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Backyard Biochar

by Joseph Barreca

Terra Flora conical biochar fireplace

Most days lately I look out my window and don’t think twice, it’s all white. But actually if you can get out in this snow comfortably, it is a great time to make biochar.  And biochar is black! Besides that, it is good for your soil.  So good in fact that all of our local northeast Washington state politicians have signed on to a memorandum listing the virtues of biochar.  HOUSE JOINT MEMORIAL 4000 State of Washington 66th Legislature 2019 Regular Session states: “WHEREAS, People working for the United States Forest Service, the Washington State University, the University of Washington, and the Washington State Department of Ecology have been researching the use of biochar and found that several potential markets exist for the product, including as agricultural soil amendments, reforestation treatments, pollution remediation, animal feed, and landscaping material;…decrease fuel loads… increase soil carbon, soil nutrient content, and plant productivity;”  It goes on and on but you get the idea. 

Biochar ready to quench

Suddenly biochar is cool mostly because there is money to be made selling it.  But there is also money to be saved by making it.  (It costs $60/yard from Pacific Biochar with a 40 yard minimum – and that’s the wholesale price.   I already have a lot of dead Ponderosa Pine that leaves a lot of ash and clogs up the chimney when you burn it in a wood stove.  So we mostly burn Fir and Larch for heat.  I used to burn a big 10′ diameter pile of “agricultural waste” every year.  It was spectacular, but not productive.  So now I burn small batches of pine to make biochar and after a lot of trial and error, feel like I have a good system.

You can make fancy biochar reactors.  I’ve tried my hand at that.  A good one is shown in the Fall 2015 issue of The Natural Farmer in the article about David Yarrow’s biochar reactor.  To understand the reactor you need to understand the two stages of burning that go on in a typical fire.  When you first ignite a fire the burning material, (let’s say wood for the sake of simplicity) is heated up and volatile gases vaporize, combine with oxygen and create bright flames.  To the extent that they don’t combust completely, they create smoke.  When those volatile gases are exhausted, pure charcoal is left. It will combust and leave only ashes if it stays hot and is exposed to oxygen.  To get charcoal – essentially the same as biochar – we need to prevent that. This second stage of combustion is preferable for barbeque – even heat and no smoke – hence charcoal briquettes.  The objective of a biochar reactor is to use the flame from the volatile gases to drive all the volatile resins out of the wood while creating very little smoke and then allow the oxygen to be cut off from the charcoal before it turns to ash so you can harvest the biochar.

There are two big problems with that method for me.  One: even simple reactors are complicated and expensive to build and a little tricky to use.  Second: once your biochar is cooled, you need to unload the reactor and start all over again.  What I am going to describe is how to make “Backyard Biochar” with virtually no expense and a semi-continuous process that produces one load after another.  I owe a lot in this endeavor to Gloria Flora and a simple dish that she developed as shown on her blog: http://terraflora.us/blog/.   It is a cone about 3 feet across made of sheet metal.  It has a flat bottom and is held together with pop rivets.  The first advantage is that in a cone, the embers concentrate at the bottom even though the pieces of wood are stacked up like a classic bonfire.  The second advantage is that the cone is light and has chain handles so once the embers are quenched, they can be emptied out into another container.  That being said, you can do essentially the same thing with a little fireplace made out of concrete blocks and a flat-nosed shovel.

.   It is a cone about 3 feet across made of sheet metal.  It has a flat bottom and is held together with pop rivets.  The first advantage is that in a cone, the embers concentrate at the bottom even though the pieces of wood are stacked up like a classic bonfire.  The second advantage is that the cone is light and has chain handles so once the embers are quenched, they can be emptied out into another container.  That being said, you can do essentially the same thing with a little fireplace made out of concrete blocks and a flat-nosed shovel.

Advice from Roger Ellison

In a standard cycle you get a big bonfire going of wood that is fairly uniform and not over 3 inches thick.  Any bigger and the piece will not burn through.  Much smaller and there will be hardly any charcoal left when it stops flaming.  You want the whole fire to get burning at once.  It takes a half hour to 45 minutes usually to burn down to charcoal.  You can tell because resins flame yellow, but charcoal just glows red or has tiny blue flames.  When most of the wood has turned to charcoal and just a few pieces are still burning with yellow flames, you make your move.  I use a pair of log tongs from a fireplace tool set to move the burning pieces off of the charcoal into a little stack, usually on top of a piece of bark. They keep burning.  Meanwhile, especially with snow around, you can shovel some snow on the charcoal embers.  It will melt and you can mix it in. (Later in the Spring a hose will work as well.) I do that a couple times until there is some moisture left on the bottom of the cone.  Even though it may still steam, the charcoal is ready.  I dump it into an apple bin and reload.

To reload I put the still-burning pieces in the bottom of the cone.  Then I add some small kindling pieces.  I fan it with an old yard sign until the kindling catches fire.  Then I pile up another round of 3 inch wood and soon there is another roaring bonfire.  The whole cycle takes a little over an hour.  You can cycle 5 or 6 times a day and still have some time for other chores in between quench, dump and reload steps.  After it is cooled and dried out a bit, I run it through a shredder.  (If it is too wet, it will gum up the shredder).

For most uses people till about 10% to 15% biochar into the soil.  Although some benefits have been show for direct use as a “soil amendment”, I think that is a mistake in both thinking and practice.  Soil is a whole biome of living organisms.  It includes fungi, bacteria, worms, insects and year-round cover crops.  Every part of it has a role that benefits the rest.  Plant roots feed sugar to those organisms.  When you till, you break up the hyphae, the branching filaments that make up the mycelium of a fungus. Those filaments bring water and minerals to the roots of the plants.  Once broken, they take time to reform and the soil is less alive.  You also break the roots of the cover crop that feeds sugar to microbs.

Too often we isolate some ingredient, (nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, potassium…) and think that adding more of that part will help the whole.  An article in The The Natural Farmer , “Biochar a Critical View through the Ecosystemic Lens”, cautions: “In sum, the biochar fad seems to be one more of the increasing number of wishful attempts to prolong the inevitable decline of the industrial way of life. Biochar is promoted as one more technological silver bullet. Seen through the ecosystemic lens, silver bullets don’t exist. Seen through the ecosystemic lens, we do not have a shortage of anything, we have a longage of expectations.”

The best thing for new organic growth is old organic growth, dead or alive.  I mix the biochar with leaf compost, shredded branches, potash and grass mulch then spread it on top of the ground.  Existing fungi and microbes move into the mix and integrate it into the soil. Biochar reverses carbon pollution because it is inert and sequesters carbon.  But it also entrains carbon by promoting more carbon-based life in the rest of the soil.  Alan Savory in his book Holistic Management warns about the dangers of growing a crop that will be removed from its own soil, burned and changed so that it will not be recycled back into living organisms.  So go ahead and make biochar in your backyard. But proceed with caution.

Time Farches On

It is over 40º right now for the first time in over a month. December and January were like Winter Lite. Local folks were scoffing at the weather back then. I’ll try to avoid that in the future, especially if it gets very hot and dry again. February came back with a vengeance. We have not had this much snow in February since 1893 and it shows no sign yet of leaving in March. Thus one long month, Farch. Temperatures were down near 0º for us and substantially below that for most of the surrounding area. Luckily we have a good supply of wood or we would be heating with cabin fever.

During the earlier part of the winter the local birds were not very interested in our sunflower seed feeder or the suet baskets we put in the trees next to the house. But in February it was a feeding frenzy all day. (Click on the picture of the bird feeder for a video of the suet baskets.) The main crowd were Juncos. A surprising addition were Thrushes. Almost missing entirely were Chickadees. But Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are regulars as well as an occasional Nuthatch or Flicker. We hear Eagles every morning. They have a nest across the highway from us. Once in awhile one will perch in the neighbor’s cottonwoods. Turkeys sometimes swarm the area beneath the bird feeder.

Rowan Tree

Before they started on the suet, the Thrushes ate every berry on the Rowan (Mountain Ash) tree. That tree was also popular with the local deer, who cleaned up anything left on the ground. Rocky, the Pine Squirrel had a stash of pine cones in the open ends of the wall of the shed next to the Rowan. Now there is a midden of cone petals underneath a perch by that wall. I think he (or she) may have found a way into the storage shed but so far has eluded capture in live traps.

Meanwhile our cat Gray-C is limiting outdoor time to a half an hour at a shot, taking more naps, staring out the window and playing more enthusiastically at catch-the-string. We try to keep a jacket on our dog, Gretchen when she is outside. But she does not seem to mind rolling in the snow on top of her ball with or without the jacket.

Almost as surprising were the Maple Seed Spinners that have been clinging to the trees all winter. One windy day they broke loose and covered the snow. I had wondered how their shape helped them, but the sight of their dispersal answered any questions. In the past week a new outbreak of pine cones, pine nuts and lichen have fallen around the pine trees prompted by the “Arctic Outbreak” temperatures and wind. I noticed the deer wandering through and eating all the lichen off the top of the snow. They are also eating the prickly leaves of Oregon Grape. (The leaves seem to grow right back in the Spring but there are fewer flowers and berries.)

As for us, there are plenty of indoor things to do and every morning a couple hours of chores outside such as feeding the birds, bringing in the wood, exercising the dog and picking up the mail. Last year at this time we were off on a trip to Hawaii. Right now we will settle for some bare ground and sunshine. Of course that might end up meaning “Mud Season”. And this might be another one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments. But right now If it ain’t white it’s alright with me.

Sewage Wars

Scott Thomas at the Wastewater Treatment Plant

After touring the Colville Wastewater Treatment Plant I met some old friends while shopping. They asked how it was going and when I told them I had just toured the sewage plant, they gave me that “Oh, oh, Joe’s gone off the deep end” look and quickly slipped away. Generally we are not comfortable talking about poop. But I have become interested in the billions of microbes in a teaspoon of fertile soil and many of those same microbes in our guts. I was thinking that there should be some boost to soil fertility from properly processed poop. So I asked Waste Treatment Plant Operator, Scott Thomas, for a tour, which he made time for on the spur of the moment.

The plant can treat almost 5 million gallons of wastewater a day and has a bypass system if it goes beyond that. There is a chart of 36 common activated sludge microorganisms that staff in the plant track as a succession of organisms digest each other into “higher” forms with “water bears” being one of the last stages – and one of my favorites. Tardigrades, AKA water bears, can enter a state of cryptobiosis, a dried up little spot to my way of thinking, that can survive in outer space. Actually they prefer ferns and lichens but there are plenty of them at the far end of the sewage plant.

Water Bear

The plant itself is like a giant digestive system. Everything coming in is ground down by the “muffin monster” in the headwaters building. It’s a little like chewing your food, but in this case feminine hygiene products and other junk need to be prevented from clogging the system. The bigger chunks are filtered out in the preliminary treatment plant along with heavy grit and packaged in long plastic tubes that are sent to the dump, AKA sanitary landfill. From there the real action begins in the Selector Tanks. Anaerobic (airless) digestion is started by recycling organisms into these tanks that proliferate in the raw sewage over an average holding time of 12-24 hours. From there the wastewater is fed into the Biologic Digester which is like an artificial river with aerators that introduce air into the water and propagate the next level of microbiotics. This two-stage digestion eliminates a lot of troublesome microbes that would survive anaerobic digestion.

With microbes in the final stages of development at the plant, the water is clarified and irradiated with powerful ultraviolet lights that make the microbes incapable of reproducing and then aerated to make sure it has enough dissolved oxygen before it is sent to the Colville river. Every 5 years the water is tested for just under 200 pollutants. The sludge is sent to a holding lagoon where is kept for years. The current cycle is from 2006 to 2022. Eventually the dried sludge needs to be tested by the Department of Ecology before it can be spread as fertilizer on fields. At that point it will be classified as either Class A or Class B bio-solid.

These plants need to keep their microorganisms alive and to eliminate metals: arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, and zinc. Colville does not test for other metals or any of the 352 pollutants categorized as hazardous in federal programs other than the EPA’s bio-solid’s program . Simply put, that is not their job. These are good people doing an honest day’s work but the system conforms to laws that are not keeping up with modern society. No two wastewater treatment plants are alike or deal with the same input.

Spreading Bio-solids

To get the lowdown on the opposition to the application of sewage sludge on agricultural land I talked with Chrys Ostrander who along with other residents of Mill Canyon, just north of Davenport, Washington, successfully stopped application of sewage sludge in fields above the canyon which is also home to Tolstoy Farm, an organic grower. Their battle was with Fire Mountain Farms of Onalaska, WA, a company with a checkered reputation that offers to apply sewage sludge on farms at no cost to the farmer (the company is paid by sewage treatment plants to take the sludge away). Despite the folksy name, Fire Mountain is rich, powerful and has very good lawyers. Several years ago neighbors of Fire Mountain’s sludge processing facility experienced an epidemic of miscarriages in their livestock. Fire Mountain was found to be illegally mixing industrial waste with sewage sludge and was shut down for a time by the Department of Ecology. A new battle is coming in Yelm with Fire Mountain waste products, mostly class B sludge, near the Nisqually River. (See http://preservethecommons.org/biosolids-near-yelm.html) Chrys considers sewage sludge to be like nuclear waste. There is no safe amount for farmland or the ecosystem.

In the opposite corner is Chris Eckhart whose family farms 1500 acres near Deer Park. They have had biosolids applied to their property. Recently they have used sludge from the City of Spokane that scans for 250 chemicals. Chris visited their plant and is glad that now his organic matter in the soil is now up to 3%, a worthwhile number.  They also tried solids from the Deer Park wastewater plant. That did not turn out so well and was the last from that source.

Night Crawler

Part of the problems with sludge are POPs and I don’t mean soda pops – though I don’t think much of those either. POPs are “persistent organic pollutants”. Basically these are things that bioconcentrate in living organisms. One of the best key tests is on phylum Annelida, earthworms. Sewage sludge can be bad for earthworms. An article about land treated with sewage sludge in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, issue 42, states “The anthropogenic (involving the impact of humans on nature) waste indicators, AWIs, detected in earthworm tissue from the three field sites included pharmaceuticals, synthetic fragrances, detergent metabolites, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), biogenic sterols, disinfectants, and pesticides, reflecting a wide range of physicochemical properties.”

So let’s break that down a little. Pharmaceuticals can include Warfarin, a blood thinner, Testosterone, a hormone, opiates, steroids and antibacterials. These in turn have caused antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop in sludge-treated ground, half of which are resistant to more than one antibacterial drug. Detergent metabolites include Triclosan and Triclocarbon found in those antibacterial sprays and wipes that have become so widely advertised. They keep on killing long after leaving your kitchen. PAHs, chemicals from petroleum and coal, have been linked to skin, lung, bladder, liver, and stomach cancers in well-established animal model studies. Biogenic sterols are a reliable marker of human sewage contamination. Disinfectants and pesticides are designed to kill and will ultimately kill these earthworms. But they will still not leave the soil where they will concentrate in organisms including food plants or water again.

There are enough studies about people downwind or downstream from sewage sludge having a long list of health issues to put wind and water at the top of the list of things to consider if sewage sludge is coming to a neighborhood near you. Are biosolids totally bad? Ask the worms.

Winter Links

It is near the end of January and not everything is shutdown. Still it is nice to have some time to look to the future as snow and cold slow us down. I have a couple of essays planned on sewage sludge and holistic philosophy. (I knew you would be thrilled.)  First here are topics of current interest.

At the top of my list of things to support and get ready for it the Global Earth Repair Conference  sponsored by Friends of the Trees. It will be held May 3-5, 2019 at the Fort Warden Conference Center in Port Townsend. Over 96 presenters will be doing workshops on a multitude of topics. My favorite track is Regenerative Farming. There are already 46 tracks and registration is half full with a target of 500 participants. Costs vary but even if you cannot attend, PLEASE CONTRIBUTE TO THE GOFUNDME SITE.  

In the meantime people send me links and links have links. So they can be like going down the rabbit hole. Nevertheless I want to share a couple of my favorites. The first one is to a “podcast” by Rich Roll interviewing Dr. Zack Bush. This is probably the best and most in depth discussion of the problems we face medically and environmentally and the solutions available through regenerative agriculture that I have ever heard. Unfortunately it is over 2 hours long and actually a video. So it takes up a lot of one’s data allowance. With Hughesnet I can get up at 2 AM and not spend any of my data. Possibly it is really just “audio” on some cell phones and will not be a data issue for you. At any rate it is ENTIRELY WORTH THE TIME: https://www.richroll.com/podcast/zach-bush-414/. (Thank you Amber!)

A website associated with Zach Bush is http://farmersfootprint.us/. There is already a lot of good content there but it will develop much more as some movies about these subjects come out. Unbelievably, farmers can be making $400 to $500 profit per acre annually using regenerative agriculture but stick to making $40/acre using chemicals. They face huge social and political pressures that this website was built to address.

Another podcast in this series features Dr. Bush again, https://www.richroll.com/podcast/zach-bush-353/. It is also very good and deals in more depth with the medical implications of what we are up against.

Given the dustup over wolves and grazing cattle on forest land in Northeast Washington, this next pair of links may seem weird. But I have come to believe that grazing cattle in the forest can actually be good for the forest – improving the soil and reducing the danger of fire – and good for the cattle if it is done in a way that imitates or includes the effects of wolves.
https://civileats.com/2019/01/07/silvopasture-can-mitigate-climate-change-will-u-s-farmers-take-it-seriously/ This first link goes to a short article on silvopasture, using pasture under trees. If you are interested, there is a facebook group that discusses this practice.  I’m very interested in talking to anyone who has experience with this.

This final link is a bit more general. It goes to an article on things corporations are doing that are actually encouraging. They include development of Regenerative Agricultural Certification and restoration of a huge 27,000 acre mangrove forest in Columbia.  https://www.fastcompany.com/90279292/the-most-exciting-corporate-sustainability-moves-of-2018

Mangrove Swamp in Columbia – a huge carbon sink

Please take some time to check out these links. I find that media and politics tend to ignore what are really our biggest problems and what most needs to be done about them in favor of what generates the most emotion and attention.

Baco Noir, Books and Biochar

Ron Irvine

It’s nice to have some confirmation that your wines are good from a wine expert. Recently I was pleased to learn that Ronald Irvine has tasted Barreca Vineyards varieties Léon Millot and Baco Noir. Before I elaborate on what he had to say let’s introduce Ron.

Prior to purchasing the Vashon Winery nearly 20 years ago, Ron was active in preserving the Pike Place Market and he started Pike & Western Wine Shop, which he operated for 15 years. (I’m pretty sure that I bought my first grape crusher there.) Ron is also the co-author with Walter Clore of the book, “The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History.”
I bought that book last year. It is a good read that contains stories of visits to all of the early and major Washington wineries published in 1997. Early on there were only 5 wineries in the state. Now there are over 1500.

Mark Musick introduced the wine to Ron. Here is his description of how it went:
“We started with the Léon Millot, which Ron said was much cleaner and softer than he’d anticipated, most likely because it was harvested at 27° Brix, which is higher than any he’s seen. He said it’s phenomenal you didn’t add sugar.  Ron added that the wine didn’t have the Concorde “grapey” quality he expected. He said that, while the Léon Millot has good fruit characteristics, it’s also “leathery,” so it’s not all fruitiness. He said he thought people would like the wine because it’s so soft and easy to drink. However, he didn’t think it had the acidity to pair well with food…

Mark Musick

From there we turned to the Baco Noir. Ron started by saying it “smelled wonderful,” and he guessed it was because the wine quickly “opened up” due to the lack of sulfites. Because of its higher Ph, Ron said it was sharper, crisper, has more of a “bight,” and would likely pair better with food. He also said the wine would likely age longer…

The bottom line is that Ron thought both of your wines that we samples are good to very good. I’m a novice wine taster, but I had to agree. The Baco Noir in particular would have been easy to drink all afternoon!”

Ron was worried about my “Natural” wines since they do not have sulfites. I think this is a topic that needs a lot more awareness and to that end I added a page to this website, What’s in Your Wine.. I think everyone should read that article because it has a lot to do with personal health as well as the health of the soil and environment.

Another great book, besides The Wine Project, is David Montgomery and Anne Bikle’s The Hidden Half of Nature. This book finally takes all the lessons about how microbes work together in the soil to keep each other and plants healthy and describes in detail how those same microbial systems work inside of our guts to keep us healthy. It is readable (and pardon the pun) digestible in a way that many semi-scientific books are not. Really, you won’t think about gardening or eating the same way again after reading this book.

Christmas at our house.

Meanwhile besides Christmas, New Years etc. the weather has been mild and given me a chance to make a lot more biochar. Thanks to Joe Petrucelli, owner of Meyers Falls Market, I now have an old apple bin to store the stuff in and some new techniques for making it. You can expect a lot more on that topic in months to come.

All the leaves are brown

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray…
(California Dreamin, the Mamas and the Papas)

The Sky is Gray

Four days after Halloween daylight savings time ends. It gets dark around 4 PM. On the bright side there is daylight at 7 AM. What really closes in is the realization that although winter might not be officially here, for all practical purposes it already is. Get the wood in. Cover anything you don’t want wet. Bring in the crops… I’m sure they put Thanksgiving toward the end of the month because if you are ready for winter by then, it’s really something to be thankful for.

At least the cooler weather keeps fruit well. Unlike grapes, that need immediate attention, apples can wait. So days crushing apples for fresh cider, cider to freeze and cider to make wine out of were spaced out all month. I have been crushing and pressing apples on what I believe is the first apple press made at the American Village Institute in Marcus. They still make cider presses. I worked in their foundry around 1977 having already ordered a cider press, I was able to cast parts for one that was assembled on site at the end of our apprenticeship week and it has my initials cast into it.

AVI = American Village Institute, JB is me, American Harvester is the style.

Now that it is 40+ years old, it cranks a little slower – that may just be me. The juice leaks out in places but mostly goes in the stainless steel bowls where it should. There are no real bearings but the 25 pound flywheel keeps the crusher turning except if you put more than one apple through it at a time. It takes 3/4 of a box of apples to fill one pressing basket and make about a gallon of juice. I crank with one hand and load apples with the other. It goes pretty easy at first but by the time the basket is full (believe me), Nordic Track has nothing on my cider press. So it is really good exercise and I am going to totally rebuild it with an electric motor and real bearings or just replace it as soon as I can.

While crushing apples I listened to Rocky, the overachiever pine squirrel, who has been dropping pine cones from 100 ft up on our huge central Ponderosa pine tree at a prodigious rate. He (or she) takes an occasional break to sit on a limb and chatter at us in between bombing runs and trips stuffing pine cones in the open ends of the old house forms that make up our shop and woodshed. He is good company but don’t walk under that pine tree.

Rocky with a pinecone

The cider process is also popular with deer, who come round to eat the leftover apple pulp from the pressing. I have been trying to mix some of it in with the compost I am still spreading between the vineyard rows, but I don’t always get to that right away and the deer essentially camp out here when there is apple pulp by the compost. There’s nothing like going into your back yard at night and seeing two bright green eyes staring at your headlamp from a deer bedded down on the lawn.

Gray-C before

Another creature to feature this month has to be our cat, Gray-C. Cheryl started humming Christmas carols with Gray-C on her lap earlier this month and Gray-C started meowing along with her. But later a big orange tabby feral cat moved into our outbuildings and we saw the two cats sitting in a tree yowling at each other one morning. A couple nights later a cat fight broke out on the south side of the house. There were tufts of orange and gray hair left on the grass in the morning. I wish that was the end of it. But on November 27th Cheryl discovered that Gray-C had a swollen cheek. A hastily arranged visit to the vet confirmed that there was an abscess that had to be lanced after shaving off hair on one side of her face. A couple days later Gray-C brought in not one, but 2 dead mice in the evening and has not slowed down since. It’s probably her way of making up for the vet bill.

Gray-C after a close shave

We celebrated the end of the month at Thanksgiving with our daughter April and her family and friends. Snow was falling on Boulder Creek pass as we drove home but has not managed to stick here yet. Huckleberry/Apple wine is working and wafting great smells in the office/winery. New mapping and history projects are spread over the desk. Gretchen and Gray-C warm up by the wood stove in the morning. All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray, but it’s okay.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Kinda Yellow

Look out your window

Kinda Yellow Grass

That grass ain’t green
It’s kinda yellow
See what I mean?

Bob Dylan, Traveling Wilburys – Inside Out

So October was “kinda yellow” from the get go. It involved a lot of chilling out from 62 degrees in the evenings at the beginning of the month to 41 degrees and some frosts at night near the end. At first I would bundle up at 50 degrees. This morning it was 44 and I put on a Carhartt vest over my inside cloths and did my chores. No big deal. I guess my blood is getting thicker.

The leaves turned yellow and most of them have fallen off by now. On October 1st I picked Siegerrebe grapes at nearby Downriver Orchards. Last year Don had trouble with powdery mildew but used a variety of organic sprays to bring in a beautiful crop, much of which is now bubbling on its way to becoming a kinda yellow wine.

Rowan Berries

The vats were full most of the time as crop after crop went through the crusher and into primary fermentation. We were drying prunes, the last of the dried fruit; stacking firewood, making wine and eating our favorite kinda yellow corn fritter breakfasts up until October 9th. About then we started having fires in the wood stove most mornings to warm up the house. Now it’s going, most of the time with a warm yellow flame.

Slow food Group doing some fast picking

A team of friends from our Slow Food group came over on the 14th to bring in our biggest crop, Baco Noir. It was more of a red day with lots of wine, Cheryl’s homemade chili and red leaves on the oaks and ash trees. I thought Baco Noir would be the last red wine of the year but a couple days later some friends gave us their grapes which included Marquette. It’s a grape that I had heard a lot about but never seen. The color is amazing, a vivid deep magenta. There is still a little bright froth at the top of its carboy as it settles in for a couple of years of fermenting before we can taste how it turns out.

But the last grapes to come in are “whites” which really are kinda yellow. On the 21st I started harvesting the

Okanagan Riesling

Okanagan Riesling. We have enough to sell this year from the 2016 crop and it is wonderful. In fact although red wines are perennially popular, the whites tend to have more distinct flavors. Siegerrebe caught the attention of the crowd at Barreca Vineyards wine tasting on Friday the 19th at Meyers Falls Market. The slight citrus tang of Muscat was also welcome. Our last grape wine of the season is Gewürztraminer, a spicy addition to our kinda yellow lineup. We made Himrod wine again this year to take advantage of the tangy taste of this seedless variety. Soon after it gets totally ripe, the clusters start to drop, so you have to deal with them.

Cheryl’s Comedy Face

Just before the end of daylight savings time, the mornings are especially dark. We dressed up in costumes for our last Farmers Market of the year on Halloween itself. We set up the canopy in the rain by the light of a kinda yellow street lamp and ate our pumpkin pie for breakfast. It was a little sad to say goodbye to our market friends for the year. The vendors gave a gift basket to Tazi and Tamara because it was also the last day for Tazi’s Coffee Shop that has been such a boon to the market all year.

There is still some yellow going on. The Western Larch (Tamaracks) have turned bright yellow but will soon lose

Yellow Jackets

their needles. I picked Golden Delicious apples that our neighbor gave us. Some started to split and the last of the Yellow Jackets loved that. I have a new respect for them although I think one of them nailed me in the neck on the 15th. They kill destructive insects like leafhoppers and they store yeasts over the winter. And of course they are kinda yellow.

This Praying Mantis is not yellow. Sometimes they are. It’s in a faceoff with a spider.

Fall 2018

As you could expect, this is a very busy time of year at the vineyard.  So to shorten the blog to a minimum I will just put a link here for an article I wrote in the North Columbia Monthly for October – and have recreated here on this website.  It is called Dirt First and gives the basics of Regenerative Agriculture.  Then I will put in some pictures with captions.

Dried Fruit for the winter

Tomatoes coming on

Filberts from out trees

Hot Lips are still in bloom

Paste Tomatoes

Crab Apples

The Red Oak picture by Cheryl

Marechal Foch Grapes

The Rav4 broke a timing belt on the way to the Farmers Market

Siegerrebe Grapes in the crusher

Cheryl sold her 4 wheel drive Toyota to my daughter April. Maybe James will be able to drive it in 2030.

Lucie Kuhlmann primary fermentation

Friends picking a future French Rocks Red wine

Big Cat Face spider 

Siegerrebe Grapes at Downriver Orchard

Our VW Vanagon cracked ahead – out for the season

Kit and Sharon Shultz crushing grapes with Tom Distler

Amber and Tom helping out

A big Black Lab Cheryl rescued from the highway and found the owners for

Himrod Grapes

3 cords of wood delivered

Silent Fall

Gray-C liked the bird nets

When a pendulum swings it pauses at either end and quickly passes through the middle. August is the middle. Things are changing quickly. We have gone from some of the hottest summer days on record to days of giant swings between the high and low temperatures. That part of our weather is actually good for grapes and wine. Not so good were a few days of suffocating smoke that might affect the wine.

Record High Temperatures

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published in 1962 warning of mankind’s impact on the natural world. 66 years later this last month has me wondering once again if we have not permanently impacted wildlife. After spending parts of many days putting up bird nets over the grapes, virtually no birds showed up, just a flock of robins apparently looking for bugs in the new mulch. I’m hoping that it is only a temporary aberration because of smoke but smoke has become the norm in the past few years. I also worry about wasps and yellow jackets this time of year. They were going strong all summer but now seem to have faded away.

At least the crickets are persistent, maybe too persistent. They set up a steady drone in the evening with a pulse of solo artists nearby. We have a frog somewhere behind the refrigerator that pipes up around dinner time. The crops are doing well, I dried a couple gallons of

Some critters persisted

cherries and apricots. Cheryl froze, strawberries, raspberries, peaches and blueberries. We picked a good supply of huckleberries.

With the fruit there is also fresh corn and the combination makes for our favorite breakfast: corn fritters and fruit. The recipe is simple. One ear of corn kernels, one egg and several teaspoons of flour. Mix them all together and fry. Flip after a minute or so and in another minute you should have a fritter nicely browned on each side, ready for butter, maple syrup and fresh fruit. Multiply the ingredients to suit your appetite. Serve with a white desert wine. (Just kidding about the wine).

 

But speaking of white wine, August was a great month for filling out our white wine selections. The Muscat has a surprising hint of citrus and was great with Copper River salmon last week. For the first time ever we have some extra Gewürztraminer to sell with it’s unique fresh flavor. Siegerrebe, a crisp semi-sweet white wine, has been popular all summer. A new addition is elderberry wine which many people have heard of and some rave about. We are almost out of the limited release of Riesling for 2016, a wine I am very proud of, refreshing but not too sweet or tart. And finally, Caramel(ized) Apple Wine that seems perfect for Fall.

Boyds fire in the background

The beginning of August brought us drought and record-breaking heat with at least a couple of days reaching 104. We could work outside in the morning or evening, but inside our underground house or straw bale office were the best places to beat the heat. Heat became the least of our problems on August 11th, when a fire broke out across the lake from us and 10 miles to the north, said to be caused by a tree blowing over in 40 mph winds and hitting a power line. The “Boyds Fire” was really mostly near Barney’s Junction, Noisy Waters and Nancy Creek, not Boyds.  But apparently we cartographers are the only ones fussy about names. Over the next couple of weeks it grew to nearly 5000 acres.

Boyds Fire First Night (Links to Video)

The morning of the 12th we drove to the newly opened hardware store in Kettle Falls and bought a box of N95 breathing masks. Then we drove out to St Paul’s Mission to look at the fire burning on the other side of the lake. Several homes burned, some owned by people we know. Many others lost power and had to evacuate, including our mailman. Ultimately it became a project fire with 400 firefighters. The whole town of Kettle Falls seemed to be a fire camp. We put icons for air quality on our phones and watched as it crept past unhealthy to very unhealthy and hazardous. We wore breathing masks for the limited time we spent outdoors and still keep sprinklers on around our buildings. When you can barely see across the street because of the smoke, you are always worried that there may be a new fire nearby that you just can’t see. Finally, two weeks later on August 26th it rained enough to wet the ground and clear the air.

Great Sunsets in the Smoke

The sun was a red ball in a gray sky at sunrise and sunset. Even the moon was red and the stars mostly disappeared. Now we are thankful for the crisp air and the blue sky. Signs reading “Firefighters Rule” have sprouted up everywhere, (along with all the political signs of course). Despite articles circulating about “smoke taint”, we have started to harvest grapes, and they taste great. The “tyranny of the harvest” has begun and we are glad to work outside again.

One Thing Leads to Another

Huckleberries are Ripe

This will be the hottest day of the year, 104 degrees. I’m glad to be in our straw bale winery at 74 degrees F. It is also the height of fruit season. There are cherries in the dryer; apricots in the refrigerator; huckleberries, blueberries and peaches in the freezer. Breakfast was fresh corn fritters with most of those fruits on top. Grapes, plums and apples are all on their way or just starting. But bringing the crop in is far from a done deal.

Grapes Turning Color

The new irrigation is almost completely installed but ironically we are now starting to taper off on water. The grapes are turning to their natural color. Veraison is the technical name of this stage of their development. The not so technical name is “get the bird nets up” season. So the push is on to have the grapes covered while migrating birds start to pass by so they don’t decide to stay awhile.

Smoke over Eastern Washington

It has also been a busy month for migrating visitors. Too bad they are not here to help with the nets. But who can blame them. The whole of Eastern Washington is covered in forest fire smoke. We did get a fast ride on a Zodiac from a visiting friend of a friend. It’s a good time to live near a lake.

On July 27th I bottled

Okanagan Riesling

Riesling from 2016. It is very much a vintage to be proud of. We have enough of it to sell right now but it is going fast.

Two days later I gave a talk on Regenerative Agriculture and a Permaculture gathering nearby. It was well-received and I took the occasion to introduce some observations about how adding compost between the rows in the vineyard is affecting the grapes. The basic idea of Regenerative Agriculture is that healthy living soil is more fertile than any soil that depends on additions of fertilizer be it chemical or even organic. I’m seeing a “multiplier effect” in the rows that have been enhanced for the longest time. First the compost acts as a mulch. So they retain more water and it is enriched with nutrients from the compost. This spurs more plant growth in both the ground cover and the grapes.

Growth Comparison

As a sample I can compare a plantian leaf from outside the vineyard that gets water but no compost with one from a composted row. The first is 3 inches long. The second is 10 inches. If you estimate 3 times the length and 3 times the breadth, there is over 9 times the size in the compost grown plant. This will multply the amount of organic matter sitting on that row, which will in turn help grow larger plants all around. Additionally there is added bug life and bird life. The vineyard is now a habitat. I expected these effects to take years to mature and am sure that they will. But the immediate effects are much greater than I anticipated.

Tasting at Republic Brewing

Later on the 29th after giving a talk in the morning and exploring for huckleberries in the afternoon, I talked about our wines at an official wine tasting at the Republic Brewing Company. That was fun, gave me a better idea of what wines are favorites and resulted in more orders. The top three picks were Lucie Kuhlmann, Baco Noir and Siegerrebe. The Lucie Kuhlmann is a sweet, strong wine that stands well on its own. The Baco is drier and pairs well with hearty dishes. Siegerrebe is a crisp white wine that when chilled makes a refreshing addition to light meals in this hot weather.

Come to think of it. That sounds like a great idea right now. I’ll start making a fresh vegetable and pasta dinner while doing some “quality control” on a cool glass of white wine.