Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

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Under the Nut Tree

On a day like today with temperatures in the 90s, the best place to sit in the vineyard/garden is under the Filbert tree. It’s relatively cool and shady. And if you are some kind of a nut, like me, you will feel right at home.

Cheryl under the nut tree with Gretchen the dog to the right and Gray-C our cat (barely visible) on the ground to her left. In back are potted grape plants, a remay house for Kale and Cabbage and a greenhouse for tomatoes and peppers.
From under the nut tree you can see flowers in the garden. These daises are still in bloom with some day lilies next to them. It’s been a good year for flowers so this caption is linked to an album of flowers.

I originally thought that I should stop listing all the things that went on since the last blog in the current blog, my journal entries are basically just a rehash of the things I checked off my to-do list each day. Instead I planned to write a snapshot post about the vineyard today and sat down under the nut tree just to take it all in. It didn’t take long to realize sitting there that I was just checking off another thing on my to-do list even though technically I wasn’t doing much. Another hazard of this approach is that I can’t really sit in the vineyard looking around without mentally adding lots more stuff to my to-do list. So I settled on a kind of hybrid approach, just posting pictures and blabbing on a little about each one.

You may notice that a lot of pictures of vineyards catch them at close to this stage in early June when the leaves are coming on, the grass is mowed and all of the suckers and extra leaves have been removed.
What you don’t usually see is this stage in July when the new canes are going crazy and just about touching each other across the aisle, the grass is either out of hand or dying back and there are lots of new shoots filling in where you so meticulously removed them a month or two before. But really, this is good. The vines are happy. The grapes are about the size of marbles and the bird whose nest was in the plant on the left has already raised it’s young and flown away.
Okay, not the greatest picture, but this is a feral cat that has moved into the vineyard and is very shy. We named it (Orange) Julius. For some reason it (he/she ?) seems to get along with our cat, Gray-C so all is well on that front.
On a not-as-fun note. I believe this is Rocky, a squirrel that spent the winter in the walls of our shop. Gray-c brought it in as present – or just to show off – and dropped it on the rug in front of the wood heating stove. We threw them both out. On the up side, all the pine squirrels have disappeared and we expect to collect filberts from the nut tree for a change since a young squirrel ate all of them while they were still green last year.
While we are still on critters, here is a bumble bee on a grape leaf. Don’t ask me what kind of bee or grape. We have lots of bees working overtime on this year’s flowers.
On the critter list is this tree frog taking a dip in the dog’s water bowl.
The harvest has begun. This is just one bunch of many kinds of garlic Cheryl grew.
Truthfully we don’t know what kind of squash this will be. It started from compost that we mixed into this garden bed and is rapidly taking over the world. I would need a series of drone shots to keep track of its progress.
I usually go on a hike with my daughter, April, around Fathers Day. This year we included James Houston, age 7, on an arduous climb to the Bubble Dome, seen in the cliff behind them. We all held up in good shape. There is another album of the hike linked to this caption.
Speaking of daughters.. My oldest, Bina, is moving with her family out of an apartment in Alameda onto a 62 foot sailboat, Imagination, anchored in San Francisco Bay. As part of her paring down of possessions, she sent us an Instant Pot, a high-tech pressure cooker that I had never heard of. This was the first meal from it, short ribs, sauteed and pressure-cooked in the Instant Pot and then grilled on the BBQ. Which reminds me that is is almost time for dinner and this post can wait for now.

Ramstead Ranch

I finally got a chance to talk with Eileen Napier on the phone. She called with a headset while driving on her hour and a half commute to the Liberty Lake Farmers Market from her home near Ione, Washington.  I had just gotten up and only had one shoe on.  The conversation was not as hectic as it sounds.  I’ll get back to the farmers market part but what was on my mind at first was a podcast I had listened to the day before.  Joel Salatin, the famous inventor of the “chicken tractor” (I’ll get back to that too) and author of many books on natural farming, was talking on http://regenerativeagriculturepodcast.com/ about his family farm heritage.  He said “The average age of a farmer today is 65, so about 50% of America’s farmland will shift in ownership in the next 15 years.”  Joel expects this to be the biggest peaceful change of land ownership in human history.  The pressing questions on the podcast were who would be the next generation of farmers and just as importantly, how would they farm.

Many children of farmers are moving to the city.  Farming is just not fun anymore.  Farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of any labor group. (CDC.gov)  I was talking to Eileen because she is in a new generation of farmers that were not raised on a farm. Her family began farming intentionally.  Well maybe not knowing full on what they were getting themselves into, but they were willing to grow into it.  Feeling that it is fun to farm was key to their success.

The Ramstead Farmers: Stan, Jean and Eileen

They began out where many of us who have our own gardens started, wanting to grow good clean food.  To grow food without what Eileen terms “chemical dependencies”, you need to learn about all of the food cycle.   You can grow fruits and vegetables with soil, seed, sunshine, fertilizer and water.  But all of those things are part of bigger cycles. The soil is teaming with life that breaks down dead organisms and feeds them back to living ones. Seeds evolve, are selected and sometimes are modified. Clean water comes to us from the sky, circulates through the ground, animals and plants and goes back to the ocean and the sky either cleaner or dirtier than it arrived.  The food we grow feeds our bodies and much of that goes to waste.  Still more plants go back into the soil, sometimes through animals.  In fact that is where Eileen’s family decided to step into a bigger cycle.  They wanted animal protein.  They decided to grow animals.

This image is captured from a video. It is not a video.

They started on 2 acres with a chicken tractor.  To be clear, that is not a mechanical tractor powered by or controlled by chickens.  It is just a movable pen sometimes including a chicken house that is used to feed chickens and bring their energy into eating insects, weeds and whatever is in their way.  Chickens fertilize the ground as they are moved from day to day.  This not only adds a lot of nutritious food to their own diet, it eliminates a lot of expensive feed.  They still need good grain feed. (Salatin noted that before combines fowl meats, like chicken and turkey, were more expensive than beef or pork, which sheds a new light on the luxury of a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.) The Ramstead gets non-GMO grain from Red Bridge Farm Store in Kettle Falls but not as much of it as they would for chickens cooped up in a pen.  And in turn they also deliver meat at Red Bridge Farm’s store to customers near Kettle Falls.

This gets us into a whole new cycle and a reborn twist on farming.  In order to make it in a world of mass markets and centralized slaughter houses, they needed not only to grow food; they had to sell it at retail prices directly to customers.  Farmers markets are a current version of the way people bought and sold food for thousands of years.  But with Ramstead Ranch, and hundreds of other farms, farmers markets are only the beginning.

Eileen doesn’t look at the Liberty Lake Market as merely a way to sell meat, but also as a way to do research into what products people want and how customers prepare their meat.  She collects and distributes recipes.  She invites people to become part of the cycle of life at Ramstead Ranch as customers who get regular deliveries.  And she educates people on how and why they manage their land the way they do.

A pre-covid class on shearing and wool sorting

These parts of the cycle include doing classes and tours at the ranch.  Education is a two-way street.  Ramstead now provides five kinds of meat: chicken, turkey, pork, beef and lamb.  At every step of the way expanding from one kind of livestock to another, they had to learn from books, neighbors and the Internet how to raise those critters: what breeds to select; what to feed; how to birth; what diseases to look out for; what else they could use like wool and hides…  Salatin imagined a high school counselor telling an especially bright and hard-working student. “You are really talented.  You could be a farmer.”

Friendly Sheep

Passing that information on is not just paying it forward for Napier, it is also another income stream, agritourism.  Part of her mission as a farmer is to let people be inspired by the beauty of a farm that works with happy animals and healthy plants. That part is really impressive and can also be seen on a video of a year in the life of the ranch available through their website.  You don’t usually think of a ranch as a place where sheep run over to check out new visitors, giant hogs like getting their backs scratched or a herd of cows and horses runs over at the sound of a whistle to be let into a fresh pasture.  But that is life at Ramstead Ranch. (https://ramsteadranch.com/)

A lot of the literature about regenerative agriculture, or any farming for that matter, will be about the details of things like grazing sections of pasture hard enough to include eating weeds but not so hard that the plants can’t regrow. You will read about a balance of nitrogen sources and carbon.  But you seldom read about the communication between cattle and the soil microbes that Eileen calls her “invisible livestock” or connections between new farmers and old ones.  Eileen says that she can learn from other farmers no matter how completely she agrees with their techniques.  Fostering people-to-farm connections broadens the scope of how life on a farm naturally works and what a farmer’s job really is.

There is a vision and a hope in the path that the Ramstead family has explored for making the change that Salatin sees coming in how we farm and who are our farmers.  It lies not just in the techniques, the joy and the beauty of how we can farm but in the connections we all can make by joining the herds on places like Ramestead Ranch.

When It Rains

It’s raining right now.  Through April we had hardly any rain.  It was the driest on record.  Since the beginning of May, it has been raining every few days or even more often.  And so it goes for Spring as a whole, weird.  The human side has been very different and except for the rain, the nature side has been carrying on in grand style.

The key date for me was March 14th, 3 months ago.  It was the second day of the annual Rock Show at the Ag Trade Center in Colville.  Covid 19 was becoming an issue and the rock club expected it to be lightly attended, which it was, but not nearly so bad as we expected.  That was the last time public events were allowed.  Masks and gloves were not a standard.  Those were the days…

Jeremy the Subaru Guru

I took a break from the show to pick up our 1984 VW Vanagon from our mechanic, Jeremy, the Subaru Guru.  We had a 2001 Subaru engine installed to convert our blown original VW drive train and electrical system.  I wanted to get it home before the predicted snow arrived since it doesn’t have winter tires.  What a ride!  It goes 55 mph in third and gets better gas mileage than the original.  But it also will drain the battery when sitting still for a couple of days.  So by April 21st we put a cutoff switch in that shuts off the entire electrical system and a new battery.  It was ready for the Farmers Market that started a couple of weeks later.

Rocks stored safely

The next day I started filling hundreds of empty Talenti gelato containers with rocks collected over 16 years with the Panorama Gem and Mineral Club.  I had stored them in cardboard boxes on a pallet under a tarp after taking them out of the travel trailer that we gave to my daughter April’s family.  Her husband, Tony Huston is doing a fabulous job of restoring it but the cardboard boxes absorbed moisture over the winter and were falling apart.  I even found a shed snake skin in one.  The clear plastic containers now have labels and are in boxes similar to milk crates in the storage shed, very waterproof. 

A week later I started reviewing many year’s worth of bank records and similar correspondence that I had stored for my father.  Most of those papers were recycled since they were not needed for the probate after Dad’s death last year.  That recycling gave me a dry spot for the rocks.  Before they could be stored, sorting and labeling the rocks took weeks of time and lots of space in the greenhouse. Covered space was becoming an issue.

Before Pruning
After Pruning same row

By March 20th the snow was gone and pruning grape plants was under way.  At the same time that I prune grapes, I start cuttings for grape plants.  I also transplant grapes into bigger pots using my own custom mixture of potting soil.  The pots take up space in the greenhouse.  The cuttings take up space in the crushing pad (where I crush grapes in the fall to make wine). That greenhouse-like covered space is in front of the storage shed. The cover (not to be confused with the new and very sturdy greenhouse itself that we built last year) was crushed in a heavy snowfall.  (I know “crushed crushing pad”, just too ironic.) So rebuilding the cover over the (let’s call is a) “greenpad” was also a priority.

Greenpad

We got the greenpad covered April 11th, the day before Easter.  I’m very proud of and happy about it but will spare you the technical details.  Now it has about 400 grape cuttings rooted in little 4” square pots which will be transplanted to bigger pots starting soon since many are already outgrowing the small ones.  As you might imagine my thoughts are full of plants, compost and pruning.

leafhoppers.jpg
Leafhoppers under new leaves

As if that was not enough, this has been an epic year for battling the most persistent pest in the vineyard, leafhoppers. They were especially bad this year because I didn’t put my usual control measures into practice last year while building the greenhouse.  So I read up on leafhopper control and had a range of possible techniques set up.  They all worked to some extent but there are 3 or four generations in a summer.  The first wave of attack is over and I have almost finished thinning out possibly infected leaves.  Ironically leafhoppers are somewhat beneficial toward the end of the season because they shrivel leaves and that allows more light onto the clusters and speeds ripening.

The real key is to have strong shoot growth this time of year. To that end I have been applying compost-mulch (a mulch mix that becomes a layer of compost on the surface of the ground).  It has been almost too effective in some places with dark green grass growing above my knees.  Mowing it down will create another layer of mulch and continue to improve the soil.  Since leafhoppers are most damaging on the first 2 or 3 leaves, strong growth beyond that overcomes the problem.  I’m seeing new shoots growing out of the same nodes where the first leaves were most damaged.

Added mulch over winter made this aisle tall and green
Compost thermometer is hot!

Only a real microbiome nerd would carry on about his compost pile, but I am going to do that anyway.  Last year I brought home a couple of huge bags of rotted feed grain mix from Red Bridge Farm Store in Kettle Falls.  I had to have my neighbor Vern lift the pallet off my truck with his tractor.  With a little more age and dampness over winter it has become really stinky and clumped together so that it would not blend with the rest of the mulch mix.  I realized that it would compost if I could layer it in with pine straw.  I added some other compost and aged cow manure along with layers of freshly thinned grape leaves and shoots.  Then I watered it down and it started to work.  You could see steam coming off it in the morning.  A long thermometer now reads almost 140° for the center of the pile.  I’m hoping it is finished working by the end of the summer so I can add it to my mulch mix if the wild turkeys don’t tear it apart looking for worms.

Okay.  Moving on…  The hummingbirds came back on April 21st.  Asparagus came up. Trees, bushes and flowers bloomed in their regular succession.  People were sheltering in place.  Schools closed.  Businesses shut down.  Traffic was at a minimum.  It was a beautiful quiet Spring except for the cacophony of birds, squirrels, deer and coyotes that felt they had free reign to make all the noise they wanted.  Eagles are particularly rambunctious in the morning.

BlondMorel.jpg

With lots of water and long days the flowers are exuberant.  Cheryl took pictures of many of them.  I wish I had taken more.  But to celebrate the occasion I have gathered them together in a little picture album.  You can also click on the picture of this iris, descended from  many that my brother John gave us years ago, to see the album.

BlondMorel.jpg
Blond Morel

No spring would be complete without hunting for morel mushrooms.  With fewer fires last year it took more hunting.  We explored some likely places and only found a few even though some of those were in our own vineyard.  Then Cheryl picked up on a conversation about the fire on the North Fork of Mill Creek last year.  On Mothers Day we headed out on an obscure forest service road in the general area.  It was easy to spot the burn, much bigger than we imagined and the road wound right through it.  Spotting the mushrooms was a little harder.  They were not everywhere, but tucked into cooler, wetter places.  Cheryl started searching up a fire trail on the edge of the fire.  It turned out to be a great area and we came back with a couple of baskets full that graced our meals for weeks.

Market Rain

But we had our own boisterous gathering to attend, the Farmers Market.  They started on May 6th and it rained.  It rained hard, about a half inch in Colville.  Amazingly it was a very good market day.  And every market day has been better than our average last year.  People are really into planting their own crops.  I sold most of the grape plants I had right away and started potting more.  Luckily many that I had written off as nearly dead sprang back to life in the rain under the shade of the old filbert tree.  Grape plants sold at about the same rate as wine.  I have had to stop bringing them to the market since it is past the ideal time for planting and the inventory has been picked over.

Protest.jpg
Cheryl at the Kettle Falls Black Lives Matter Protest

Today was the first market day that Cheryl and I have missed (June 13th).  Thunderstorms were predicted.  They didn’t happen but a Black Lives Matter protest did happen in Kettle Falls.  A lot of our friends were already there when we arrived.  So were a substantial group of opposition protesters with tasteful signs like “F**k Antifa”, big Trump flags and no face masks.  Still they stayed to themselves and we got a lot of approving honks and waves.  Rain fell on us all. 

Staying Small

Every day we become more aware and thankful for essential workers.  None can be any more essential than farmers.  But every year there are fewer of them.  Farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of the employed US population, totaling around 2.6 million people. Today, there are about 2 million farms in operation in the US, a steep decline from 7 million in 1935. (businessinsider.com)

Ron in his Pea field

Of that only 5% of current farms are family-owned.  (Wikipedia) and less than 1% of existing farms are organic.  So a third generation farmer who has been certified organic for the last 25 years is a rare person indeed.  Ron McLean is that person.

His family has owned sub irrigated bottomland along the Colville River north of Addy for all of his life.  His grandfather had a dairy herd there when dairy was good money.  His father farmed grain as agribusiness went through the “green revolution” and Ron learned the trade growing up. 

The farm is just as big as it was 45 years ago, around 700 acres, over a square mile.  He farms 520 acres of it.  Holding on to land that keeps increasing in value while the value of your crops keeps decreasing is tough.  Years ago the farm had a gross income of $50,000.  It was a decent living in the 1960s.  Now it wouldn’t cover the cost of operations. 

It was helpful that the family invested in buildings and equipment when they could.  Having silos for his crops allows Ron to wait years until the price is right for his crops.  Sometimes that is 2 or 3 years.  Along with infrastructure, staying in business means having capital, so you can wait out the price fluctuations.  Being able to raise your own food and repair your own equipment helps with that.

Besides the cost of doing business going up, the competition from around the world for bulk commodities has been driving the value of crops down steadily since the year 2000.  That is not just true of conventional crops but also – and maybe especially – of organic crops.  Aiming for that higher value, foreign countries are less ethical in policing their products. For instance, Whole Foods sells a “California Blend” of organic vegetables that comes from China where organic certification inspections are practically non-existent. (www.fooddemocracynow.org

McLean just planted his organic peas when I talked to him.  Last year’s average price for conventional dry peas grown in Washington was $1.20 per pound to the farmer.  Organic peas are worth over twice that.  If it is that profitable to sell organic crops, why are only 1% of our crops grown organically? 

There is no simple answer to that.  As a farmer you need to pay attention to a lot of factors.  One of them is yield.  Success with conventional crops is usually measured in yield.  But growing more on the same amount of land no longer means making more money.  While the cost of chemicals and equipment keeps going up and the value of crops competing in a world-wide market keeps going down, the solution is most often to “Get big or get out.”  But once your soil gets used to more minerals and chemicals, it won’t yield without them.  Ron views it as a kind of addiction that takes 3-5 years for withdrawal. 

Recently Ron has been able to sell his crops to Brad Murphy and his family at Red Bridge Farm Livestock Feed in Kettle Falls.  Other organic farmers growing livestock are wary of the risks in quality and supply when depending on foreign suppliers for feed.  Red Bridge offers a secure domestic source for organic feed.  Business keeps growing as word gets out.   Brad has been able to rejuvenate the grain silos and railroad connection in Kettle Falls.  He is able to store, grind, mix, sell and ship organic feeds all from this one location.

Staying small means paying attention to your soil; the market; your equipment; the weather and your own health.  Ron developed a dislike for the chemicals his father was using when he was young.  The mix of hard work dust and dirt is hard enough on your health without breathing fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides.

 The health of your soil underlies the whole enterprise.  To keep his land producing Ron rotates winter wheat, peas, wheat again and then fallow ground.  The fallow ground allows him to control weeds like yellow thistle and replenish organic matter.  The peas build nitrogen in their root nodules.  The rotation discourages pests from accumulating year after year.

Staying small means looking at your net profits and not just your yield per acre.  The bottomland is your bottom line. You can’t just buy your way out of every problem that the farm throws at you.  Ron says you have to keep trying new things and learn from experience.   Part of his experience is that you need to work the soil in order to get anything out of it.  Soil quality does not just improve on its own if you leave it alone.  As he says “Do nothing, get nothing.”

Mulch Mixer-Mover

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

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

Gut Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from The Hidden Half of Nature, Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Tour

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

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

Mother Trees

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

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

Pine Forest floor – picture by Joe Barreca

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

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

Rain Tree picture by Cheryl Barreca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Carbon Soil Diet

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

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

Figure 1 Rack for cutting branches

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

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

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

Browsing on Elm buds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downed Elm Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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