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.
Our vineyard went from a backyard hobby to a major enterprise in 2004 when I had some logging done to make a sunnier space for more grape plants. I had some soil testing done soon after that but didn’t worry about fertility. After almost 20 years of dithering about getting some baseline numbers and setting goals for better outcomes, I entered the fray again this summer with soil testing and leaf testing from a company in Oregon, Apical Crop Science. Times have changed!
Back then I probably used a post hole digger and a couple of cans and sent dirt to a retiring soil guy in Wenatchee. This new lab suggests 4 leaf samples per year timed to fruit development and a particular kind of soil sample for sandy soil like mine plus others for other types of soil. That can cost a lot of money. I am in a position to pay for what I can learn. You may not be so lucky.
There is a lot to learn even without submitting samples. The Apical website showed a picture of a soil probe designed to get soil samples easily at depths of up to 1 foot and then again from 1 foot to 2. It looked so much easier than a post hole digger! At just an inch or so wide, it was a tube to push into the ground with a crossbar handle at the top to push and twist with and an opening to get the sample out. Goodbye post hole digger. Online soil probes cost around $100. I was in a hurry to get samples, so I made my own.
Homemade soil probe and soil sample jars.
I can already see that mine won’t last forever, so a real one is on the shopping list. Still, I learned a lot from the get-go. The picture online shows a probe with the open side plum full of dirt. Mine went in about 4 inches and plugged solid. This is not a big deal. You can just pry that out into a bucket and get another deeper sample. After a few tries, I had the surface to 1 foot sample and then put the next deeper set in another bucket. I used two different buckets, one for shallow and one for deep samples and moved around the vineyard.
I could see right away that none of my irrigation water was getting much further than the first 4 inches. If I had been testing all during the growing season, I would have known that. So, I ran a sprinkler line all night and another soil sample showed that water had soaked in. Big lesson right off the bat!
Another thing you can do without any cost is to put your first soil samples in a jar with some water and shake it up. When the dust (so to speak) settles, you will have a stratified look at the percentages of rocks, sand, clay, and organic matter in your soil. The rocks and sand will fall to the bottom quickly followed by light sand, and clay with organic matter on top. Even percentages are fairly ideal. A lot of rocks would be a problem. My ground is all fine sand, not ideal but usable with a lot of water and added nutrients. Organic matter is the key to fertility. It holds moisture, supports fungi and bacteria which in turn transport minerals from sand and rocks to plants. Too much water is an issue of course. You want your soil to be moist but drain and to ultimately support earth worms. Earth is not Dune. There are no sandworms. Earthworms don’t like sand, so fertility is an uphill battle in my sandy soil.
Another key indicator of soil health that you can measure at home is PH. You want it near the middle reading of 7. Some plants like blueberries and rhododendrons can handle low PH (acid soil). Others like broccoli and kale prefer more base soil. PH indicates cation exchange capacity (CEC). (A cation is a positively charged particle.) With near neutral PH more nutrients are available to the plant. We are getting into complex chemistry here. I am going to leave that out of this article and hope to come back to it later.
Apical offers soil tests but specializes in leaf extract or “sap analysis” testing. This is a new field. Apical uses high-end equipment, similar to what the Environmental Protection Agency uses, and they measure mineral amounts in parts per billion. You can do a crude imitation at home by squeezing a bunch of leaves enough to get liquid coming out of them. You can measure the density of the liquid with a refractometer to get a brix reading. (Refractometers cost around $60.) Low readings around 6º are not good but high readings up to even 22 º are very good health. These readings measure sugar in the sap and as unlikely as it sounds, bugs don’t like high sugar readings and stay away from healthy plants.
Some of the readings on the detailed Leaf Extract Analysis report can change in a growing plant in different weather conditions and at different stages of growth. That is why four tests are recommended per year. It is a moving target. Close observation of your crops is still the best indicator of what you need to nourish them. Tests can only show what the factors are at any one time.
I wanted simple answers, firm numbers, definite target amounts and a clear picture of what is going on in my plants and soil from these tests. I got a lot of numbers, differences between shallow and deep soil and between old and new leaves, all illustrated with colorful graphs and charts. In correspondence with the Apical lab and Craig Madsen, a local soil scientist, I am learning what this all means. Definite answers, though maybe not simple ones, will come eventually. One analytical tool that keeps coming up is Mulder’s Chart. The Mulder’s chart represents the interaction between 11 of the essential plant elements. Some interactions boost mineral uptake and others interfere with it. So far, soil testing is a very humbling experience. I will be looking at these numbers and Mulder’s Chart this winter. I encourage you to take some steps in this direction too. It is best to start testing in the Spring. We need to improve the soil as if our lives depended on it, because they do.
Learning the hard way by making mistakes is a tried and true (though often painful) path to knowledge. Looking back on what I have learned, it seems more like a lifestyle. It starts by taking chances. You seldom do that unless you think there is something to gain. I get a lot of ideas from reading and talking to people but util I actually do something; I usually don’t know much. There are mistakes to be made having sheep in a vineyard. They could break the irrigation, eat the grape vines, or break into the garden. But I was excited to see it happen.
Last year I listened to a Regenerative Agriculture Podcast interviewing Kelly Mulville. He is a lead man in the United States promoting the sheep-in-the-vineyard idea. There are others in Australia and around the world. The possibilities are enticing: very few inputs including no tillage, no mowing, no removing suckers, and no weeding; higher quality and quantity of grapes and soil health; sequestering carbon and retaining water; more diversity of plants, insects, birds, and soil biology… Also, more profit.
On the down side: you need sheep; they eat grape plants; they need to be fenced; most vineyards are not set up for sheep; they are smelly and noisy; cougars eat them. This last point was particularly tough because I had the fencing in hand and some sheep lined up with a friend until a cougar ate one of her sheep, and a couple others were injured. Thus, my first sheep arrangement fell through. I contacted some nomadic herders as a backup plan. (See Home on the Range, NC Monthly March 2022) They had lost animals to cougars too and were reluctant to leave sheep here overnight. But they were willing to leave some for a day. Game on!
Mulville is clear about having a vineyard that is set up for sheep. His vineyard at Paicines Ranch in California has its grapes trellised over 5 feet off the ground so sheep can’t reach them. My grapes are much closer to the ground, but many parts were trellised higher following another mistake I learned from. A couple years ago I let a grape that crept into a nearby tree go. It did attract birds and produced fruit that I could not protect, which is why you don’t usually do that. It sent a cane up to the top of the tree. The next year another cane went clear down the other side. That second cane was loaded with grapes. The robins got them. But I wondered if I tied long canes higher in the trellis, would they produce more. So, I tied a lot of grapes higher this year. They are producing more, and the sheep couldn’t get to them.
As for fencing, the nomads had very portable electric fence. They set up 220 feet in about 5 minutes. It could be moved just as quickly, and the sheep could be directed more exactly. An idea for next time.
I knew little to nothing about sheep. Chances for mistakes were high. So, I hung out with the sheep most of the day. I thought I would chase them off if they were destroying vines. It turns out that these sheep like people. They followed me. Well okay, they started to eat my clothing but a couple of bops on their heads dissuaded them from that. Also, they chew their cud like cows. When I sat in a chair and read a book, they lay down nearby and chewed away.
They have personalities. A few were noisy, “Baaa, Baaa” etc. One ewe always had followers, especially her kids. But generally, if one got excited about something it was eating, others would run over to check it out. They do eat grape leaves but not young grapes. They did eat down the suckers lower on the trunks as I hoped they would. Things they liked included sweet clover, grape leaves, grass, plantain tops and Brown-eyed Susans. Things they didn’t like included Oregon Grape, and Yarrow. They would typically bite off the top of the grass or plant they were dining on. This left most of the grass about as tall as it was before they came.
I usually mow the vineyard about now and put the clippings in the compost thinking that I will put the compost back in the aisles between the grape plants. That’s at least 3 steps: mow, compost and spread. Truthfully, I often fail to get to the spread part. The compost has a lot of biology in it that is good for the soil. But it is nothing compared to the sheep poop and pee that comes straight out of these mobile biodigesters. As for smell, it didn’t amount to much in just one day except that when our cat came onto my bed that night, he smelled like sheep.
Was this all a mistake? The real proof will be a noticeable increase in fertility by the end of the season and if the production quantity and quality go up or down. Video of Mulville standing in his vineyard shows the ground with very little vegetation left. I’m sure that the grass has already been biodigested and returned to the soil. Still, I have a nagging feeling that you want to have at least four inches of grass left growing. A principle of regenerative agriculture is that green plants, even those considered weeds, are sharing the sugars they produce with fungi in the soil. Those fungi in turn are feeding and diversifying the whole underground biome. Did Mulville make a mistake? Time will tell.
Luckily or unluckily as it may be, this is a new idea that has not been completely worked out. The nomads said that the Italians have a preferred breed of sheep to graze in their vineyards. So, there is a lot more to read and learn from others about it, which of course opens possibilities for making a lot more mistakes…
We had thunder and lightning here all night. It is back again now. So, I have time to write something and not get soaking wet working in the vineyard. I was ready to write this family blog update almost 3 weeks ago and am just getting to it. That is the kind of year it has been. Back then we still needed warm-up fires in the mornings and some snow remained at the shady top end of the vineyard. Since then, we have had temperatures up to and above 90 degrees on some days. Thus, the title, “No Spring”.
[Vineyards on April 2nd with part of crushed greenhouse to the left.]
(Thank goodness this computer is battery powered. The power just went off and on in an intense thunderstorm. Unfortunately, Microsoft Office is very picky about having Internet Access, so I had to take a break and read a chapter from the Shining Mountains, a book I am promoting about the history of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile and its longest serving Chief Trader, Angus McDonald.) Although it is not a paying job, I have been coordinating efforts to commemorate the establishment of Hudson’s Bay Fort Colvile in 1825 for a couple of years. The bicentennial could be a big deal.
Unlike that novel, this blog post will be a less graceful litany of what has happened for Cheryl and myself since her last carotid artery stent surgery.
Sadly, on March 1st, Jerry Grazer, an old friend died suddenly and unexpectedly at his vacation cabin near Republic. We had been in close contact in case Cheryl’s surgery went awry and I needed to stay with him and his wife Cathy in Spokane. We were together in an alternative energy group back in the 80’s and Jerry went on to a career installing solar panels all over the world.
On April 13th an ultrasound exam showed that Cheryl’s carotid arteries were in good shape. We took the chance being in Spokane to watch Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, a long movie that seemed discombobulated but made sense once you got to think about it.
With little to do outside, I wrote several articles this winter: Critical Stuff Theory, Past Lives of Concrete and three on the life of Sir George Simpson, former head of the Hudson’s Bay Company in North America. For the first time in 5 years, I updated the Road Atlas of Ferry County in February, and the Road Atlas of Stevens County in March. Those books and the series of Geologic Atlases for Northeast Washington sold well at the annual rock show.
In April with the ground thawed it was time to prune the grapes. At the same time I take cuttings to root and grow new grape plants. In the middle of that we left for Olympia for a family gathering at the memorial of Bill Yake, renowned poet, scientist, and great brother-in-law. It was well managed by my sister Jeannette, (Bill’s wife) and well appreciated by a large gathering of friends. Daughter Bina came up from Alameda by herself and daughter April came with her husband Tony and son James. We have not had a complete family gathering during the COVID years.
Cheryl and I took the occasion to visit the ocean at Long Beach but only stayed one night and part of a day so we could take a long route home and avoid freeways by staying in the Buckley Inn, which is also where we have reservations for the official family reunion in July.
We attended the party celebrating April Barreca’s and James Houston’s birthdays at their house on April 4th.
That was also the day after the Northeast Washington Farmer’s Market started again. There have been some very good days and some not so good ones. This time of year, we are bringing grape plants, wine, mapbooks and biochar. The bottom line is that we have a day before to prepare and most of the market day itself to spend on this business; so, a lot of our time is taken up with the market once it begins.
I have employed some help pruning, thinning, transplanting etc. and may even be making some breakthroughs in terms of production and pest protection. But more about that in a later article. This should be enough to explain why it has been a long time between personal blog posts.
I was minding my own business reading email when a document came in from my brother-in-law, Roger, who as I do here, also makes and sells biochar on San Juan Island. It announced that a big company, Myno Carbon, won the 2023 Giuliani Clean Energy Entrepreneur Award and was going to build a carbon removal facility at the Avista Waste-to-Energy Plant in Kettle Falls. So big business was stepping into our gig in a big way. In order to get a grip on the situation, I contacted Myno Carbon and eventually talked to Andy Mercy, Chief Revenue Officer (CRO). It turns out that he also makes wine and is big on biochar. We had a lot in common, except that I make hundreds of pounds of biochar and his company is set to make millions. Roger and I are not nearly out of business yet. Myno will take a couple of years to get set up.
Andy was stepping in for Myno CEO and co-founder Thor Kallestad, (Kallestad’s young daughter, Ella’s first babble when she was learning to talk was “myno,” a sound she used to express happiness, hence the company name) who emphasizes 3 points about the project.
The first impact is to remove hundreds of metric tons of wood waste from slash piles in the forest where it would release hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes of CO2e emissions each year either through burning or rotting.
The second result will be to turn that wood waste into renewable energy at the Kettle Falls Generating Station.
The third major impact is to turn that wood into 40,000 tons of biochar each year where it can enhance soil water retention, increase crop yields, and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
Avista Plant curtesy of mynocarbon.com
While these are indeed huge benefits, that Myno plans to replicate in other areas where wood waste is available, to my way of thinking, they may understate the potential benefits of biochar. To understand the needs of our depleted soils, we need to look back on the past 2000 years of tillage. Soil scientists are coming to understand the soil not as just a layer of minerals, but as a living biome of plants, fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and microbial life that feeds and fertilizes itself without chemicals when given the chance. Plowing the soil breaks critical lines of mycelia, a network of fungal threads or hyphae which exchange water, minerals, energy and communication between plants, fungi, and the rest of the underground community. Plowing’s immediate effect is to hasten rotting of roots and organic material releasing nutrients to plants (and carbon into the atmosphere). But the long-term effect is to destroy the living system of symbiotic relationships that sustains fertility. Adding chemicals to replace the lost nutrients begins a vicious cycle that is ineffective in providing the organically derived compounds that plants need while simultaneously polluting the groundwater with chemicals that further inhibit the growth of healthy microorganisms both in the soil and all the way the ocean. The more agrichemicals that are added to the soil to replace lost nutrients, the more nutrient loss and susceptibility to disease occurs. Chemicals used to kill insects, fungus and weeds hasten the evolution of super weeds and other pests. Great for agrichemical companies’ short-term profits, bad for sustaining farms, everyone’s health, the economy, and the ecology.
This agrichemical cycle also eliminates the carbon which would otherwise be sequestered in the soil as living biomass. Biochar can sequester carbon in the soil but its equally beneficial effect is to retain water. Depending on soil type, biochar can increase the moisture retention capacity by 16-38%. The micropores in pure charcoal absorb water and provide a reservoir of microbes living in that water. “Soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of the carbon they once held. This has contributed about a quarter of all the manmade global greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet” (Columbia University). I use biochar in my compost not just to store carbon but after charging it with microbes, to inoculate the soil with biology.
Spread over an acre, a ton of soil is paper thin. Although biochar builds up and does not need to be renewed annually, up to 10% of soil volume is often recommended to be biochar. So the need to apply and the market for the addition of biochar will be huge. Current application rates of 2 to 5 tons per acre are anticipated by Myno. Providing the science to convince farmers of the benefit of biochar is one of their goals.
The Avista plant already produces a mixture of 75% charcoal and 25% ash (bash) that can be applied to fields. Before this project, it was returned into the feedstock and burned by the plant. Myno will make 5000 to 7000 tons available to local farmers for field trials. They are working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to find a mix of farm situations for those trials. Hopefully those trials will quantify increased crop yields but also show increased soil organic matter (SOM), a key indicator of soil fertility. The new facility will remove burnable waste from the woods and return biochar.
As many as 100 semi loads of chips per day are already being consumed at the plant. Every year in the Spring the plant closes for maintenance. We can expect some of the equipment changes to take place this year during that time. Both construction and operation will increase local employment and the local economy. We are on the forefront of something big and I can let go of doing something small.
Ever since the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6th we have seen a lot of pictures of collapsed concrete buildings. You might get the idea that concrete is a heavy and dangerous building material that it would be wise to avoid. That is much more easily said than done. Every year, 30 billion tons of concrete are used globally (Northwestern University). That’s almost 4 tons for every person on Earth. Concrete accounts for 8% of worldwide carbon pollution (Nature, The international journal of science), a carbon footprint larger than any single country other than the US or China (The Guardian). The reason that the impact is so big is not just that we use so much of it but also because of what it is and how it is made. But before we get into that, another question might be “What has this got to do with the North Columbia, where and how we live?”
When you travel north from Kettle Falls to Northport along Highway 25 or more historically, the railroad along the highway, you pass large limestone quarries on both sides of the river. Limestone is the critical main ingredient of concrete. Many of those quarries were used to create Grand Coulee Dam. You can still see concrete silos near Evans where cement was stored and then shipped by rail to the dam site. The Panorama Gem and Mineral Club still collects calcite crystals from these quarries.
Limestone (CaCO3) is a sedimentary rock that formed millions of years ago as the result of the accumulation of shell, coral, algal, and other ocean debris. So those white and gray rock cliffs along the Columbia were once living organisms. Lime, or calcium oxide (CaO), is derived from high quality natural deposits of limestone and is the main active ingredient in cement. Lime is left when the carbon in the limestone is driven off by heating it to 1400º C (Nature). The heat for the process building Grand Coulee was created in wood furnaces. The wood came from the local forests, often those once covering the limestone quarries. The process released both carbon from burning the wood and carbon from the rock. (More modern kilns use coal and gas, fossil fuels). A lot of carbon is in that rock.
Limestone-based cement and mortar have been around well over the 2000 years. The most long-lived and famous structures were created by the Romans. The key to Roman cement’s longevity appears to be the use of volcanic ash, or pozzolana. Where modern concrete is a mix of lime-based cement, water, sand and an aggregate such as gravel, the recipe for concrete set down by architect Vitruvius in the first century BC involved pozzolana and chunks of volcanic rock, known as tuff. When it comes to Roman marine concrete, used to construct piers and breakwaters, research published in 2017 found that the addition of sea water actually strengthened these structures over time, making them harder and harder over the millennia.
In Northeast Washington we find ourselves in a concrete paradise. With volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens and volcanic rock from the Columbia Basin, we could make some very long lasting cement. Concrete is bound together when cement powder is mixed with water and creates crystals. Yes, those same calcite crystals found in our local quarries are what binds to the mixture of sand, small and larger rocks that becomes concrete. If you examine concrete under a microscope, you can see those crystals.
Of course, there is a lot more to making good long-lasting concrete. A big breakthrough was to embed metal into concrete. (Full disclosure) I live in an underground house made with 56 yards of concrete spread over 3 miles of rebar and buried under a million pounds of earth. This has proven to be a structure that is very resilient to heat and cold. It basically absorbs the average temperature of the earth (50ºF) and will not freeze in winter or get very hot in the summer. It could be absolutely air tight but that would be dangerous, so it is not. It should hold up for the next 300 years or so.
In the long term, the problem is the rebar. Water and corrosive chemicals, many of them natural acids, can eventually seep in through spaces between the Calcite and Ettringite (C6AS3H32) crystals and corrode the iron rebar. A few years ago, I had a pad poured from Colville Concrete that was reinforced with fiberglass, basically Silicon Oxide the main component of sand. It does not corrode. (I might not have needed the rebar.)
As you might guess, with the huge economic value of concrete ($330 billion US and growing, worldcement.com) and the corresponding huge carbon contribution to climate change, there is a lot of work being done to minimize the carbon footprint and maximize the strength of concrete so less is needed. Some of the approaches include recapturing the carbon driven off by heating in kilns and turning it back into methane fuel or blending it back into the concrete; using bio-derived fuels in concrete kilns; adding chemicals to make stronger concrete with less cement; adding biochar to cement; building with laminated wood like that created by Vaagen Lumber; and using biological processes such as those in coral to cement rocks together. My favorite approach so far is farming Coccolithophore Microalgae. This is one of the organisms that limestone is made of. A team of researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder has implemented This approach. According to the team’s estimates, only 1 to 2 million acres of open ponds would be required to produce all of the cement that the U.S. needs—only 1% of the land used to grow corn. (Technology Networks) Technically, I could grow my own cement. Farm On!
After this article was written for the North Columbia Monthly I had a conversation with Hayden Binde from Biosqueeze. Their core business is using a micro-organism-infused liquid to seal methane-leaking oil wells. But that same infusion can bond soil to make it stronger than concrete using safe biology that actually sequesters carbon. Along with at least one other company they are researching development of the process to make carbon-negative building materials.
The new year begins and along with it comes the usual spate of information on how to lose weight, how to do your taxes and how to clean out all the stuff that is in your house. Driving to Spokane I notice a lot more huge apartment buildings and a lot of big houses built too close together for my taste. Along with the new living spaces there are also major new self-storage facilities. While out under the snow microbes are busy breaking down last year’s organic matter into soil for the new growing season, we are inside coming face to face with our stuff.
Being maybe a little too obsessed with history, I tend to ask how is this different than a hundred years ago and how did it get to be this way. For most of human history all we had to work with were sticks, stones and some animal parts. Then we got into metals. They are a big deal. But even metals, if you ignore the part about mining and chemical extraction, tend to be easy to recycle and valuable that way. One way to see the difference is to look at what’s left after a hurricane like Ian: huge piles of broken lumber, metal roofing, dry wall, fiberglass insulation, asphalt roofing, pieces of concrete, lots of clothing and appliances, a few cars too.
Since a lot of the destruction is on expensive beach-front property, you can expect that it will soon be loaded into dump trucks and carted off to the local landfill. There it will be mixed with the rest of our waste. The top items in a landfill according sciencefocus.com are: Paper: 27%, Food Waste: 14.6%, Yard Waste: 13.5%, Plastics: 12.8%, Metals: 9.1%, Rubber, Leather, and Textiles: 9%, Wood: 6.2%, Glass: 4.5%, Other: 3.3%. So here we have a microcosm of our whole manufactured world. The good news is that 75% of it can be recycled. The bad news is that 25% is very hard-to-recycle and the worse news is that only 15% of stuff that can be recycled actually is.
The 25% hard-to-recycle parts are mostly clothing and plastics. Clothing caught my eye because more than one article I saw mentioned the 59,000 tons of clothing that are shipped to the Adacama desert in Chile every year where it will last virtually forever.
There are good do-it-yourself suggestions out there. The “Buy Nothing, Get Everything Shareocracy” recommends the “3 R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But their favorite is Refuse. In other words, don’t buy it in the first place. Almost 80% of unwanted textiles end up in a landfill (abc.net.au). Another “R” would be to Repair. Loved Clothes Last, a book by Castro Orsola, gives details on repairing clothes. Even theoretically recyclable cloth such as cotton has an environmental cost before it gets sold. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a cotton shirt according to the World Resources Institute.
Plastic is a big deal in landfills and even bigger at sea where incredibly the International Atomic Energy Agency (www.iaea.org) estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic according to the National Academy of Science (www.pnas.org). In my vision for a brave new regenerative world, “Compost Everything” might be the war cry.
Progress is being made on composting plastics. Some excitement was generated when the Japanese Kyoto Institute of Technology found a bacteria, ideonella sakaiensis, that had evolved to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate or Polyester) plastics, the kind found in water bottles and a lot of food containers. Listening to a video by Dr. Ben Miles about this discovery I learned that these bacteria only work on thin bottles or films. But their enzymes are a useful start. To get “soft crystalline” bottles and the “hard crystalline” food containers to biodegrade, a company in France, Carbios, has developed enzymes that can be used in a large commercial facility to break the long polymers of PET into small pieces that can be reused to make new plastic. Without that step, even recycled plastics become less and less reusable after every recycle.
On the other hand, many plastic knives and forks labelled as “compostable” are not. There is no government oversite of that label. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found that often so-called “compostable” serviceware had a higher environmental impact than non-compostable. The private Biodegradable Products Institute checks on biodegradability, and you can trust the BPI label.
Since 75% of the material in landfills could be recycled but has not been, recycling is obviously not working. A lot of energy and research is focused on these issues, but you don’t see much being said about it unless you look. The companies that make money from these products are not inclined to advertise about the issues. It is not a political hot-button issue, so it doesn’t make the news cycle. I am associating it with Critical Race Theory as something people seldom discuss, and that vested interests emphatically discourage discussing.
Imagining the result will be something akin to the world inhabited by Wall-E, the trash robot, I googled Wall-E to check the spelling. The first thing that came up was a very-hard-to recycle plastic toy version of Wall-E available at Target for $54. We’re doomed.
Almost everyone likes sweet things, often to our detriment. Nevertheless sugars are an important source of energy for people, animals and microbes. In the wine-making business, the sugar content of grapes is key to whether a wine will be dry or sweet, also to how well it will keep. The brix scale is a standard sweetness reading showing percentage of dissolved solids in a liquid. When solid sugar is dissolved in a liquid, the density increases and so does the diffraction of light. A refractometer shows the amount of sugar in a liquid instantly by measuring the diffraction of light.
Okay, before you fall asleep, welcome to my world. I will add only one more technical note: A rule of thumb is that a sweetness of at least 19° is necessary to ferment sugars into 10% alcohol. At least 10% alcohol is necessary to preserve wine. Then along comes the winter of 2022-23 and grapes didn’t get totally ripe. Can you boost the sugar up to the level you want? The answer is yes in a number of ways. Many of them are problematic.
Sweet grape juice draining from a frozen container
You can just add sugar. This is basically a chemical solution that dilutes flavor, comes from non-organic sources, and is bad for your health and that of the planet.
You can cook down the liquid by boiling off water and leaving the sugars. This works great. Think of maple syrup. But it uses a lot of energy and it you don’t watch the pot; it can become a huge black charcoal mess. Trust me. I know.
You can put it in a freeze dryer and pull it out before the liquid is totally dry. This one is expensive and you are dealing with small amounts in shallow trays.
You can set it outside in super cold weather and tap off the sweet liquid after the water molecules freeze to each other. This is basically what I will recommend but under controlled conditions. Also don’t use glass containers, they can break. Yes, I’ve done that too.
Which brings us to putting the liquid in a plastic bottle in a freezer and draining out the sweetened juice after most of the water is frozen, which I will describe here.
To make ice wine, when temperatures reach 10° F and wine grapes are still hanging on the vine, a crew goes out in the dark with gloves on and picks the grapes which are crushed and pressed while still frozen to release the sweet juice. It still has a lot of pulp and color. Normal grape juice is much sweeter than most fruit juice (a grape brix reading of 23° as opposed to 14° for apple cider). That much sugar will make more alcohol than yeast can tolerate so some residual sugar remains after the yeast dies, making ice wine a sweet dessert wine.
Most readers will not be making their own ice wine. But this technique in some other contexts can do a lot more than make sweet wine. It is pretty impossible to keep grapes in a small vineyard away from birds until the temperature is 10°. A small empty freezer or a big one with lots of extra room will do. Also, you don’t need whole fruit. Juice is a lot easier. Moreover, you don’t need grapes. This technique works on all kinds of fruit.
What you do need is a big plastic container. I don’t like plastic either but it beats shards of glass and a soggy mess in the freezer. At cold temperatures, plastic molecules will not do much migrating in the short time it takes to sweeten the juice. Usually an overnight stay will freeze the layer near the outside of the container first, leaving the center liquid. You may have to poke a hole down into the liquid part. Two days will usually give you a completely frozen 5 gallon container. Bigger containers are best because you are guaranteed to get a decent amount of super-sweet juice on the first try.
It pours out slowly, the slower, the sweeter. I tip the frozen container upside down into a bucket that is small enough to keep the top of the container off the bottom of the bucket. You could do this in a heated room, but that is a little risky. If left alone too long, water melts, diluting the sweet juice and runs out of the bucket. A cold porch or garage is a safer option. When it is still below 32° outside, the water stays frozen while the juice runs free for another day or two. With grape juice, one run is usually all you need. With apple, pear, peach or some less sweet juice, you may need two trips to the freezer and the bucket. Most berries are just not sweet enough to make this work at all.
What you can do is pick huckleberries, raspberries etc. in the summer and freeze them. When you have apple cider or some other juice, defrost the berries and mix them in. Then freeze the combined juice and drain out a sweet combination of both flavors. You are going to lose some quantity and some sugar. Typically 5 gallons of juice starting at 20° brix will make 3 gallons of sweet juice at 30° brix or more but there will still be 5° of sugar in the frozen water. I don’t pour this down the drain. I pour it on my compost pile. Microbes and fungus like sugar too.
When I hear the term “as slow as molasses in January”, I don’t think of cooked down sugarcane juice as much as freeze-sweetened fruit juice. After all, why stop at just a little sweeter, you can take this method all the way to syrup or into jelly. Think blueberry-apple syrup or huckleberry-peach on waffles. No sugar added! My appetite is warmed up already.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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/.
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.