Wikipedia). Bees love it too.  Truthfully, it has a hard time competing with the taller plants.  It grows commercially in open fields.

When it comes to open fields, nothing outdoes alfalfa (AKA Lucerne).  This is an ancient forage crop grown around the world.  “Pliny and Palladius called alfalfa in Latin medica, a name that referred to the Medes, a people who lived in ancient Iran.”  It is a perennial crop that is sure to bring great prices per ton after this very wet spring.  There are a few patches here and there on our farm, probably from hay used as mulch over the years.  Although generally a good crop, too much alfalfa can be bad for horses and cause bloat in cows (horseracingsense.com). In humans, it’s often eaten as a garnish, and seems to prevent cholesterol absorption in the stomach (webmd.com).  Weirdly, alfalfa exhibits autotoxicity, which means that it is difficult for alfalfa seed to grow in existing stands of alfalfa. But we seem to be getting pretty far afield here (pun intended).

 The final species in this octet of Fabaceae is Sweet Peas, Lathyrus odoratus. A native of Sicily (You have to love that!), the seeds of Sweet Pea can be toxic if eaten in quantity.  I did eat a young pod. It didn’t taste either good or bad and I didn’t get sick.  Despite the “odoratus” part, it doesn’t smell particularly strong either.  I gathered seed from the roadside years ago and now it seems to spring up wherever it wants.  Maybe I was following in the footsteps of Gregor Mendel, the “Father of Modern Genetics”, who used it to pioneer crossbreeding.  But more likely I was imitating generations of other isn’t-that-pretty wild seed gatherers who inadvertently spread invasive species around the world.  It really is a jungle out there.

The Grass is Greener

The Grass is Greener

With this very wet Spring everything looks especially green.  The green color is from chlorophyll, the molecule critical to photosynthesis, which turns sunlight into plant energy, specifically sugars.  Looking at the chest-high grass and purple vetch which has taken over the aisles between my rows of grape vines, I had to envy those farmers who could make great use of this abundance by running cattle or sheep on it.  I needed to cut it before it completely took over the vineyard so I could get in to do thinning and other operations on the grape plants. That green colored chlorophyll is rich in nitrogen, the fertilizer most often added to commercial fields.  Nitrogen turns a field’s color to a darker green.  It does not necessarily mean that the crop is more nutritious.  But to me this naturally rich green indicates high food value.

Not one to let that much nutrition go unused, I began thinking about its potential.  I remembered a neighbor we had when I was young.  He threw grass clippings over the bank behind his house and added a lot of coffee grounds to them.  That seemed strange to me at the time and I asked his kids about it.  They told me that their dad was an avid fisherman and that the grass clippings and coffee propagated earth worms, probably night crawlers that he used as bait.

I have been building compost piles in old apple bins with the bottoms removed.  Before I started using the bins, wild turkeys would tear apart my compost piles looking for worms, seeds or whatever bugs they could eat.  This was a big mess that I tried to prevent by covering the pile with wire mesh fencing.  Having the big compost pile served two purposes.  I wanted the compost and I wanted to have a place that worms could live during the winter without freezing.

It worked.  Now that there is plenty of warmth and water, the compost bins have taken on new life.  Mushrooms sprout from the top.  Worms show up underneath.  Deer browse on squash growing over the sides.  Deep inside the temperature is 120° F.  That is too hot for worms.  But they move to the sides and around the hot spots.  A worm’s digestive track is like a chicken’s gizzard.  Both need grit to grind up food.  Worms also really like mushy food. So a combination of food that will rot, dirt that has grit and sawdust or straw that has cellulose which is easy to crawl through works well for them.

Looking at the green grass and thinking about how it can enrich the soil I face a number of tradeoffs.  Contrary to intuition, grass really gets healthier if it is eaten or cut.  Grass has a huge root system compared to most plants.  In the “wild” it gets eaten, digested and turned into manure and urine, essential fertilizers.  Animals trample it, working those fertilizers into the soil and providing bare ground for new seeds.  That way clover and other forbs can grow providing food for bees above ground and nitrogen fixation underground. The grass springs back from its huge root system. The prairie lives on and the grass really is greener.

But that system depends on animals rotating in briefly to make it all work.  If I cut it, I need to take it away or leave it in place.  If I take it to a compost pile, it can rot and feed the worms.  But then I need to move the compost plus worms back to the vineyard which is a lot of work.  Left on the ground, the nutrients could leach out, dry out or just degrade in the sunlight, I needed some advice.  Since these were questions that people who make hay face all the time, I talked to friends with livestock about the nutrition in hay.

You would think that the nutrition in hay is just “cut and dried”, so to speak.  It’s not.  There are early grasses and late ones, alfalfa can be good for cows and bad for horses.  There are early grasses and late ones.  You might prefer the seed heads almost formed for more protein or green leaves and flowers, dry and still green.  Even just looking at hay doesn’t tell you everything.  The same crop cut late in the day will have more carbohydrates than when cut in the morning.  But with a short window to get it dried in the field, you might want to cut early.  Then there is silage, which adds nutrition during fermentation but needs expensive equipment.  So much for “cut and dried”.

There is a history of using animals in vineyards.  Sheep, goats, geese and cows have all worked to some extent.  One viticulturist, Kelly Mulville, found that by raising his trellis out of the reach of sheep and running them through the vineyard when the grass was up, he could eliminate the tractor labor mowing grass and the hand labor of removing suckers from the vines.  At the same time the biodiversity in his vineyard multiplied many fold and production was as good as or better than ever.  The same is no doubt true in orchards. 

Short of reworking my vineyard for sheep, falling back on doing my own testing and experimentation, seems like the best practice moving forward.  Sap testing shows that the grass is fairly sweet right now and the vetch is nearly as sweet though definitely juicier.  I will compost some of both and leave the mulch in some rows.  Time will tell which works out the best and where the grass really is greener.