Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Introduction

Most of the posts on this site are about making pure wine and improving the soil. But this is a commercial website. So by way of shameless self promotion. Here are some quotes about our wine:
We sure enjoy your wine. It is the Best!!!Joe Greco
That bottle didn’t last through the night.” Daniel Kurpis
I don’t even drink red wine and I loved your Baco Noir.” Linda Coleman
I was here a couple weeks ago and bought a bottle of Lucie Kuhlmann. It was fabulous.” Linda Lewis

Grape Plants are now available. Check out list below.


If you have not tried our wines, here is a special introductory offer:
Buy a 12 mini-bottle sampler pack for $60 and we will ship it to you for $20.
The sample wines are:

Lucie Kuhlmann – a light red semi-sweet award-winning dinner wine
Okanogan Riesling – a drier clean white wine
Leon Millot – a sweeter red wine, Grand Champion at NE Wash. Fair
Baco Noir – Our driest wine, very popular, distinct berry flavor
Siegerrebe – A crisp white wine, limited supply
Muscat – a semi-sweet white wine with hints of citrus
Gewurztraminer – A must-try white wine , limited supply
Apple Wine – made without adding sugar by concentrating the juice
Huckleberry – wonderful wild berry flavor, limited supply
Elderberry – a perfect contrast between strong berry and apple flavors.
Maréchal Foch – a deep red full-bodied wine, great with red meat
French Rocks Red – our house blend of red wines


There is a lot of information on this site. It is programmed to come up showing this blog page. There are a lot of blogs but only a few may be of interest to you. Scroll down on the left side of the page to see the current topic categories and narrow down the range you want to read.

Mulch Mixer-Mover

I am posting this picture and link to a gizmo I made to mix and move mulch from the soil yard to wherever I need it. There are doubtless improvements that can be made but it is very helpful so I am sharing this video.

This image should like to a 5 minute video.
This has nothing to do with the video but they appeared yesterday. There may be some objections to more Canada geese, but they are totally cute.

Gut Wars

This Article appears in the May 2020 issue of the North Columbia Monthly.

We all feel like we are in command of our actions.  And sometimes that command includes input from “gut feelings”, “intestinal fortitude” and “having the stomach for it”.  Seldom do we consider that our digestive system is in charge of our actions.  And it is even more rare to admit that our digestive systems are under siege.  But that is exactly the gist of a presentation that John Ellis, naturopath and owner of Meyers Falls Market, intended to give on March 24th, before the Corona Virus triggered a cascade of cancelled gatherings.  A talk with him later revealed the dynamics of this conflict.

Looking to count how many cells are in our bodies and how many of them are actually from our own DNA can be tricky as Ed Yong for Science Alert magazine writes: “More recent estimates, put the total number of human cells at anywhere from 15 trillion to 724 trillion, and the number of gut microbes at anywhere between 30 trillion and 400 trillion. Which gives a ratio that can best be expressed as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”  Some put the human percentage at 43%. “The remaining 57 percent are bacteria, fungi and single-celled eukaryotes that live in our guts, in our mouths, on our skins, and in the female reproductive tract,” says Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiology researcher at Caltech.  So really we are each a living army of microbes.  The bacteria in our systems weigh more than our brain and affect how we think.

These microbes have a remarkably higher turnover rate than the cells from our own DNA which can be good or bad news.  Ellis points out that 80% of our immune system is in the large intestine.  The microbes in our guts are actually the first line of defense against most of the material entering our bodies.  They can change completely in 24 hours so we can start reinforcing those defenses immediately by eating well.  Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have proclaimed “An army marches on its stomach.”   The microbe army in your stomach marches on the foods you eat.  So those supply lines are critical and often that is where the battle begins.

Ellis notes that it would take eating 30 of the commercial apples in stores today to equal the nutrition of 1 apple from 50 years ago.  So even the foods we eat are not getting the foods they themselves need to become nutritious.  The soil itself is becoming a hydroponic soup of agrichemicals.  As one farmer put it at a recent Soil Conservation District meeting in Colville “There’s not a worm left in the Palouse.”

Refined sugars and processed foods have most of their nutritive value stripped out of them.   Animal-based protein can be even worse.  For instance, animals raised in feed lots don’t get to move around much and it turns out that moving around is what kills toxins in their bodies (and in ours as well). 

To make up for the natural foods and activities that would keep animals healthy, they are given antibiotics.  Ellis says that of the 35 tons of antibiotics consumed in the United States every year 32 of those tons are fed to feedlot animals which pass them on to us.  So the microbial army in our guts is not getting what it needs to march.  To make matters worse, it harbors antibiotics and our biome suffers heavy losses from those.

Ellis gives the herbicide, Atrazine as an example. It causes endocrine disruption of the human hormone system that is effectively chemical castration particularly in males. The American male sperm count has decreased from 50% to 80% in the last 10 years depending on what reports you study.  (Pesticide Action Network ) Compounding the effect of agrichemicals are prescription drugs, alcohol, smoking, air and water quality.

Image from The Hidden Half of Nature, Montgomery

These forces are aided behind the lines, so to speak, by detrimental bacteria, fungi and yeasts.  “Detrimental” might be over-simplifying what goes on in our guts.  With trillions of microbes playing different roles health is more a matter of balance than elimination.  We have only been able to sequence the DNA in microbes for the last 10 years.  Labs can only grow less than 1% of them outside of a living digestive system.  So nutrionists are basically working with a black box, changing inputs and watching effects without identifying the whole process.

“A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down in a most delightful way” but it is sure to be consumed by fungi which will include candida.  Too much candida can bloom when antibiotics take out the bacteria that keep it in check.  Then it contributes to itching, bloating, vaginal infections and trouble sleeping.  Furthermore it can act behind the lines of your guts defenses to promote unhealthy behavior.

There are indications that yeasts, parasites and some other microbes promote their own favorite foods by causing cravings for things that are not really good for the rest of the system.  Jazmine Polk relates how her cravings for pancakes loaded with sweets drove a bad case of Candidiasis. But the good news is that she was able to cure that by changing her diet.  She eliminated sugars, grains and alcohol and switched to eating green vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, salad, almonds, walnuts, herbal tea, green juice, and unsweetened coconut water. (health.com)

This is basically the kind of diet that Ellis recommends along with bone broth, aloe juice, probiotics and prebiotics. “Prebiotics are a type of fiber that the human body cannot digest. They serve as food for probiotics, which are tiny living microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast.” (medicalnewstoday.com)  Probiotics are the reinforcements our systems need to balance out our gut biome.

The transition may not be entirely easy.  Not only might you have cravings for unhealthy food, you might not have the right biota to digest healthy foods.  Ellis points out that there are 2500 species of microbes in our guts but we are probably missing 500 species that have gone extinct.  The missing microbes have a ripple effect where other organisms depend on them for their own nutrition and so are also in short supply.  These microbes might still be found in aboriginal populations and recovered through fecal transplants.

Another impediment to getting the benefits of fresh leafy greens might lie within the greens themselves.  Endocrinologist, Dr. Zach Bush, had recommended a green vegetable rich diet to his clients in rural Virginia.  He was surprised to see that they were still getting sick.  Looking into it he found that glyphosate (Roundup) had been taken up by vegetables after it got into the water and air.  It acts as an antibiotic. Besides destroying bacteria in your gut, it opens up holes in your gut membrane. “Your gut membrane is the largest barrier to the outside world: it covers two tennis courts in surface area and is the thickness of half of the width of a human hair.”  The injury that Roundup does to your guts “starts to activate the immune system, and we become reactive to our foods. So, we develop allergies of all sorts, pollen allergies and environmental allergies, but also all the food allergies that have become so prevalent in our children today.” (Dr. Zach Bush on Salon.com)  This membrane is the real front line of the gut war.

Luckily the battle is not necessarily lost.  Nature has a way of balancing the biome if you are only exposed to more of it.  Dr. Bush says “The microbiome we breathe will ultimately populate our gut through different mechanisms. Touch it. Consume it through fermented foods.”  He advocates getting out in nature as much as possible, walking barefoot, going to the mountains and the ocean.

John Ellis realizes that people who have not been eating celery, cabbage, broccoli, kale and asparagus regularly don’t digest it well.  These foods just seem to cause flatulence for them.  To build up the microbes that will help digest these greens he suggests overcooking them at first, like you would cook baby food.  Over time cook them less and the bacteria and other microbes in your gut will adapt.

That part of John’s recommendations reminded me of some advice Randy Greenland  gave to the workers at a log mill where I once worked while we sat around a fire in the yard eating lunch.  He talked about a really healthy horse he had.  After a ride when its saddle was taken off it would roll on its back, jump up to its feet and fart loudly.  The adage he related was “A fartin’ horse will never tire.  A fartin’ man’s the man to hire.”

Virtual Tour

This virtual tour is posted since an actual tour scheduled for our Slow Food group on April 19th, 2020 has been cancelled.

For a month or so as the snow melted I have been pruning the grape vines. The row shown here is before it was pruned and canes reach for 15 feet or more.
This is the other side of the same row of Himrod grapes after the weak canes have been removed and the longer canes tied to the cordon wire. A drip irrigation line set up below the cordon sprays out to the middle of the row. A cart of prunings is ready to take to the shredding pile.
This is our 20 foot by 24 foot “high Tunnel” greenhouse bought on a grant through the Soil Conservation Service with a kit from Farm Teck. It survived heavy snow with the cover intact. The sides roll up for cooling.
This is the insde of the greenhouse. Grape plants in pots are in the far corner. The bed to the right has had the quack grass sifted out and a layer of compost-mulch put on top.
This is a vat of Korean Natural Farming compost tea. A cloth bag in the water has compost, some rotten grain to feed it and some sea salt for minerals.
These are compost piles. the one to the left is 2 years old with a lot of leaf mulch from the City of Colville. The one to the right is recent with our food waste and some commercial organic compost mixed in. There is a screen over the top to keep turkeys from spreading it.
These are more piles of grape prunings, commercial compost, yard waste, pine needles etc. waiting to be shredded and mixed into compost-mulch. As regenerative agriculture inputs they add digestible carbon to the soil. Initially this kind of cellulose is broken down by fungus and then passed on to other microbes.
This is a pallet bag of rotten feed from Red Bridge. There are a lot of larva and some gooey black parts but a lot of the feed is still intact. It provides a rich source of nitrogen to the compost mulch, much like manure.
This is our Troy Bilt shredder. There is a container of shredded biochar in front of it and a pile of shredded prunings, pine needles, cones and bark to the left. More material waiting to be shredded is under the tarp. It gums up the shredder if it is wet. The shredder is on a raised stand to allow more material to accumulate before it is shoveled out.
Here is our biochar burning barrel. By adding more fuel on top of the coals, oxygen is prevented from turning the coals into ash. When the barrel is full of coals, the lid is closed and the hot barrel is rotated using vise grips clamped to the edges so that the top is facing down and dirt can be piled around it to seal off the air. That leaves the charcoal dry.
This is the empty barrel and a load of biochar in big chunks ready to shred.
This older picture of the biochar shows a giant black cloud as it goes through the shredder. We have found that watering the dry biochar with compost tea before shredding cuts out the dust and inoculates the biochar with good microbes that stay alive in the biochar. The biochar easily absorbs moisture and does not seem to release and dry out. (The is a link to a movie of this black cloud in action.)
Over the winter heavy snow crushed the rolled steel framework of the cover over the crushing pad where the grapes are crushed prior to primary fermentation at harvest time.
This spring I rebuilt the cover with help from Chris Wujek (on top of the building) using schedule 40 PVC pipe. The pipe seemed to hold up better than the steel in the previous structure so this one is all PVC. Also there is now a rigid rafter at the top supported by a post and the building. It provides a steeper angle to make snow slide off as well at much more direct support.
The cover over the crushing pad was finished on Easter Sunday. Now it covers a table with propagation heating pads under grape cuttings that are being rooted. The rear of the building is a storage shed and temporary fermentation room during harvest.
These are cuttings with new roots before being planted. They have been inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi to spur root development. The potting mix is a variation of the mix used as a top mulch in the vineyard and garden.
Cheryl and I donned our Easter Bonnets for this selfie taken by the lake on Easter.

Mother Trees

It all started with an account I was reading about a naturalist whose main job was taking care of displaced orangutans near Borneo.  He became curious about small trees that were thriving around a large tree of the same species that was dying.  He wondered if they were related and also why something that was killing the older trees seemed to be helping the younger ones.  That goes against our standard idea of disease as something that hurts everything and in turn must itself be completely destroyed.  He dug up the roots and traced them back between the trees.  They were connected and the old mother tree seemed to be feeding the young ones with its last bit of energy and creating space in the canopy to bring light to the young trees.

            I couldn’t find the reference again when I looked for it.  But then I came across a TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] talk by Suzanne Simard about trees.  As a forest biologist Simard wondered if trees of different species shared information with each other.

Pine Forest floor – picture by Joe Barreca

            She concocted an experiment using a little plantation of trees set in an older forest. Trees produce sugar carbohydrates during photosynthesis.  She set up pairs of trees and covered a birch tree in clear plastic and a fir tree in black plastic so that the clear one would be photosynthesizing sugars and the other would be just using sugars.  Then she introduces radioactive carbon-14 carbon dioxide gas into the clear plastic tent.  She did that to 80 pairs of trees until a mother grizzly bear chased her back to her truck. She waited in her truck for an hour or so while the mother grizzly bear and her cub settled down in a nearby huckleberry patch and the birch tree under the clear plastic photosynthesized using carbon 14.

            Then she tested the trees with a Geiger counter.  The fir trees under the black plastic showed up as having carbon-14 that it could only have gotten from sugars created by the birch tree.

Rain Tree picture by Cheryl Barreca

            That was over 30 years ago.  Many tests on trees of the same species, trees of different species and trees near their offspring showed that most shared sugars, particularly if they also had the same DNA.  In fact fir trees sent sugars back to birch trees in the winter when the birch had lost their leaves.  So yes trees could be mothers to younger trees and good neighbors to companion trees of different species.

            Wanting to check this out in my own patch of forest, I walked up an old road.  I saw lots of young trees near old fir trees on the wet side of the hill.  As I got to the top of the grade a group of deer ran off with their white tails waving behind them.  They had been standing in a grove of pine trees.  But the ground underneath was bare except for pine needles, not even brush.  It was a good place for deer to wait with clear views and open escape routes, but not really a forest of mother trees or different species.

            Clearly more was going on here.  I contacted my friendly local foresters for some advice.  Jay Berube retired as a forest ecologist in 2003.  This companion tree line of thinking was not well known back then.  It was known that trees of the same species adapt to their local environment and matching seed stock to their locale was important for resistance to diseases such as root rot.  Jay noted that pine trees do better in dry ground than fir trees.  The fir trees were growing young to restock the wet side of the hill.  The pine trees depend on fire to regenerate but must resist it somewhat to survive.  So an open grove with no ladder fuels for fires but pine needles on the ground was a perfect for them.         Berube said that pine trees are allopathic and actually prevent other plants from growing.  There were younger pine trees growing in road cuts with some serviceberry trees for companions.   And just a few hundred feet away was a dense stand of young pine that had regenerated after a fire or farming disturbance with no other species underneath.

            Another finding from Suzanne Simod’s studies was that mixed species forests are more resistant to disease.  The reason for this is not simply that the bugs are more spread out between their preferred host species but also that they share signals that certain pests are around and the trees develop resistance to them.  The combination of spreading out the target species and help from the companion species must act a little like “social distancing” and give trees more time to “flatten the curve” of infection.

            But it is not just trees that are involved.  The pathway for this communication and exchange of material is not roots alone. (TED.com) Mycorrhizal fungi act as the highways between the tree roots.  Several species of the hundreds of possible fungi may work with each tree.  They live on the sugars from the trees but also bring water, minerals, sugars and signals from the rest of the underground biome to their hosts.

            So the take away is that “as below, so above.”  The plants in the air, like the millions of organisms in the soil help each other out.  The hallmarks of a healthy environment are not only diversity and abundance, but also cooperation.  Survival of the fittest means survival of the most cooperative.  Approaches to management that attempt to eliminate “pathogens” using chemicals and mechanics that involve massive collateral damage ultimately make plants even more susceptible to drought and disease.  Insects, animals and birds also cooperate in this biome. 

            Forester Bill Berrigan reminds us that “There is so much more to learn about tree’s interactions that we should not be making cutting decisions that may hurt the trees and the soils that they grow in.”

2020 Grape Plants

Grape Plant Inventory 2020
These are current as of 4/21/20
Baco Noir30
Cabernet Franc1
Canadice10
Concord5
Fedonia8
Foch25
Frontenac5
Gewurztraminer1
Himrod9
Lucie Kuhlmann20
Millot14
Niagra1
Pino Noir1
Riesling11
Siegerrebe6
https://barrecavineyards.com/Downloads/GrapeCatalog2020.pdf

This is my inventory of two year old grape plants. I prefer to sell them at two years so the roots are more developed. I do have these varieties in one year old plants. The one year plants are now in bigger pots and will sell for $10 each next year. These older plants are selling for $7 each because they are in smaller pots. While building our new greenhouse last year I did not have time to move them to bigger pots.

We will have these plants for sale at Farmer’s Markets starting in May. But if you want the best selection it would be better to come to our vineyard before then. If you want to do that, please call first, 509-680-6357.

Here is a link to the 2020 grape catalog.

High Carbon Soil Diet

It’s been a tough winter so far.  Our small greenhouse cover collapsed and big parts of two elm trees broke under the heavy snow crashing into the vineyard.  Only one vine was hurt but there is a lot of cleanup to do. 

Cleanup for me means lopping off the smaller branches and sledding them out to a pile near the shredder.  Branches about the diameter of an arm are stacked in a rack where they can be cut into smaller pieces to burn for biochar.  The pieces big enough to make firewood are cut to length and stacked to dry.  So eventually the whole tree is ready to recycle.

Figure 1 Rack for cutting branches

I was surprised one morning to see a doe standing on the edge of the woods watching me take our food scraps out to the compost pile.  As I walked back by, there she was chowing down on the budding tips of the elm branches I had piled up to shred.  It got me to thinking about the whole process of digestion and nature. 

One of my mentors in understanding natural farming is Youngsang Cho.  In his book, JADAM Organic Farming, he has a lot to say about the philosophy of farming.  (JADAM is an acronym for a Korean phrase meaning “People that Resemble Nature”.)  I’m sure there is a better translation but his advice is rooted in the 16th Century BCE admonition of Asian Philosopher Laozi Dao De Jing who said “The wisdom is always found in nature.” 

An example is that nature lays down a carpet of leaves and grass before winter snow sets in.  Therefore late Fall is the right time to put a layer of mulch on your growing beds.  You will notice that in the Spring after the snow melts and before grass springs up the flattened leaves and dead grass have a web of fungus on them.  I noticed that canes, pine needles and stems that I shredded and left out in tubs earlier in the winter had a similar white fuzz on them.  Fungus is uniquely suited to breaking down the complex molecules of wood.  It can work in the wet cold of winter preparing the way for microbes that like warm earth and old fungus.

Browsing on Elm buds

That doe was part of the continuous cycle of digestion.  Her dung is a rich gold mine that will add to the microbial feast in the soil.  Youngsang Cho says that all microbes are beneficial, especially if local and especially if found under leaf mold.  This goes against some conventional wisdom that fears the rotting parts of plants left on the ground will spread disease in the Spring.  He points out that the minerals and other nutrients most used by a particular plant will be most abundant in the rotting remains of that plant itself.  Sure there will be mold or insect eggs but he further notes that “one mold spore can produce 1 billion in 10 hours.”  In fact he uses that multiplication through microbial teas to fertilize plants and also fight disease. You cannot eradicate mold, weeds or other organisms.  You need to manage the soil to promote health and out-compete disease. 

Weeds fill a vacuum.  Find what the soil needs and fill that need.  Cho admonishes that “The good and bad are one.”  Too much of a good thing can be bad and visa versa. Planting the same plant in the same place is what Nature does all the time.  Having just that one kind of plant in a place is something nature never does.  Cover crops and a rich diversity of organic matter are also what nature does.

Getting back to the deer and the elm tree, I tend to think of nature as one gigantic digestive system and the soil is a big part of it.  Looking at it that way you can think of good soil management as a kind of diet.  Running branches through a shredder or having them trampled by cattle is a bit like chewing your food.  Getting the ground wet is like adding saliva and sending food to the stomach and beyond.

Any of you who have made bread or made wine, know that a tiny bit of yeast given some water, warmth and sugar can become a roiling mass of microbes in short order.  Components of a soil diet mimic the components of a healthy diet in many respects.  You can pretty much guarantee that the microbes will be in the ground already including some yeast and fungus (which are closely related).  Water and warmth come naturally in the Spring when rapid growth occurs.  To carry the analogy further we can group soil components like food diets as carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, sugars and probiotics. 

Minerals are the rocks or soluble elements in the dirt itself.  Although a great deal of fuss is made over the proportion and availability of minerals in sand, gravel, clay, acidic and alkaline dirt, the bottom line is that microbes move these minerals into organic compounds and balance out their contributions to overall soil health.  Reducing descriptions of soil health to a periodic chart seen through a spectrograph without acknowledging the trillions of microbes, 99.9% of which we cannot replicate in a lab or identify (JADAM Organic Farming, page 59) misses the fact that each kind of bacteria is a tiny chemical factory that makes these minerals available to other microbes as organic compounds, all of which by definition include carbon.  Adding boron, lime and other refined minerals can have lasting good or bad effects.  “Good and bad are one.”

The biggest proportion of a good soil diet is carbon-rich cellulose – straw, wood chips, shredded branches and leaves.  These take a long time and many transformations to build the soil.  But if you want long term organic matter and microbial life, start there even if you don’t have anything else.

Downed Elm Tree

For the protein part of this diet I would suggest the really rich components of manure, rotten fish and spoiled grain.  These give a quick boost of nitrogen and a healthy source of probiotic microbes that can leap into action with a little warmth and water.  Like protein, a little goes a long way. “Good and bad are one.” Too much too soon will burn your plants. (In humans too much protein can increase inflammation.)

For vegetables I would add, well, vegetables.  Basically fresh cut green grass and other plants that feed worms and larger biota.  Rotting green material takes up some of the nitrogen from manure etc.  So it can be used as a buffer.  It works from the bottom up so crushing a cover crop and planting through the debris can feed the crop and suppress competition too.

Amazingly, food grade sugar itself can be used as a fertilizer.  I have read of molasses diluted in water as a crop stimulant.  As with any sugar I would proceed with caution.  I’m imagining hordes of ants and flies with overuse.  Nevertheless bacteria and fungi get sugar from the roots of photosynthesizing plants so it is a part of the soil diet.

In a related news item, eating charcoal reduces flatulence in cows (bbc.com) Cattle ranchers tell me that cows will eat charcoal  when they feel like it (not briquettes that have binders etc. in them).  In Australia a farmer added it to cattle feed as a way to incorporate charcoal into the soil.  It is known to retain moisture and provide shelter to keep bacteria and other microbes from being leached out by rain.  As a bonus charcoal (biochar) sequesters carbon. 

Although that was the main objective for the Australian farmer, Doug Pow, adding biochar to feed can also reduce up to 20% of methane released by cows.  Methane is 25 time more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide so it is a big deal.  (bbc.com) Part of Pow’s breakthrough was that he imported cow dung beetles that immediately bury cow pies and stop further release of methane as well as adding the carbon to the soil.  So, yes, add biochar to your soil’s diet.

I tend to think of this mixture as a mulch rather than a compost.  As a top dressing the hyphae from the fungi can grow without being broken as they would be when compost is worked into the soil.  But timing is also a factor.  Richer feed in the spring, some special snacks before harvest and a lot of cellulose before winter: sounds like a healthy soil diet to me.

There are also a number of “herbal” remedies for soil problems, but this is probably enough to digest for now.

Hopewell Vineyard

This is not an ordinary blog post. I recently became aware of some other vineyards that use regenerative agriculture techniques. I am providing this link to Hopewell Vineyard near Salem, Oregon Although there are many good reasons to check out this vineyard, what put it over the top for me was a link from that website to a podcast interview with the owner, Mimi Casteel, in a series called Tractor Time on Acres USA. Here is a link to that podcast. It is an hour long and I encourage you to listen to it because Mimi Casteel expresses many of the viewpoints that I have come to see in regard to what it means to manage land and make wine.

Her talk is number 38. There are other great podcasts on this list and I encourage you to listen to number 37 with Zach Bush about the gut effects of Glyphosate (Roundup Weed Killer) and its ties to soil sterility and the entire food chain.

Feed Your Head

Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head, feed your head

White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane, 1967

I graduated from college with a degree in philosophy in 1969, two years after this song was released, I’ve been joking about never finding a job as a philosopher ever since.  But now as a farmer, I might have found it.  My studies back then focused on the history of western philosophy, concepts like everything is composed of earth, air water and fire (Aristotle) and  these ideas will explain everything: the  ‘Mechanics’, the ‘Physics’, and the ‘Organic Physics’ (Hegel).  Missing from that education however was any recognition of Asian philosophers. 

I did a little catching up by reading Alan Watts who assured me that I am one with everything.  This was one of many books that have changed me. I spent a more transformative time learning Vipassana meditation where I maintained silence for a week and focused on my breath.  What you really end up doing in that kind of meditation is becoming aware of what you are paying attention to.   I realized that controlling my “monkey mind” was not at all that easy. Just as disturbing however, was beginning to notice that our whole marketing-based economy is trying to grab our attention.  In fact I am trying to get some of yours right now.

So I bought another book, The Attention Economy by Thomas Davenport.  It boiled down to something I had heard of before, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, typically illustrated as a pyramid with dominant “Deficiency Needs” such as food, shelter, safety and love as big attention-getters at the bottom and needs for growth: knowledge, beauty and spirituality, making the narrower part at the top.  It made a lot of sense at the time but as I will propose, things have changed.

Another influential book was The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler which (along with ruining my back while working at a log mill) convinced me that computers were going to be a big thing.  Years later having learned to program and securing a job programming in Dbase II, I was unhappy to realize that I had to reprogram all my work in FoxPro.  Seems like you used to be able to learn a skill, welding for instance, and stick with it.  Not any more. It began to dawn on me that there was no end to this.  One new programming language or platform would replace the next year after year.  Similarly all my years of schooling had taught me “facts” that became less true and valuable as time went on and basically all I accomplished was learning how to learn.

I’ll get back to Maslow, but first I want to introduce another illustration, the Tree of Life.   A simple look at living things we can see and imagine as the branches of evolution leaves us with a picture that harkens back to my college education.  Since then scientists have been mapping the complete DNA of earths trillions of creatures.  A more complete picture of the results of 4.5 billion years of evolutions looks like a giant fan.   As the anthropocentric picture of mankind at the apex of evolution begins to dissolve, we find the vast majority of life on earth is microscopic “According to a new estimate, there are about one trillion species of microbes on Earth, and 99.999 percent of them have yet to be discovered.”  (NYTimes)  To bring that figure home, Scientists concluded that the average human body contains approximately 37.2 trillion cells! (wonderpolis.com). “An unfathomably vast array of invisible life – bacteria, protists, archaea, and fungi – thrives on us and in us… Their cells outnumber our own cells by at least three to one. (The Hidden Half of Nature, Montgomery)

So here we are, right up there with slime molds and fungi as the apex of multicellular lifeforms. Not too glamorous really and those inscrutable single cell microbiota make up the majority of what we think of as our own bodies.

But what if we move away from picturing the kinds of DNA to weighing biomass?  Surely our position at the top of the food chain makes us the rare royalty of evolution.  There is some truth to this in the original terrestrial ecosystem.  But a closer look at the top predators, eagles, lions, bears, coyotes, wolves etc. shows that they get a lot of their food from carrion and tend to die off quickly if the supply of herbivores dwindles.  So it surprised me to learn that in an aquatic ecosystem the top predators, (basically sharks) have much more mass than the fish they eat.  (https://www.brainkart.com/)   

What makes the difference is that in water they don’t have to spend much energy hunting or keeping up their temperature.  You might also conclude that they don’t pay as much attention to finding food.  It turns out that we are a lot like sharks that way now.  “Thanks to the mind-boggling scale of factory farms, 70 billion animals now exist as objects for human consumption, including 60% of all mammals on earth.” (Wired Magazine)  So there are about 10 animals out there to eat for every human. 

Yuval Noah Harari in his bestselling book, Sapiens, explores the evolutionary explosion of a limited number of plants and animals that have accompanied humankind to its massive position in earth’s ecology.  He writes: “Egg-laying hens, dairy cows and draft animals are sometimes allowed to live for many years. But the price is subjugation to a way of life completely alien to their urges and desires.”  This is one of the many ironies he finds in a science-based look at who we are.

Science itself is almost an oxymoron.  “Modern science is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or theory is sacred and beyond challenge.” (Harari)  So my classical education faces continual upsets from evidence-based scientific discoveries, which brings me back to Maslow’s triangle.

In a world where the pressure to just survive predicates our very existence, focus on food and safety is helpful and necessary.  Maslow’s triangle mirrors the eastern concept of chakras.  Food, sex and fighting for safety are necessary.  But in a world of abundance there has been an explosion of information and communication more in resonance with mind and spirit.  Like sharks in a less stressful ecology we can afford to pay more attention to the thoughts of others than to merely surviving.  Microbes and plants in the soil feed on organic matter that in turn becomes the feedstock of other lifeforms.  Our life experience is built with attention. Increasingly that attention feeds on media and information built from the thoughts and desires of other people.  In many ways that attention is being farmed to feed views of the world that may be only self-serving and will be overturned eventually.  We need to spend more time sorting fact from fiction and to pay attention to what we are paying attention to.

There is hope and fear in the realization that these revolutions in thought portend the probability that there are realms of being and knowing that we have no clue about.  Maybe they will arise from dark matter, artificial intelligence, native cultures, quantum entanglement, psi energy or from realities for which we have no words.  The admission of ignorance opens the gates of knowledge.  Feed your head.

Home on the Range

If you met Chris Wujek on a mountain trail, your attention would immediately go to his companions: 2 Llamas, 22 Goats, 4 Sheep and a Yak. Technically these are “pack animals” which are allowed to graze on trails and certainly do, but more realistically, this is a coherent group that depends on each other for survival. They follow Chris without being tied with ropes or being fenced at night. During the summer months and into early fall, goat milk provides the majority of the daily calories. Wild vegetables including onion, nettle, biscuitroot, and yampa are cooked with milk over a fire. Fruits, nuts, grains, and berries are eaten fresh and dried for winter use. Chris can live for months on the trail without packing much more than some simple camp gear and spices for himself as well as salt and kelp for the herd. But he loves coffee and wheat more than he should, so some extras usually come along, especially if he’s close to town.

Surviving in this style is human tradition going back thousands of years. Doing it with animals whose ancestors come from around the globe is a more modern twist. Each animal has a role to play. The toughest characters in terms of what they will eat and how long they can go without water are the llamas. A member of the camel family, llamas can extract more nutrition from their feed than even the thrifty goats or sheep. The yak prefers grass but will eat in a similar matter to the goats, eating Oregon Grape, young fir bark and needles, and dry grass seed heads when more palatable forage is covered with snow. Goats are the least hardy of the animals because of their lack of wool, but are the most personable and curious. Ironically, the llamas are afraid of the goats and given the chance, will stay at the back of the pack train while the goats stay right behind Chris. Llamas are also the most protective of the group when it comes to warding off predators. So bringing up the rear while Chris is in front suits their role.

Chris’s role is much more than meets the eye. He picks out prime places to graze and camp. Although he doesn’t carry a gun, he protects the herd. Cougars have killed a couple of his goats but he also drove off a cougar by throwing an apple at it. He kept the carcass of one goat for himself, the other went to the cougar. Especially in cool weather, he can hang goat meat and eat off of it for some time. He has trained the herd to be wary of fire but also to take advantage of its warmth at night. He sleeps with the animals carrying only a felt blanket and a tarp for cover. He also has some chickens that ride in cages on the llamas when they travel, hang out around camp eating scraps, bugs etc. and roost in the trees at night. So you can add eggs to Chris’s diet.

While the role of plants feeding the herd is obvious, the benefit of the herd eating the plants is not. Deer eat down the Oregon Grape plants on my farm when the snow gets deep. But Oregon Grape is very tough. It bounces back in the spring, survives from just its roots when dug up and pops back in the forest after the ground is covered in wood chips. Similarly,  grass rebounds after being eaten but less so if eaten repeatedly. The nitrogen and other nutrients in animal urine and manure promote healthy soil and nutrient cycling.

He was not born into a nomadic herding family. He studied the lessons of Andre Voisin, Joel Salatin, Allan Savoy, and Greg Judy. Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist and livestock farmer, originated the Holistic management system. His methods have helped to turn extensive acreages in Zimbabwe and other overgrazed desserts around the world into thriving grasslands that support large herds of livestock. Wujek did something similar to an overgrazed ranch near Umatilla, Oregon with a group of friends using rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is the practice of moving livestock between pastures (often called paddocks) as needed or on a regular basis. (Wikipedia) Over the course of 7 years Chris and his partners turned land that an agricultural agent had written off as having no legumes but a lot of houndstongue and poison hemlock (poisonous invasive species that the agent suggested be killed with herbicides) to a lush bottomland pasture. They did this by moving cows and sheep every day using two lines of electric polycord.

This experience gave Chris a keen sense of what animals would graze on in a given amount of time. In the right-sized paddock they will eat down thistle and other weeds. Too big a paddock leaves weeds behind, too small and you move animals twice a day. After they are moved, the grasses bounce back and eventually crowd out the weeds. Unfortunately bringing the ranch back to life also brought its value back higher in the real estate market. It was sold out from under the young herders.

Having experience is one part of the formula for surviving as a herder. Having the right animals is another. Chris likes long-haired cattle with significant horns, like Highland Cattle. They can protect themselves and ward off the cold. He wants to reduce the number of goats and increase the number of sheep for similar reasons. This is not an occupation that needs mountain trails to exist. Chris sees endless opportunities in the lowlands. Overgrazed and undergrazed land both exist in abundance. Animals are born on the trail from equinox to equinox so there is plenty of milk. But winter pasture without baled hay also works.

On private land, Chris deploys a solar-charged electric fence. This keeps the animals concentrated in an area, often just a fraction of an acre, so that they eat both the plants they like and those they don’t prefer but will tolerate. It also gives Chris a chance to attend to other business such as looking for a shepherdess.

The herd enjoys a wide variety of grass, shrubs, and trees (including the bark during the winter), Himalayan blackberries, all thistles, knapweed, and many more that Chris doesn’t know. Many toxic plants can be eaten in smaller amounts, including houndstongue, poison hemlock, and hoary alyssum. Nettles can be found in the right places at any time of year. Fiddlehead Ferns and Bracken Ferns are good for both herd and herder. Chris is familiar with a wide range of edible wild plants. For instance he collects Wapato, also known as “Indian Potato” from shallow waters of Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho by dancing barefoot in the water until the tubers rise to the surface. Biscuitroot, bitterroot and wild onions are all part of his meals seasonally. Groceries are not a big expense. He has a small truck and trailer to move his animals and a cell phone, but not much else.

From an environmental point of view, this is a fantastically good lifestyle, good for the health of the herd, the health of the land, the ecological economy and Chris’s personal health. But what struck me most dramatically about his work is how much he enjoys it. Chris is one happy dude. Living without a lot of media, money, possessions and projects really means that “seldom is heard a discouraging word” and you really can be at home on the range.

If you want to get in touch with Chris looking for animal management services, see resiliencelandcare.wordpress.com