Wildflowers in the Vineyard: More Than Just Pretty Faces

By Lauren Cross

Thanks to the late rainstorms we had recently, it is now wildflower season here at Tablas Creek!  One of the many benefits of our organic and biodynamic property is the prolific wildlife that lives symbiotically throughout the vineyard. We leave sections of the vineyard to our native vegetation because of the insect and microbial life these plants support, and these section, particularly, burst into flower in April and May. Guests to our upcoming spring festivals are in for a treat!  I took a long hike through the vineyard and was happy to find dozens of unique wildflowers.  Here are a few of my favorite photos.

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I found this first pea flower in the cover crop near the lambing barn.  It is so exciting to see all of the tall crops between the vines- a few months back before the rain storms there was just bare soil and now the cover crop and flowers reach almost four feet!

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I found this tall buttercup flower blowing in the breeze farther in the vineyard behind the old nursery greenhouses.

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Finding this flowering Salvia was the best surprise of the day.  It was nestled in under an oak tree just passed the gate into our new unplanted property. 

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 I love the intricacies of this wild Primrose with the delicate white star shaped center. 

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The bees are happy it is wildflower season too! The California poppy it's feasting on is our state flower, and always our most visible sign of spring.

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This thistle is my favorite shot of the day.  I love the texture and how the flower is just beginning to open up.  It reminds me of the 2014 vintage just beginning in the vineyard: new growth just before flowering and all of that potential just waiting to be realized.


Photo Essay: The first vineyard hike of spring

By Lauren Cross

I couldn't resist hiking through the vineyard today. The sun was warm and bright, there was a slight breeze and the floral smells of spring were intoxicating. The first day of spring is a turning point for the vineyard, a definite end of dormancy, and I wanted to see what new life I could find out there.

First stop, I made a bee-line for the chicken coop where our new baby chicks had just arrived; we got five more this morning!  This little gal was so fluffy, soft and very curious.

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Just around the corner from the chicks' temporary home is their soon-to-be fully automated and portable chicken coop.  If you missed our Facebook post from earlier this week, Viticulturist Levi Glenn is transforming a reclaimed outhouse into a fully-functioning coop for these little gals.  I love the idea of reclaimed materials transformed with modern technology. Of course, the chickens are examples of recycling as well.  They eat the weeds, seeds and insects and produce nitrogen for the vineyard.

Check out the windows!

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Then I headed up the hill to see how the lambs, sheep, alpacas and donkeys were doing.  I am always surprised by how quickly these little ones grow up.  Can you believe this lamb was born only a few months ago?  Of course, they're not there to be decorative.  It was good to see them hard at work turning our cover crop into fertilizer, and great to see the fast-growing greenery. We are most thankful for those few late storms!

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Then I headed down to see the fruit trees, another part of our biodynamic program.  Biodiversity is a central tenet of biodynamics, so in addition to our chickens, sheep, donkeys, goats, pipgs, alpacas and llamas we also have interplanted fruit trees in our newer vineyard blocks.  Each different tree attracts a slightly different mix of insects and birds, and results in a more vibrant underground ecosystem.

I just so happened to find a very large pig free-ranging around the orchard.

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That big guy came right up to me and nuzzled my leg with its huge snout. Cute, but also a bit intimidating.

The best part about the first day of spring for me is the beginning of my favorite season: rosé season! Somehow, rosés only look right outside.  Please welcome the 2013 Dianthus:

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Come visit us in the tasting room and take a tour to taste the Dianthus and see spring in the vineyard for yourself: tours run daily at 10:30am and 2pm. Call 805.237.1231 and we'll set you up.

Happy first day of spring, everyone.

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Winterizing the vineyard as we wait and hope for rain

By Levi Glenn

The falling leaves mark the commencement of the “slow time” of the year in the vineyard. Harvest is in the rear-view mirror. All the grapes have been fermented and the wines are resting comfortably in their respective vessels, yet one last series of tasks needs to be completed. We have come to call this winterization, and it has nothing to do with new wiper blades or antifreeze. Our tasks include ripping the soil, discing, applying compost, seeding cover-crop, and spreading straw bales. In a normal year it’s a race against the clock. The rain usually arrives at some point in November (we’ve only received 0.59 inches so far), after which it becomes a lot harder to get our tractors into the vineyard. With the tractors darting around the property, it can almost look choreographed. One tractor will broadcasting compost, a second closely behind with a disc to incorporate the compost and aerate the soil, and a third tractor bringing up the rear with seed drill to sow our cover-crop. It takes us close to a month to finish it all up, and that’s when we can really sit down and take a breather.

On a good portion of our vineyard we use our Yeomans Plow. This consists of a three-shank ripper and a roller behind it. There seems to be no end to benefits of this tool. We use it to break-up soil compaction, which is caused mostly by our long, dry summers, but contributed to by our tractorsand even the winter rainfall, depending on the physical composition of the soil. It simultaneously aerates the root zone allowing the roots to breathe and spread more easily, and it trims surface roots forcing the roots to grow downwards instead of into the row middles (allowing us to dry-farm more effectively). On our steepest head trained, dry-farmed blocks we also use it for erosion control. By ripping across the hill, any run-off that may occur sinks down the trenches left by the shanks, allowing us to retain water rather than having it run off down hill. The only drawback to this tool is the amount of rock that it pulls out of the soil, that we then have to remove by hand. The Yeomans has become an invaluable tool in the vineyard.

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The Yeomans Plow mounted to the tractor.

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Newly ripped ground in a young dry-farmed Grenache block

Organic compost is at the very center of our nutritional program at Tablas Creek Vineyard. For many blocks this is the only fertilization they receive for the entire year. Our application rates vary from 2-5 tons/acre. This may sound like a huge amount, but an acre is a big area, and as you walk behind the spreader you can see only a scattering of compost on the ground. We make around 100 tons of compost each year from own property. We collect all the vine prunings from the vineyard and run them through a wood chipper, then throw in all the pomace from the winemaking process, and lastly add green waste from tree trimming. All of these ingredients are put into a pile and turned every couple months. Microbes in the raw materials break down all this organic matter into compost, which takes close to a year to finish. We can’t make enough compost ourselves, so we purchase another 250 tons from organic sources to supplement our own. The compost gives the plants a little boost of nitrogen, which helps their growth, but just as importantly introduces an immense quantity of microbes. Even better, compost has a time-release effect, and not all the nutrition will be used up right away. This year’s compost will feed the vines for 3 years, and since we apply every year, the vines receive a compounding effect.

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A spreader full of organic compost ready to be applied.

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50 Tons of newly delivered organic compost.

Throughout the whole estate vineyard we seed cover-crop. We use a seed drill, which creates a small furrow in the soil and drops a selected amount of the seed a couple inches below the soil surface. The seed mixes we use are mostly made up of legumes, but also have some barley and other grasses. Legumes have the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and process it and actually put it back into the soil. The grasses are mostly for erosion control. As the seeds start to germinate, their roots penetrate into the soil and help hold onto the little topsoil that we have. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of cover cropping is harnessing the immense amount of greenery that grows between the vine rows. Once we till this cover crop back into the soil in the spring we increase the percentage of organic matter in our soil. Organic matter improves soil nutrition, water holding capacity, microbial activity and soil structure. Increasing organic matter in soil is what farmers refer to as “building soil”. With different seed mixes we get different flowers that bloom and attract good bugs, and the more species of plants the more diversity of microbes we have in our soil.  A side-benefit is that a cover-crop allows us to choose the plants that grow in the winter, and cut down on invasive and troublesome species of weeds such as yellow starthistle.

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Left, a handful of cover-crop seed. The round ones are legumes and the oval ones are grasses.  Right, organic Soil-Max seed mix

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Newly-germinated cover crop in January 2013

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A Catapilar D-6 with a large seed drill on our new property

We only have one last thing to do before we are fully buttoned-down for winter. On the steeper dirt access roads between vineyard blocks, winter rainfall can cause serious erosion problems, but plowing across the slope or planting with cover crops aren't really feasible. So we spread straw in a thin layer across these areas. The straw slows down the water, and helps distribute the force of the heavy rainfall. Only the steepest of spots are in jeopardy. Once it rains a couple times, grass germinates and grows up through the straw, further reinforcing these sensitive areas.

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Standing at the top of New Hill, straw in place. December 2012

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Straw protecting the avenue between the French grenache and Mt. Mourvedre from erosion. January 2013

Just a week ago we finished up with all of our various winterization tasks. The winter slumber can now begin. It's on to building more rock walls and waiting for the rain. Even with average rainfall from here on out, we will most likely still suffer some drought conditions in 2014. As of today we are at just 16% of normal rainfall. This is making most growers quite axious right now, in a time that would usually be the more restful. It wont be until February that our next big task of pruning begins. Hopefully between now and then all of our erosion control efforts actully get put to use. In any case, the rest will be much appreciated.


Alpacas (not Llamas) - The Rock Stars of Biodynamic Farming

By Lauren Cross

One of our alpacas, Freddie Mercury (named after the lead singer of Queen), stood center stage on the front cover of our printed newsletter this summer. Since Freddie's debut on our newsletter, the tasting room has been abuzz with discussion about what really are the differences between llamas and alpacas. Let this article be your guide to understanding what makes Tina (Napoleon Dynamite’s pet llama) different from Freddie Mercury (our alpaca). While both animals share genetic links with their camel ancestors (Camelids from South America), they are truly unique in many ways.

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Freddie Mercury and our other four alpacas play an important role in our new biodynamic farming program.  Along with our two donkeys, the alpacas serve as protection for our herd of over forty sheep including fifteen young lambs who are the “lead singers” in maintaining the cover crop while naturally fertilizing and tilling the soil in the vineyard. 

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Freddie Mercury and his family confuse native animals like coyotes who are surprised to encounter relatively large, loud, camel-like animals in the wilderness of western California. According to Levi Glenn, Tablas Creek's Viticulturist, our alpacas love water, they play in the spray of a hose or will jump right into a trough on a hot day.  Usually Freddie Mercury and his family are out in the vineyard working. However, if you’re lucky, you may be able to sneak a quick paparazzi-style photo with our superstar alpacas, like the one below taken this week, after they were moved from exile outside our planted vineyard back into a recently-harvested Viognier block:

Alpaca munching

For additional information on our Biodynamic Farming program please read Levi's blog post: Animal Farm: The Benefits of Biodiversity in the Vineyard.

Now it’s your turn to take the stage and show your creativity by designing our new TCV t-shirt.  We are seeking submissions of original artwork highlighting our biodynamic program: sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys and/or alpacas.  Be creative and have fun!  Entries will be accepted through October 31st.  To enter a T-shirt design please email me at lauren@tablascreek.com with a pdf file and check our Facebook page for additional information.  The winning designer will receive an insider's tour of the vineyard, winery and (of course) animal operation for themselves and up to 9 of their friends. 

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An easy peach preserves recipe (A.K.A. Something to do with the fruits of your biodiversity)

One of the principal tenets of Biodynamics is creating a diverse ecosystem in whatever you're growing.  That means avoiding monoculture, encouraging the growth of native and complementary plants, and reaping the benefits of the complex, healthy soils and resilient, self-sustaining inesct population that result.  Our animal program is the most visible face of our pursuit of biodynamics, but not the only one.

Fruit trees, particularly stone fruits, are classic components of a biodiverse vineyard both because they tend to thrive in the same climate as grapes and because of the many creatures they attract and sustain. What's more, they produce crops that are enjoyable in their own right, and help provide tasty snacks for our field and office crew through the summer.  About 5 years ago, we planted a selection of heirloom peaches, apricots, pears, apples, plums, quince, and cherries, and this year they have started producing fruit in earnest.

If, like us, you are rolling in peaches, we thought you might appreciate a simple peach jam recipe.  This can be canned and stored indefinitely, frozen for several months, or kept in the fridge and eaten within 2-3 weeks.  It divides easily if you don't have as many peaches as we did, and is fun to make with kids.  I did, last night, and we enjoyed the results this morning.

Peach preserves

Makes about 8 pints of preserves.

Ingredients:
20 cups fresh peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered
3/4 cup classic pectin (I used RealFruit Classic Pectin by Ball)
1/2 cup lemon juice
8 cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter

To make the preserves (if you're canning, read the next section as well since some of what you'll need to do will happen simultaneously to your cooking the preserves):

  • Place the peaches in a large enameled saucepan on the stovetop and pour the lemon juice over the top.
  • Mash the peaches roughly with a potato masher.
  • Mix 1 cup of the sugar with the pectin and pour it over the peach mixture, then mix well.
  • Add the butter.  This will help keep down the foam that forms during boiling.
  • On high heat, stirring reqularly, bring the peach mixture to a full boil (the point at which it continues to boil rapidly even when stirred).
  • Add the rest of the sugar, all at once, and bring the mixture back to a boil, stirring regularly.  Boil for a couple of minutes, then remove from the heat.
  • Skim off as much of the foam that has formed as possible.

If you're freezing or keeping the preserves in your fridge, you're done... let them cool, choose a storage container, and refrigerate or freeze. 

If you're canning:

  • Choose a large pot, deep enough to cover the tops of whatever jars you're using, add the jars you want to use, and fill it with enough water to cover the jars. 
  • Bring that pot to a simmer while you're making the preserves.
  • For sterilizing the lids, choose a small saucepan, put in the lids you'll be using, cover with a few inches of water, and bring that to a simmer as well.
  • When the preserves are done, use a jar lifter to carefully lift out a jar from the hot water bath, drain the water back into the pot, then fill to within 1/4 inch of the top using a wide-mouth canning funnel.
  • Remove a lid (there are cool magnetic lid lifting wands in most canning kits, or you can use tongs) and place it carefully on top of the filled jar, then screw on a top so that it's on but not super-tight. 
  • Continue until you've filled all your jars.
  • Return the jars to the water, turn it up to a rolling boil, and boil 12 minutes to sterilize your new preserves.
  • Remove the jars from the water bath and let them cool overnight
  • Tighten the screw-on tops, store and enjoy all year.
Voila. A delicious treat that will taste like summer whenever you open it.

Counting sheep (and losing sleep)

By Levi Glenn

Most of my mornings start with counting sheep. You herd that right.

Raising sheep in an area that borders so much wild land means that we have to keep a close eye on the herd. The predators that populate this area are quite formidable, the most dangerous being the mountain lion, followed by bobcats and coyotes. The current herd consists of 40 sheep, so in the morning, even with the security of our movable electric fence, we must make sure that there are in fact 40 still running about. There are various ways we protect the sheep, the most dissuading being the guard donkeys, Fiona and Dottie. Donkeys are quite protective and have a particular disdain for canines. Five alpacas are a second line of defense, watchful and noisy. When we move the animals to a new area to grazing, the electric fence comes with them, which provides another element of protection: 6,000 volts of electricity is a memorable deterrent. We haven't lost a single sheep (knock on wood) but we know that there are things out here that would love a mutton snack. Coyote predation is one of the main reasons that commercial sheep ranching is becoming a rarity in many areas of California. The herd, Dottie in front, in the vineyard this spring:

Animal herd

As cute as the sheep are, they are here to do a job. Our herd removes the unwanted weeds from underneath the vines and within the vine rows. By having them in the vineyard we get a wealth of benefits. It reduces at least two tractor passes in any given block, so a reduction in biodiesel use, total man hours, and tractor repair costs. As they eat, they are simultaneously fertilizing the vineyard, and that nutrient cycling happens without any human effort, reducing the total amount of compost we have to purchase and the labor to apply it. And the time that we spend with the animals in the vineyard gives us another perspective on what else we need to be paying attention to.

The sheep can only be in the vineyard when the vines aren't growing. This period usually extends from mid-November to mid-April, depending in the growing season and how early the winter rainfall arrives. The herd can graze down two acres of vineyard in one week, so in 4 months they can cover 30-40 acres of vineyard. Doing some math shows that one full grown sheep can eat roughly one acre worth of weeds during that timeframe, and a little more math would suggest that a herd of 100 sheep should be the magic number for us to be able to graze them across the whole vineyard each year.

Since the herd can only be in the vineyard for this time, not only do we need to find somewhere else to put the sheep, but also provide something else for them to eat. Every year we plant cover crop in the vineyard rows, and some of those seed mixes contain more legumes and others more grasses. In spring of 2012 we noticed a block that had a particularly tall barley cover crop growing. We harvested the barley by hand, left it to dry in the field, and tied it up into small bundles. We use this to feed when there is no grass left for grazing. It’s a great example of adhering to the single farm unit and trying to produce as much of what we need from our own property.

Fifteen lambs were born at Tablas Creek this year, ten ewe lambs and five ram lambs. The males are usually castrated a few days after birth, as this is the most humane time for this to be done and avoids the problem of them fighting for dominance when they reach adulthood. These males (called wether lambs) can be kept to grow the herd, or can be sold at auction once they reach market weight. Ewe lambs are more valuable since they will become mothers once they reach sexual maturity. This happens from 6 to 12 months of age. We want them to reach full size (generally over a year old) before they breed to lower pregnancy risks later on. Ewes that came from a twin birth have a higher chance of having twins themselves, which can be valuable as it will help grow the herd faster.

Our first lamb was born in mid-December 2012, a ram lamb named Percy. He will become the patriarch of the herd. He’s grown quite large in the last eight months, now weighing over 100 pounds. Percy will be taking over for his father Gordy, once he has reached full maturity. He is a half Dorper and half Katahdin. Both breeds are hair sheep, meaning they actually don't have wool, but lose their hair in the summer months and grow it back as the weather becomes cooler in the late fall. These breeds are known to have good meat characteristics and are very hardy. One ram is capable of breeding 30-50 ewes. Selection of the ram is quite important since he is essentially 50% of the genetic makeup of the herd. Percy has already shown good qualities as a future ram, with heavy muscling and a small head to he will pass down to his offspring, easing issues during birthing.

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Shawn Dugan introducing Gordy to his son Percy

Young Percy

Young Percy

Percy Today

Percy this week

Molly was our first ewe lamb born, and she has unique markings.  I fed her by hand from when she was a few days old, and she is quite friendly. Her name was crowd-sourced: we started by asking the employees at Tablas Creek for nominations, and put the top choices out to our Facebook followers. I think her name is rather fitting.

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Young Molly

The ewe lambs were recently removed from the herd and weaned from their mothers for the first time, to prevent them breeding this year. After a few trying days it seems that these lambs have made the adjustment to their separation and are only concerned with the feed bucket.

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Inside lambing barn this week, Molly on left.

This experimental animal project, now almost two years old, has been a smashing success. I’ve described the more practical reasons for having them around, but what we didn’t expect was the effect it would have on our own employees. Not a day goes by there isn’t someone that wants to go see the animals or wants to share stories of the silly antics of the multi-species herd. It brings people out into the vineyard more often, and gives them a deeper tie and connection to our estate. Our customers have also responded. Not long ago we hosted an event where we had a walking tour of all of our different creatures here at Tablas. Families, some with children, some without, were able to interact with all the sheep, donkeys, pigs, goats, chicken and humans. It even got written up as a blog piece by KCET TV in Los Angeles. This has all shown me how much joy these animals can bring to people of all ages, and it’s something that I get the privilege to experience every day.

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Late afternoon light inside lambing barn


A fertile beginning to 2013

The vineyard is still safely dormant, but our flock is growing. It's lambing season, and we've turned our sheep barn into a nursery.  In the manner of new parents everywhere, I'll share a few baby photos because I can't help but think you'll agree that they're irresistibly cute.

First, we welcomed a little girl we named Molly after soliciting receiving an amazing 176 suggestions on our Facebook page:

Molly

Next, a boy we named Luis after Shawn Luis Dugan, who left us a week ago to pursue his love of flying after two years in the tasting room, cellar and, most recently, heading up our animal program:

Shawn with luis

And yesterday, we got twin girls, as yet unnamed:

Twin girls

These sheep will join our grazing herd, which is already hard at work chewing down our cover crop, fertilizing the vineyard block they're in, and mixing everything around with their hooves.  We move the flock around to different acre-and-a-half sections every week or so, and keep them together and safe with a movable, lightweight electric fence.

Meanwhile, if you're coming out to the winery, take a look down at the stone lambing barn just below the winery.  You'll likely see, and definitely hear, one of our new kids. 

Er... lambs.


Photo of the Day: Donkeys on Guard

Some photos are too good not to share.  As regular followers of the blog know, we have two donkeys that help guard our mixed flock of sheep and alpacas from coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions and other predators that might threaten the smaller animals.  Donkeys will bond with other species in their herd, and they're big enough, and stubborn enough, to stand up to anything we have in our fairly wild patelin.  Our Assistant Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Knoll got this shot of the two donkeys yesterday, looking down through our Counoise block, looking alert.

Donkeys on guard

Of course, the donkeys also perform the job that the other members of the herd do: they eat the cover crop, fertilize with their manure, and mix things together with their hooves as they wander around.  More animals means less tractor passes, fewer weeds, and less need to fertilize.

The larger donkey in back is named Dottie.  The smaller gray one is Fiona.  Keep up the good work!


Compost Tea: a Power Shake for the Vineyard

By Levi Glenn

A few years back we started to make and apply compost tea in the vineyard. It was an effort to try to improve our soil, a central theme in organic farming: improve the soil and the plant will follow. Compost tea contains two important soil improving components: nutrition and soil microbes. Microbes are microorganisms that help us in many ways, but most notably by breaking down organic matter (slowly decaying carbon compounds) into yet smaller particles and ones that plants can readily consume. You could see it as basically freeing up nutrition that already exists in the soil. It’s a process that isn’t completely understood, but is definitely going on below our feet. Amazingly, there are an estimated 500 billion microbes in one pound of soil. Yes, that’s billions with a B. What I’m describing is just the one part of the soil food web, one where microbes, worms, nutrients, plants and animals all interact. The more of this life we have in our soil, the healthier the plants that grow in this soil should be. A diagram below (found in the soils section of the USDA's Web site) illustrates:

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The complex (and only somewhat understood) interactions in living soil are the main reason why modern chemical farming practices tend to be counterproductive over the long term. Synthetic herbicides kill the weeds above ground, but their effects are farther reaching than this: they also kill off the microbes as well as impacting the food supply for the worms and insects that create a living, vibrant soil belowground. Chemical pesticides have similarly profound impacts underground. That’s at the heart of why we farm organically.

In addition to the microbial component of compost tea, additional benefits include increased growth through improved nutrition, better soil structure, and disease suppression. The tea can be sprayed on the leaves as a foliar fertilizer, or applied directly into the soil through our irrigation lines and drips. One function we’ve been particularly intrigued by is compost tea’s ability to suppress powdery mildew. Spraying compost tea on our grapevines has allowed us to significantly reduce the amount of sulfur we use as a natural fungicide.

Compost_tea_old_makerWe’ve been making compost tea for years, using a simple system we built ourselves (right).  We would then use the tea in two ways.  We would load the brewed tea into sprayers and apply it directly to the leaves to inhibit mildew, and we would run it through our irrigation lines to build up our soils.  This year we took the plunge and bought a 500-gallon commercial compost tea brewer (below).

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Brewing takes roughly 24 hours to complete. We start with worm castings, compost and fish bonemeal powder.  Worm castings (below, left) are a fancy term for worm dung, a highly refined source of nutrition. The compost we’re using (below, middle) is made on the property out of our vine prunings, green waste and manure. The fish bone meal (below, right) provides a much needed source of phosphorous in the vineyard and is an additional food source for the microbes in the brewing process. 

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These three ingredients are put into a wire mesh cylinder (below, left), which is placed into water to steep. Below each cylinder are powerful bubbling aerators (below, right) that help to saturate the mixture and provide oxygen to the microbes. There are also smaller aerators that go inside the cylinders to further promote an aerobic environment.

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Before the brewing, the bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in the “tea” are in somewhat of a dormant state. By creating the right environment for these microorganisms by adding water and oxygen to their environment, keeping them at an optimal temperature, and providing an accessible food source, their numbers grow exponentially during the brewing process.

When we’re done, we have 500 gallons of what looks like a weak batch of coffee, but is actually a microbe-rich elixir, a liquid soil of sorts.  And no, you wouldn't want to drink it, any more than you would want to chew on our soil:

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When we brew a new batch, if we’re curious what’s in it, we can send a sample off to the lab. The analysis the lab runs shows us the total number of bacteria and fungi in the tea, and the proportion between the two. Some plants prefer a higher concentration of bacteria in the tea, like vegetable crops, where as vines and trees do better with a fugal dominated tea. After a few trial batches we’ve been getting consistently good lab results and are confident in our process. 

While there is often notable benefit from even short-term compost tea use, we hope that longer-term use will provide exponentially greater benefit.  Our principal vineyard challenge is Paso Robles’ harsh vineyard environment: the same thing that makes the grapes we grow such good raw materials for winemaking.  Paso Robles is so dry and sunny in the summer, so cold in the winter, and has such a great diurnal swing in temperature year-round.  Plus, our topsoil is relatively thin and rocky.  It’s not easy maintaining the health of our vineyards in this climate, and doing so is the reasoning behind almost every decision we make in the field.  Applying compost tea at significant volumes, over a matter of years, should help our grapevines to continue to flourish even as the neighbors who are farming more conventionally have to replant because their vines are exhausted. 

So now we’re farming wine grapes, olives, sheep, and microbes. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be growing in the future.


Photo Essay: Spring Cleaning in the Vineyard

Between winter's worries about rain and frost and summer's worries about ripening lies a busy but often overlooked spring season where we have about a month to clean up the vineyard.  This spring cleaning mostly involves making decisions about whether to mow, disk or spade our cover crop into the earth, and then cleaning up area under the vine rows so that we can get in later to apply nutrients or minerals.  It also involves removing any suckers -- unwanted sprouts on the grapevines -- that will draw off the vine's vigor and impede the easy access of light and air later to the fruit in the summer.  And this year's cover crop has been one of the thickest and lushest in memory:

Lush cover crop

The beginning of this growing season has been wonderful for vigor: we haven't had any frost, and the late rain has meant that everything (vines and surface plants) is green and growing fast.  The extra vigor now will serve the vines well this summer but it increases the pressure on us to get going before the cover crops get up at the level of the new growth and start to inhibit air flow and encourage the growth of mildew spores.  First we go through and either disk (left) or spade (right).  Disking is faster, but spading tills deeper and does a better job of breaking up the soil.

Disked Spaded but not tournesoled

Then we follow with the Tournesol, a tractor attachment that tills among the vine rows without uprooting plants, wires, or posts.  When we're done, it should looks like this:

All clean

We'd hoped to get a jump on this work last month, but one downside of the April rains is that last month's work will largely have to be redone.  In the photo below you can see on the right a row that was spaded this week, and on the left a row that was spaded last month and in which the rain encouraged a new regrowth of the cover crop:

Spading old and new

We use several different mixes of cover crops, each including various grains, legumes and ground covers to provide (respectively) biomass, nitrogen fixation, and erosion conrtrol.  In one of the sections, we used a barley-heavy mix, and with the gentle winter we're seeing more robust barley growth than we ever have before.  So, we've also been harvesting and drying this cover crop to provide supplemental food for our animals.  Below, the barley-rich cover crop (on the left) and one of the ears of barley (on the right):

Barley cover crop Barley ear

We are cutting the barley and leaving it to dry in the sun, then tying it into sheaves and bringing it into our shadehouses, from where we'll use it to supplement the foraged grasses that our grazing herd will eat this summer:

Barley harvest

We've been trying to make our vineyard as self-sufficient as possible (hence the grazing herd in the first place) and being able to feed the animals with our own cover crops, even when we aren't able to leave either animals or cover crops in the vineyard, gets us one step closer.

The transformation of the vineyard from its winter shag to its summer trim is happening fast.  We hope to have it done by Memorial Day.