Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Winter, Wood, Wine and Worms

I want worms! Earthworms that is. A few blogs back  I wrote about how topsoil is the key to a healthy civilization reviewing a 1975 paper, Topsoil and Civilization.  (This link will download the whole 159 page book as a pdf – or you can email me and I will send it as a 1.6 meg attachment).   In November 2017 I made more progress toward improving my soil. As it turns out, there is a lot of interest in this topic from organic growers, not just to improve their soil and production, but to actually sequester carbon. It is a BIG deal. Called “carbon farming” or “regenerative agriculture” (a term coined by Rodale ). Carbon farming not only improves soil but has the potential to bring the earth back into carbon balance by re-storing the massive amounts of carbon that originally resided in the soil before deforestation, subsequent erosion and petroleum products (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones) killed the living microorganisms and leached out their byproducts which constitute a healthy soil.

But I’m getting wound up a little. November was basically about getting ready for winter which meant getting in wood, securing the working wine inventory and making some apple wine (sometimes infused with huckleberries).

We have a lot of nearby critters getting ready for winter. One of them is Pete, the Piliated Woodpecker. He thinks he owns the vineyard, and when I have picked the grapes, he moves right on to apples or whatever he can find. No shy scavenger, he loudly announces when he is flying in and does not move out readily. He evidently does not know he is in danger or that I don’t let just any animal eat all of the grapes they want.

Turkeys have become frequent guests. They do their own distribution of our compost pile and are eagerly awaiting sunflower seeds falling from our feeder. I just put the feeder up since snow has come and gone several times and will stick around soon.

We recently got our last load of firewood, and before that I made the last run to the dump while our 40-year-old Chevy pickup is safe to drive on dry pavement. On the same trip I loaded it up with shredded sticks that are piled up to compost by the City of Colville. On that same day the city was dumping leaves in a nearby site. I was checking it out and realized that the leaf compost had matured much faster. There were a hundred tons of composted black soil in this dump. A few days later

The last load of firewood

I asked their street department about it and yep it’s free and I am welcome to take as much as I want when the road into the site dries out next year.

So that was pretty exciting but there were other discoveries on the soil front. Today (December 5th) is National Soils Day. Even the New York Times is starting to see that soil is our best hope to overcome climate change and to remedy the inevitable failure of chemical farming to retain soil health.

One ancient method of retaining soil nutrients, even in the jungle where they tend to leach out in the rain, is the use of “biochar” (just charcoal really). It absorbs nutrients and prevents them from washing out of the soil. Almost pure carbon itself, charcoal keeps carbon in the soil and out of the air and the oceans, which are already overloaded. I have been looking for a technology to create biochar for a couple of years. In November I discovered that the best solution seems to be almost no technology at all.

Making biochar

I have been cutting up my slash pile of branches and grape prunings into smaller pieces. I start a small fire using wood from dried pine rounds (which are not good firewood) and pile on the slash. After the smoke clears, a bed of glowing charcoal lies under the fire. I rake the unburned material to one side of the fire and rake the hot charcoal out where I can dowse it with water. Once it is cool, I rake that into a pile where it is combined with aged goat manure to add nutrients. I pile more slash on the remaining fire and in less than an hour have more biochar to cool.

The (almost) new shredder

While cutting up the slash pile my chainsaw threw off it’s chain. After replacing it with another, I took the damaged chain to Colville’s Small Engine Repair shop. Out front was what looked like a brand new Troy-bilt Shredder/Chipper. I asked about it and found out it was really several years old, built before Troy-bilt was taken over by another company that started producing lower quality machines. The owner kept it in a garage and only used it a few times. He was moving, had the gas system cleaned by the shop and was selling it for $400. It originally cost $1000. It came come with me and I am eager to grind up every fire-prone carbon source on the place and put it back in the soil.

So while our resident house-frog has retired for the winter and our always-hunting house cat is taking a lot more naps, I will be reading up on carbon farming, and fermenting another year’s worth of wine thanks to some of my favorite microorganisms, yeasts. A very good introduction to the topic is “Soil Carbon Restoration” by Jack Kittredge of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Happy napping!

3 Responses to Winter, Wood, Wine and Worms

  1. well once again a informative and fun newsletter … I really enjoy your writings and musings

  2. I was confused about whether you were making traditional charcoal or plain fully burnt ash. I know from Kenya that charcoal is made by building a hot fire, then covering it with fresh wood (branch and split log sizes} Then covering the whole thing with dirt so as to allow only a small amount of smoke to escape thereby insuring a slow conversion of the wood to charcoal. (you know, Chemistry 101, heat a woodchip in a test tube with a cork that allows only a little gas to escape, but not allow enough oxygen into the tube to ignite the wood. The chip will turn to charcoal. Similarly, the roasting of coffee is a process of turning the beans into resinous char but not to the extent of making them charcoal. Most of the available flamable products remain in the charcoal. The example is Mesquite charcoal brickets out of Texas.
    On a similar subject:
    There are techniques available to convert the smoke from fossil fuel burning power plants into bio-oil by running it through algae which consumes the CO2 and converts it. But of course it is much easier and cheaper to just burn the fuel and let the smoke enter the atmosphere. When will we learn? When the polar ice cap disappears? Of course not, the Russians and the oil companies already have great plans to turn the Polar ice cap into a Huge (as Trump would say) oil field. I think that is why Secretary Tillerson wanted the job. He was already plotting to have a contract with Russia to exploit the Cara Sea oil reserved.

    BTW, Merry Winter Solstice, and Happy new year to you and your Kin!

    • Actually you seem to be thinking that I would want to retain the volatile parts of the wood. If I was using it for fuel, that would be the case as is probable in Kenya. Actually we are shooting for basically “activated charcoal” that is charcoal that has released all of the volatile resins and is almost pure carbon. The advantage is that millions of micropores in the otherwise inert charcoal capture and retain microbes that do the real work of spreading fertility around in the earth. Otherwise they would be leached out in irrigation on rainfall in our very porous soil. Basically it is like our own digestive systems which need to retain active micro organisms even though the bulk of what we eat is passed right through. Biochar is a small element in the effort to increase the amount, activity and health of life in the soil. The majority of the carbon in carbon farming is retained in living organisms which basically are digesting sugars that are exuded from the roots of plants that have leaves.

      I found these three references that are worth reading for an introduction:

      On the archaeology of boichar in National Geographic:

      On biochar from the scientific side:

      On the permaculture perspective:


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