Most of the posts on this site are about making pure wine and improving the soil. But this is a commercial website. So by way of shameless self promotion. Here are some quotes about our wine: “We sure enjoy your wine. It is the Best!!!” Joe Greco “That bottle didn’t last through the night.” Daniel Kurpis “I don’t even drink red wine and I loved your Baco Noir.” Linda Coleman “I was here a couple weeks ago and bought a bottle of Lucie Kuhlmann. It was fabulous.” Linda Lewis
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The nearly endless month of Farch is upon us. This winter feels like a little ice age. But hope springs eternal… Spring being the key word. With Spring planting and growing in mind, it is time to take advantage of our disadvantages. The ground around here is still protected by snow and ice. No growing is going on anytime soon. But no forest fires, lawn mowing or many other distractions are going on either. It’s a perfect time to make biochar. Biochar is just charcoal used to enhance the biology of the soil. It does not have additives to compress it into briquettes for grilling or other uses.
Northeast Washington is also a great place to make biochar. People go on about how you can make it from almost anything: poor quality firewood, dead and down trees and brush, slash piles, orchard prunings, torn down building scraps etc. I’ve used all of those things. If you have a lot of them and reducing that waste is a big objective, go for it. An advantage we have living here is lumber scraps. I that is the fuel of choice.
But first, let’s revisit the last article I wrote about making biochar in 2019, Backyard Biochar. In that article I advocated making a little oven of cement blocks or something similar because you could extract the biochar from the fire and use the left over still-flaming wood pieces to kindle another load, making it a continuous process. That was a good idea as far as it went. But although the cost was virtually nothing, it was still a lot of work for not much biochar.
Biochar has become a very familiar soil and animal feed amendment. A simple Google search for “biochar” yields 4,750,000 results in 0.65 seconds. People have caught on to the fact that biochar is good for the soil, the atmosphere and your crops. There is no need here to elaborate all the good things about it. There is plenty of information out there. Check out http://terraflora.us for a great rundown. If you want to make some for yourself however, experience is in short supply.
I’ve learned two important production lessons since 2019:
1) Dry flat pieces of lumber work best and
2) As long as you keep feeding new material into a fire from the top as it burns down, the lower charcoal does not turn to ash and become ruined. Let me explain.
Wood needs to be dry to burn efficiently. The basic process heats the wood driving off resins which burn as yellow flames. When the flames are blue and the coals are red, it is time to quench the fire and save the charcoal from turning into ash. Wet wood uses up a lot of the heat to dry the wood before the resins vaporize. It is smoky, inefficient and leaves partially burned material. Wood also needs to be of a fairly uniform size and shape. Sure dead limbs and prunings can make a great fire and even after a time be efficiently dry. But you end up with the small stuff burning up quickly, dropping to the bottom of the fire and turning to ash while the big stuff is still flaming and not nearly turned to charcoal all the way through. It is literally a hot mess.
This is where the local lumber mills make Northeast Washington such a great place. Webley Lumber has a big pile of dry pieces that you can load into a truck and cart away for free. But it is far from the only source of dry scrap lumber. I can think of several neighbors who have their own little sawmills. Running a little sawmill creates a lot of scrap wood and slabs. It is usually too uneven to build with and not thick enough to hold a fire for long in a wood stove. But it is perfect for making biochar because it dries out quickly and uniformly. You can stack it tightly and cut it into short pieces easily with a chainsaw. But remember that part about it burning up quickly in a wood stove? That’s where lesson number 2 comes in.
Many kinds of containers can hold a biochar fire. I use a big metal box once used to ship diesel engines. There are many other ideas at https://wilsonbiochar.com/. A big ring of sheet metal sitting on the ground works. So do old tanks cut open in different ways. The common denominator is that you start a fire in the bottom and add fuel from the top. The fuel burns down to hot coals in the bottom. If left alone the coals will combine with oxygen, burn into CO2 and leave only white ash minerals. This is exactly what you want to avoid. You want to be able to get that nearly pure carbon charcoal into the ground where it will do wonderful things to promote growth and last for centuries.
By adding more fuel on top of the red coals as soon as the previous load has combusted, you heat the new fuel driving off resins which burst into yellow flame and suck up the oxygen before it can get to the red coals. Timing is everything. I use the timer part of the clock app on my cell phone to remind me every 25 minutes to add more fuel. If you add more fuel too soon, it buries the previous load depriving it of oxygen and leaving parts unburned. If you wait too long, coals turn to ash.
You can add a lot of fuel, up to the top of the container each time. As long as it is of an even size and air can reach the escaping gases, it will burn all at once and be ready for the next load. I usually start a fire in the morning and keep adding batches all day until the container is full of coals or it is too dark outside to work safely.
Quenching it is another story. Theoretically you should be able to cut the air flow into the fire and it will cool below combustion point. You could also pour a lot of water on it. Both of these techniques have drawbacks. Even when cool, charcoal is a natural insulator. After being quenched and sealed, I still find hot spots in the embers the next morning. This means that I need to dig through the coals and spray water on them if they are still burning. The other drawback is too much water. Charcoal soaks up water like crazy. It can become very heavy when wet and holds on to that moisture. Also, too wet charcoal creates black goo that plugs up the screen on my shredder when I break it into smaller pieces. Big pieces won’t expose much surface to soil biology. Powder-size biochar won’t hold much water.
I put water or snow on the red coals until they turn black. This involves digging through the coals to expose and drench hot spots. I want the vapor that comes up to smell like steam, not smoke.
So spring is in the air, but not so much in the ground. Seize the moment and make biochar. At least it is a warm project.
Astute readers will remember that in the January Issue of the North Columbia Monthly, after a lengthy description of the travails I experienced in setting up a microscope attached to my computer, I expected similar problems getting to know how to use a digital PH meter. Truthfully, using the PH meter was not too bad. Delving into what PH means and how it is measured and used however quickly became fairly daunting. There is no definitive definition for PH. “Potential for Hydrogen” is pretty standard. I learned that it is based on a logarithmic scale with 7.00 in the center for pure water at 25° C (77° F). Acidic readings decrease – that is they get more acidic – from there and base readings increase. If the temperature increases, the PH goes down but the concentration of hydrogen ions is actually less. At this point I pretty-much mentally dropped out of understanding the electro-chemical part of PH. I’ll just agree with the reading.
But I did get some measurements of a pure water sample that came with the PH meter at 7.0; our hard water at 7.6; wine around 4.0 (about like orange juice) and melted snow at 6.7 when cold but 7.1 at room temperature. I was curious about this last reading since I was hoping that we don’t have acid rain or in this case snow, which apparently we don’t.
Speaking of snow, I neglected to say in Citizen Science Part 1 that the digital microscope I have can also work with a cell phone. As local temperatures plunged to near 0° F, I realized that having a microscope that could be out in the cold would be great for taking pictures of snowflakes. The microscope emits a wifi signal that a phone can pick up and with the right app it can show the microscope’s image on the screen and take pictures. “Can” being the operative word here, it took a while to get it working.
Evidently a cell phone much prefers connecting to a wifi signal that has an Internet connection. My phone kept dropping the microscope signal to pick up my local Internet wifi signal. After some time in the cold with frozen fingers and tiny instructions I discovered that you can force the phone to stay tuned to the microscope. Bring on the snowflakes!
Well, that part was even harder. Once I got some snow focused in front of the microscope, I was looking essentially at crushed ice. I became much more focused on what is going on with snow. I figured the background should be black and set out a piece of black plastic to get cold enough to not melt a snowflake. Soon enough a really good looking snowflake landed on it. I figured I would come back the next day and get the microscope going.
I came back and the snowflake was gone! Remember “sublimation” from high school physics? Ice can turn right back into air without even melting.
Snowflakes look good just landing on your sleeve. Cloth! Black Cloth! That should work better without having the snowflakes break apart when they land. I got out some old black socks. It turns out I was reinventing the wheel (so to speak). If you look into the history of photographing snowflakes, you find out that William Bentley started with black cloth and a turkey feather in 1885. He is really the father of snowflake photography and identification. I was way behind.
Eventually, what looked like some perfect snowflakes to the naked eye, landed on the table where I had my microscope. I took the picture shown of a basically six-armed snowflake that still looked like it was made out of crushed ice.
Meanwhile my wife, Cheryl, pointed out some new snow on the black windshield covering I had on my car. I zoomed in with my cell phone and took a picture of what I thought must be regular snowflakes broken into little needles. By this time I was corresponding with an old friend who has been trying to get good pictures of snowflakes for a long time. She informed me of several things. First, the six-sided snowflake that looked like crushed ice was probably a “Rimed Stellar Plate”. Second, a really good source on snowflakes is Ken Libbrecht’s Field Guide to Snowflakes. I found it for free on the Internet at http://www.snowcrystals.com/, which is Ken Libbrecht’s website. The field guide is really a chapter in a much larger book.
I soon found out that some snowflakes do look like needles. In fact there are all kinds of shapes of snowflakes besides the six-sided ones. The basic ways they form are determined by humidity and temperature. There are many other determining factors and Libbrecht lays them out in this guide. Something to notice is that the picture of the needle flakes was taken with a cell phone camera and no microscope yet it is still very sharp. The fancy microscope is not entirely necessary.
Libbrecht actually spells out something that was becoming apparent to me. Snowflake photography is a lot like birding. You can get into it with expensive equipment or just start learning with what you have and compile a “life list”.
That “Rimed Stellar Plate” in the first picture is a basic six-sided Stellar Plate that has a lot of rime, tiny globs of ice, attached to it. It forms best in high humidity and temperatures around 5° F. That combination is a sweet spot for growing snowflakes and can also produce Fernlike Stellar Dendrites which branch out in needles at 60° angles to the main stems, your classic snow flake shape.
Those colors that flash out to you when bright light or sunshine hits fresh snow reminded me of prisms. In fact they are prisms. The core structures of snowflakes are hexagonal crystals of “diamond dust”. Special lighting and polarized microscopes can take amazing pictures of snowflakes bringing out internal shapes and colors. There is so much more to learn that I almost look forward to more extreme cold temperatures. Almost. So, once again Citizen Science can be fun and exciting as well as frustrating. There is so much to learn! Talk to friends who know more than you do. It still helps to check out the Internet. When this snow is gone I plan to discover things that are more practical and hopefully not boring
Start with For the Love of Soil by Nicole Masters. It was certainly both the most inspirational and educational book I read last year. The main chapters of the book include story after story of farms that underwent almost miraculous transformations by the application of biological and sometimes chemical/mineral treatments as well as management practices. Then she goes on to add sections on transitions, using a refractometer, infiltration, monitoring indicators, growing mycorhrizae and transition weed strategies. So it is also a handbook on managing your farm. Every farmer should have a copy handy.
Next on my list are 4 books by David R. Montgomery. Eileen of Ramstead Ranch recently suggested reading his book, Dirt (2007). I realized that I had not finished my digital copy and went back to it. Although it is mostly a litany of the ways humans have ruined soil through the centuries, there are enlightening bits about sharing grazing on a “commons” being sustainable when managed collectively and how since tobacco was 6 times more valuable than any other crop, it was farmed on new ground on the East Coast and abandoned when the fertility ran out and slave-owning farmers moved west, eventually leading to the Missouri Compromise and the Civil War.
His next book, The Hidden Half of Nature (2015), explores the benefits of regenerative agriculture that he was only beginning to realize in 2007 spurred on by biological understanding of his wife’s cancer.
Third in the series is Growing a Revolution (2017). Montgomery travels extensively, learns lessons and relates stories of the emergence of leaders in regenerative agriculture. These are also inspiring stories and great background in how this movement developed.
Another book by Montgomery is out there on my reading list, What Your Food Ate (2022). This is a reminder that we are all learning about soil and microbiology in a cascade of new information (hence all the publication dates). I keep realizing that Montgomery can explore all these things because he is not a farmer and tied to the everyday focus needed to improve one piece of land or an adjoining region.
In somewhat of an aside, I recommend The Invention of Nature, Adrea Wulf (2015). It is the extremely inspirational biography of Alexander von Humboldt. As such it covers the beginning excitement around the scientific revolution. Geology, Biology, Democracy, climate and culture all explode out of the explorations of Humboldt and subsequent correspondence.
All of these works on the nature of nature demand better understanding of the nature of mankind. In an escalating series of historically-based realizations about who we are, Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens (2011), Homo Deus (2015) and 21 Lessons (2018) constantly give me new ways of looking at the world to which I am responding, “Of course, that’s what I was trying to clarify.” Having been trained in classical philosophy, it is a huge relief to read someone whose every word makes sense.
Finally new on my reading list although written in 2014, Think Like a Commoner by David Bollier may hold insights into why we are failing to rise to the occasions of climate change, soil depletion and pandemic disease and what we can do about it. As usual, everything you learn suggests new things you need to know.
Since I have been writing about microbial life in the soil for a couple of years now, I thought it was high time that I bear down on it and get a digital microscope. I was very excited to find one as a gift for my birthday but have to admit that setting it up was a little intimidating. So I put that off until recently.
I want to note here that you can expect a lot of trial and error when learning to take control of your own crop research. So far I have a lot of experience in the trial and error area. But that makes any success much more enjoyable. I am able to include a picture in this article because I ultimately was able to get the microscope going and capture a picture of some compost wildlife. There may be a lot more educational and entertainment value in the error part.
The manual directs that you use a specific kind of charger for a specific time to get the microscope going. Luckily I have lots of chargers lying around related to dead or defunct cell phones, flash lights etc. So not a problem yet. The next instruction is to turn on the microscope and then plug the USB connection into your computer. You also have to download some software that will display what the microscope sees. I managed to screw this up by not turning on the microscope before plugging it into the computer. If all else fails, read the instructions!
Once the device is plugged in, the computer scrambles to find a driver for it. This might take awhile. Don’t panic, take a break. Then you need to open the software. I did that and had a very clear live picture of my face. Evidently the software picks up the first camera it finds on the computer, in this case my external camera for Zoom meetings. Ok start over. I unplugged the Zoom camera. That worked and I could see fuzzy stuff. I figured out that on the computer there is no way to automatically zoom into focus. There is a dial on the microscope to do that – but then you are moving the microscope just a tiny bit. It turns out that a tiny bit is a big deal on a microscope. I gave up for the day and parked the software on my desktop.
For the next couple of days I scrambled looking for things to examine with the microscope. They included a blue opal, some cat hair and some holographic paper. Things were starting to be fun. I dug some compost out of the middle of the pile, which has a temperature of 43° even at 13° air temperature. Not much action there, so I left it to warm up.
The next day a breaker tripped and cut off all the power to the office. The computer seemed to recover, but the microscope would not work anymore. After trying several flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ideas, I dug deeper into why my computer was no longer talking to the microscope. I did mention that it is made in China. Evidently Windows doesn’t speak Chinese. It reported that it couldn’t find the software driver for the microscope. Then it offered to fix the problem. The problem started to get worse. I enabled “automatic updates”. They seemed to be stalled in the cloud somewhere. Windows identified “USB driver error (code 10)”.
I Googled “USB driver error (code 10)”. There was a solution that seemed to be free. I downloaded it and the program ran well. It identified hundreds of problems with my computer and offered to fix them. I clicked the button to do that and was transferred to a website where I needed to pay to fix the problems. Well okay, I had gone this far. $30 seemed like a small price to pay to fix hundreds of problems. I entered the key I had paid for and the program started to work. It hung up saying it couldn’t work while Windows was doing updates. Egad. Windows had finally started to do updates.
I closed the fix everything program and let the updates go on. They finished and said I needed to reboot the computer to finish the process. The computer shut down and started up again. But it didn’t make it. It offered to fix the startup problems and start. It didn’t make it again. I was getting desperate. I found an option to reset the computer to a previous version. Okay, it used to work right?
It churned for a while getting back to the previous version. I left to write Christmas cards. Somehow I was just not in the mood. I came back to the computer to see a message that it had failed to restore the previous version. I really don’t have much hair left on top or I would have pulled it out. I clicked a button marked “cancel” while trying to figure out who could repair this computer. Miraculously, the computer came back on looking and acting almost like it used to. I quit while I was ahead.
No one said citizen science would be easy. I started out today thinking that I might be able to see yeast in action. I have a winery after all. Back in the office I found a piece of wood I had brought in to test the wine was covered with ants. Trying to make the best of a bad situation I tried to get the ants under the microscope. Ants may look like they are moving slowly. Under a microscope they might as well be race cars. I couldn’t focus on them let alone take a picture. Back to the yeast. I got some really pretty pictures of yeast bubbles. The yeast itself seemed to be wavering but not clearly growing. Pretty wasn’t cutting it. Some stuff is just too small for this microscope.
As a last gasp, I put some now-warm compost under the scope. It looked like huge wet wood chips. Then I noticed something moving. I took a bunch of pictures mostly failing to get a clear image. It was a tiny bug like a beetle but white.
Thousands of different little creatures can live in compost. I tried a crazy search in Google, something like “tiny bugs in compost”. Amazingly it came up with ideas that included mites. I had never really seen a mite but it seemed likely. Soon I was looking at pages about oribatid mites. They look a lot like my compost bug and live mostly on the litter on a forest floor. There are over 12,000 kinds. Close enough!
So in Article 1 we learned that citizen science is not that easy; that you might find help on the Internet or not and that it’s really pretty cool if it finally works. Next month I’ll try to use my new digital PH meter. Wish me luck.
Farming and gardening have been key components of human life for thousands of years. They produce food but they also create a huge market for goods and services from companies aiming to farm the farmers. In taking on the production of food and maintaining the independence necessary to realize a profit, farmers often find themselves needing to invent their own equipment and do their own research.
Farming is not a “one size fits all” business. There are tremendous differences in soil and climate, crops and markets, often year to year. That opens up a lot of room for information sharing and “citizen science”. Those are the kinds of information I find most helpful as a farmer. In that vein I want to share a couple of inventions that I have developed for my farm and welcome any other ideas and experiences from other farmer/gardeners.
Usually coming up with something new requires a significant amount of trial and error, or as accountants like to call it “research and development”. In my case, after learning how important it is to give nutrients back to the soil in order to maintain a healthy biome, I tried different ways to mix mulches and spread them on the soil around my grape vines.
I thought I had the perfect combination in a very large old mortar mixer and a wheel barrow if I could make the loading simpler. So I built a nice concrete block stand for the 800 pound mixer so a wheel barrow could pull in below it and I built a platform next to it for easy loading. With everything in place I ran an electrical extension cord 300 feet out to the mixer. It barely turned, certainly not without enough strength to mix a hundred pounds of compost, manure, shredded prunings and biochar. So much for the perfect combination.
I looked into running heavy-duty wire out to the mixer. Very expensive and not guaranteed to work. I mixed everything by hand for a year or so. Hard and time-consuming. So one night I rethought the whole process. Despite its weight, the mixer only has a 20 to 30 gallon capacity. Everything would need to be put into buckets or larger containers, lifted onto the platform and dumped in the mixer while it was running. Then the load would need to be dumped into a wheel barrow and run out to where it was needed.
But what if I made something from a 55 gallon steel drum that could mix the mulch? 55 gallons would be a lot more efficient than 20 or 30. Actually, if I could roll the barrel, it would mix itself. If I could add ingredients from different piles right into the barrel in no particular order, no preloading would be necessary. The mulch-mixer-mover, (M3), idea was conceived.
Building it took part of a day. Used oil barrels cost $10 at Real Steel near Kettle Falls. Some steel pipe fittings and other odds and ends, mostly from around the shop, rounded out the materials needed. This article is probably not the place for technical details so I will skip those. The photo should help. In use, since the weight above and below the center axle is balanced, a 200 lb load can be pulled into place with one hand. After you remove the hatch and roll it over a few times, the load is dumped and ready to spread with a rake. Simple, fast and cheap.
Another continual chore around the garden and vineyards was sifting soil. I had some screens that I would put garden dirt on full of quack grass roots and use the screen to toss the dirt in the air, catch it again and sift out the roots. The same kind of cycle was necessary for refining compost, getting bark out of sawdust or tree roots out of dirt.
This was a case of reinventing the wheel. I thought of other devices I had seen for sifting gravel deposits and mining ore. They all used a rotating screen with a slight angle so fine material would sift out near the top and larger pieces would fall out of the back. This setup is called a trommel. I didn’t know that at the time but found a bunch of videos online on how to make your own “soil sifter”. They were all a little different and took some time, an electric motor and some other material to build. Or you could pay $500 for a really nice one from Europe. Since then with the word, trommel, I can Google hand crank versions for under $200.
I didn’t have much time or money but one day I was exasperated with a sore back. I knew I needed to upgrade from the handheld screen sifter. So I decided to just try out the concept. I started with a cylinder of 6” mesh screen that we had made into trellises for tomatoes. I put some finer 2” hardware cloth inside. Then I set it on top of a wheel barrow and tossed in a few shovelfuls of sawdust and bark. I rolled it over a couple times and voila! The bark stayed and the sawdust fell into the wheel barrow. I dumped the bark out the back. No need for motors or anything else. Now sifting soil is almost fun.
I would say these are the two biggest time and labor saving gizmos on the farm. There are a few more, but you get the idea. Work with what you have and spread the word. Nearly the same concept applies to doing your own tests on soil and plant vitality. A big new trend in crop management is to test the sap of both crops and weeds. The density and Ph of the sap can tell you a lot about what is going on with the plants. It changes daily, even hourly. You can quantify the effects of water, fertilizer, sprays and other management practices. More about that in another article, but for now, make your own gizmos and control your budget as well as your crops.
It was September 24th as near as I can tell when the Barreca Vineyards website crashed along with several others hosted by my friends Scott and Elaine at Secure Webs. An upgrade to their web management software nuked quite a few sites that I manage. Although I got them running again, I didn’t notice immediately that Scott had restored Barreca Vineyards from his company’s backup. That backup turned out to be from early July. It contained its own backup system which immediately overwrote all more recent backups which meant that before I could post anything new, I had to repost everything on the site added since July. I didn’t get around to doing that until today (November 11th).
With the Farmers Market, wine harvest and a lot of orders for Map Metrics, nothing changed on the site for 3 ½ months. The market and harvest have been finished for a couple of weeks and now I am finally cutting through the backlog to write another blog. Let’s just write it off as another supply chain problem.
So now it is pretty-much winter. The smoke is long gone. The drought is gone. The leaves on the trees are almost all gone. The “holidaze” are coming on. It’s high time to crank out a blog before it becomes time to write a Christmas newsletter.
In the “Under and Orange Sun” blog I show our neighbors’ cat, Pete, sleeping with my visiting daughter, Bina and grandkids. Earlier in the year we had a stray cat arrive who we called Spicy. She was loud and pushy but loved food and people – pretty much in that order. Also she got along with our dog, Gretchen. Our old cat, Gray-C, was not thrilled and dead set against Spicy or Pete entering the house. Pete is very much a scaredy cat when it comes to Gretchen or Spicy but not Gray-C. Those are the 3 cats in the problem. (In the physics world the “Three Body Problem” has to do with moving masses of gravity affecting each other and the chaotic mathematics that ensues if not given enough data. This was a little like that.)
We had a temporary fix when I put a cat door on the office. Spicy could get in. We fed her there and she seemed to love it. But she kept trying to get into the house. Gray-C was no match for her in size, but Gray-C can be very loud which brings people running to defend her and keep Spicy out of the house.
In the middle of the summer, friends came to the rescue by adopting Spicy, renaming her Cosmo (actually more fitting for her personality) and setting up food and shelter at their place several driving miles away from here. That allowed Pete to move into the office where he sleeps during the day and goes back to his real home at the neighbors for food during the night. He sometimes tries to get into the house but is easily discouraged.
This worked well until August 19th when the cat came back. It turns out that several miles by car is only about a mile as the cat goes through the woods. Cosmo (AKA Spicy) chased Pete out of the office and would have damaged him severely if I had not held Cosmo off with a hose while Pete scuttled back to the neighbors. We enticed Cosmo into the office with food and locked her there until her new “owners” could pick her up.
That worked for about another month until one morning I walked into the office to find Cosmo and not Pete. Since then I have driven Cosmo back “home” several times to the sound of loud complaints and a restless pacing around the car. She seems to feel good when released back home and has not shown up in this wet weather for awhile. But a surprise appearance and ensuing chaos seems to always lurk around the corner.
Since last writing any kind of blog, I have managed to get older. Daughter, April hosted a 74th birthday party at her house which was much appreciated. I was glad to see improvements around her place since she and Tony bought it this summer. Since then April also bought a used hybrid Toyota Rav4. I’m totally jealous but still unreasonably loyal to my own 21-year-old gas-powered Rav4. Birthday presents included a digital microscope. I am eager to use it but must confide that I have not found the time since September.
Time, a constant theme of this blog, has opened up a little since the farmers market ended the day before Halloween. Grape harvest and wine was still going on. The market was very good for us this year. We have some regular wine customers. We like our fellow marketers and the food they bring. The harvest went well basically but was a little smaller than I hoped. The extremely hot dry summer gave way to a wet fall making for a smaller crop that ripened late.
The hot weather built up demand for white wines. We are almost sold out of those. Meanwhile it made many of the red wines look to still be working since the wine expands when it is warm. The upshot is that there are almost 200 gallons of red wines ready to bottle. They go back to 2017. You could look at it as job security.
Not that I need more work. The map business was good. Fire fighters wanted maps. Even COVID inoculators wanted maps. Making maps is a good winter activity. Many of mine have not been updated for too long. (Did I mention the time crunch here?) So I did the obvious thing and got involved in another big project.
Actually I was volunteered for this project. Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile (no it’s not Fort Colville) was founded in 1825. The bicentennial is coming up in 4 years. Most people would write this off as more “old stuff”. Maybe some of you have noticed that with all the conflicts of 2020 and 2021 a lot of history has been re-examined and brought back into the conversation about who we are and how we got to be this way.
The two most important salmon fishing locations on the Columbia River were Kettle Falls and Celilo Falls for thousands of years. Both are now submerged behind hydroelectric dams. As such, Kettle Falls was the annual summer gathering place for local Native American tribes from hundreds of miles around. Hudson’s Bay fur traders decided to capitalize on the location without really admitting that they were doing anything more than starting a farm. They established a fort charged with providing food for the whole network of trading posts west of the Rockies and loading boats with furs to take down the Columbia and bring back trade goods while getting a tremendous unacknowledged boost from the natives gathered at the falls.
They built the boats here too using the skills of Métis, mixed blood French and Indian voyagers, who designed and maintained the boats and paddled thousands of miles each year to sustain the fur trade. The fort, the characters and the colonization create a fascinating tapestry of intertwining stories. They are the cultural heritage of the peoples who have lived here the longest, most of whom have both Native and European ancestry.
To preserve the history and open the conversations around this event I have created a web site which keeps expanding with new discoveries and the legacies of people searching for their own history. It is time-consuming and sometimes exhausting work but perhaps the most important thing I do. Grapes and wine will come and go. Promoting Regenerative Agriculture, accurate maps, biochar and additive-free wine is important, fun and sometimes profitable. But in the longest run, bringing our local heritage to life again in the minds and activities of everyday people will affect generations to come.
So forgive me if communication has been a little slow. New challenges and crises, like cats, come up every day. There are plenty of good things to do and share. And I’m glad to be able to do and share them with so many good friends and family.
A while back we watched Shang-Chi, a Marvel Series blockbuster with lots of digital effects showing scenes set in Shanghai and a hidden village deep in a bamboo forest. Truthfully there was a lot of FX involved in the forest but they must have started with images of the real thing. The real thing showed acres of 100 foot high bamboo stalks so thick you could barely walk through them. In Shanghai there was a martial arts fight on bamboo scaffolding covering the side of a high-rise building. Clearly this was bamboo like I had never seen it before.
In my vineyard and those nearby we use bamboo as part of our trellises and for net-setting poles. It got me thinking about growing bamboo on the farm. What does it take to grow it? How does it affect the soil? What can it be used for? And just what is it?
Fundamentally, bamboo is grass, very big grass. I tend to think of grass as covering a prairie. Its large root mass in relation to its above-ground size gives it the ability to spring back after being eaten or mowed. Properly managed, it creates some of the most fertile farmland in the world. As pasture it gives us livestock and meat. As grain it gives us baked goods and sprouts. Do those attributes still apply to super-sized grass?
Not so much. There are close similarities. Bamboo comes in two basic types, clumping and running. Clumping is like the fescue in most lawns. It grows in bunches and spreads slowly. Running is like Spreading Brome, commonly referred to as Quack Grass. The biggest varieties of the over 1000 species of bamboo are clumping types that can reach 100 feet in height and 12 inches in diameter (Wikipedia). Like corn (also a grass), they need rich soil, warm temperatures and plenty of water. They don’t grow here. What we can grow are running types which are much more forgiving of temperature and soil types.
Therein lays a problem. Think Quack Grass on steroids. Running types are considered an invasive species. Some types of bamboo can grow 3 feet in 1 day. Their runners can go 20 or 30 feet underground. Once a stand is established, it is nearly impossible to eradicate with non-toxic means. I needed to talk to someone who actually grows bamboo. Fortunately my neighbor, Rufus Cabral is that someone.
We buy bamboo poles and stakes of different sizes from him on occasion. We don’t have to do that very often because bamboo lasts. In fact it is resistant to many things that wood is not. Deer and insect pests seldom bother it. If left above ground, sun and water in this dry climate have little effect. When it is a young sprout, most varieties are edible after boiling off the cyanogenic glycosides, mild toxins with a bitter taste. Stalks reach full height in the first year but take 4 or 5 more years to leaf out and harden. The mature stalk can live for 10 years or so. The leaves emerge in the spring and hang around until the next spring, then fall off as new leaves emerge. Like grass, the stalk (culm) has nodes, which can be cut to form cups or used as floats.
Finding bamboo fishing net floats on beaches in Alaska, was one of the things piqued Rufus’s interested in bamboo. It is only one of the hundreds of uses of bamboo itself. Bamboo can be used for food, medicine, livestock feed and many fiber uses such as paper, eating utensils and construction materials. Bridges, houses and furniture can all be made from bamboo. Rufus points out that the mature wood is 40% silicon. This makes it hard on saw blades. Carbide is recommended.
Bamboo is strange in other ways. It can bloom and have seeds, but only very infrequently, happening on all stands of a species at once which then all die. Since it regenerates quickly and enriches the soil while it rots underground, this is more of a survival tactic than a catastrophe. Rufus described how the roots, when they become blocked by dry hard clay, exude moisture to soften the clay so they can move through. Ironically, when used to stabilize erodible stream banks, a common use, they can’t cross under the stream itself. He grows a variety found at the 10,000 ft elevation in the Himalayas and several others. But common types know as “fishing pole” and “yellow grove” died here.
The Cabrals got starts from a nursery on the East Coast. Trying to get new starts transplanted into pots that can survive the winter has been more challenging. One of the biggest issues, the expanding nature of running bamboo, has not been a big problem. The new sprouts are big and obvious, so it is easy to mow them down and contain the bamboo patch.
As for bamboo being good for the soil, maybe it is. The mulch of the leaves and density of the root system may fertilize the soil. But since the groves are so thick and persistent, nothing much but bamboo grows in the center of the groves and only grass near the edges. Essentially, if you have a steady use for bamboo poles or use it as food or feed, it is a dependable crop. It also makes good wind breaks and stabilizes erodible soil. But if you change your mind about that, it can become a big problem.
Bottom line: consider your options carefully. You don’t want to make a bamboo-boo.