Wine underway

Today, I finally got around to crushing the grapes I picked at a neighbor’s place on Friday. I also finally got around to picking my own grapes, into a separate bucket.

First, I must say that de-stemming and crushing a bucket of grapes is an absolutely wonderful experience. I sat outside on a stump, pulling clusters from one bucket and plucking them into a second bucket, one after another, just enjoying the solitude and allowing myself to get lost in thought. As I began crushing handfuls of grapes, making sure none of them eluded my fingers, I imagined these grapes as being my own sacrifice offered to God. All my work, all my difficulties, all my life…broken open and poured out, so the Winemaker could use the juice to make something far greater.

Anyway, as I suspected, the neighbor’s grapes had a very low sugar content: the initial Brix reading on the refractometer, once they were all crushed together, was just 11. That’s only half the sugar needed for a complete ferment. My own grapes, however, had a brix of 24 — absolutely outstanding. (And given how many grapes I lost to sparrows and other birds, further evidence that I should’ve harvested them a week ago.) Unfortunately, I had 19.5 pounds of grapes from the neighbor…and only 3.5 pounds from my own vineyard. Extremely lame. I’ll be fortunate to get even a gallon of wine altogether.

As 3.5# is far too little to ferment by itself, I crushed those grapes and added them to the ones from Ed’s farm. I added some sulfites to stun the wild yeasts, and am allowing the bucket to stand overnight. Once the sugar leaches out, and the sulfites run their course, I’ll take a final sugar reading for the entire must. Then I’ll add the appropriate amount of sugar to get to 22 Brix, and also add the yeast. And then, hopefully, the ferment will begin.

The best part about winemaking? The smell of grape juice on my hands that will not go away, no matter how many times I wash them. And, of course, enjoying the finished wine. But you knew that already.

Our Tractor System

It took several years of experimentation and trial and error, but we’ve finally refined our chicken tractor system into something that’s very effective — and something that I can recommend to others.

The basic idea for keeping broiler chickens in movable pasture pens comes from Joel Salatin, who raises thousands of birds that way each year in Virginia and has written numerous books on the subject. The idea is to keep the birds in a safe place, but outside in the fresh air, where they have plenty of good green stuff and bugs in their diet. By moving the pens each day, the manure never gets built up too much in one place — and the birds have a constant source of fresh green stuff.

Our first year here, I built a few crude pasture pens and basically moved them around in the yard. There was little rhyme or reason to how I moved them or where. I also experimented with various materials and styles for building the pens, and wasted a lot of money (which we dubbed “tuition money”) in the process. But I took good notes, and improved the pens each year.

Then, last year, came a big breakthrough. I began planting a new vineyard at the north end of the property, and fenced it off securely from the sheep. The vineyard consists of four very long lines of wire trellis, stretching from north to south. The first line, on which I planted approximately 35 vines last year, is about ten feet from the property’s western perimeter fence. The next lines (one of which I planted last year, one of which I planted this year, and one which will be planted next year) are each eight feet further east of the previous, and there is an eight foot gap between the final line and the sheep pasture. All five of those 8+ foot aisles are filled with a wide variety of weeds and clover.

Rather than mowing down all that green stuff, I decided to let the chickens do the work. We put three pasture pens, each of which is approximately six feet wide and eight feet long, staggered on various aisles of the vineyard. Two of those pens contain laying hens (to keep them out of our fruiting brambles and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s garden for the summer), and one contains a mix of broiler chicks and pullet chicks (next year’s laying hens). Each day, the kids and I gather eggs from the pens with laying hens, move all three pens one length (8 ft) down the aisle, give the hens some layer ration and the growing birds some broiler ration, and ensure that their waterers are full.

As the pen begins moving, the birds scramble to snap up all the crickets and grasshoppers that are stirred up in the fresh weeds. They then begin picking at the green stuff itself, sometimes even ignoring the supplemental grain I’ve just put down for them. By the time I come out the next day, they’ve completely mowed down the weeds and given the vineyard floor a nice layer of fertilizer. This picture shows the amazing degree to which a pen of birds can mow down weeds — notice the contrast between the aisle behind this pen and the height of the weeds in the adjoining aisles. Before the pen went through, the whole vineyard had weeds that high. (The blue grow tubes are where the grape vines are growing — the tubes act as a greenhouse, and support the vines to help get them up on the trellis.)

This photograph gives a wider perspective of the vineyard, showing a couple of different pens moving in different directions.

I’m not sure exactly how long each trellis line is, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 feet. At 8 feet per day, it takes about 25 days for a pen to make it from one end to the other. There is a generous amount of open space at both the north and south end of the vineyard, to allow the pen to be dragged sideways and started down a new aisle. Once all five aisles have had a pen go over them once, we send the pen down whichever aisle’s weeds have grown back the most.

It’s a beautiful system: the birds are confined in a safe and manageable space, they get fresh air, fresh greens, and plenty of bugs in their diet, and are moved off their droppings. The vineyard gets mowed and fertilized, and a significant number of bugs are removed. It’s “ecology” in the truest sense of the word, and I highly recommend it for farmsteads everywhere.

The Chickenator

The mother hen and her chicks are now very active, and all six chicks are doing extremely well. All it takes is a few insistent clucks, and the whole clutch falls into line.

They spend their nights back under the stanchion, and their days patrolling the barn. They seem to spend most of their time in the goat stall. Henney Penney scratches up a section of soiled litter, steps back, clucks instructively as she bobs her beak toward the scratched-up section, and the six chicks swarm in to look for bugs, larvae, and seed-heads. A minute later, Henney Penney moves on to the next section of litter.

By the time these chicks grow up and move out of the barn, the goat litter will be very nicely aerated. Call it “chickenated,” by the “chickenator.” Then we’ll shovel it out and take it to the vineyard, where it will make a wonderful organic mulch.

In Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail…

…over 100 young grape vines are decimated.

Up in the northwest corner of our property, I’ve planted what’s called the “new vineyard.” Last year, I put in about 100 young vines—which the Japanese Beetles managed to severely injure, but not kill. This spring, I planted 55 more vines; this time, I decided to try Concords. Their leaves are supposedly more resistant to Japanese Beetles, and I’m so frustrated at this point that I’m willing to try anything.

But no leaves are resistant to hungry Icelandic lambs. I’d isolated these young vines behind two sets of gates, but early Sunday morning the lambs managed to smash through one set and squeeze through the other set. By the time I came out for chores, hordes of them were working their way through my grape plantings. I chased them out, strengthened the barricades, and then began taking stock of the damage.

It was extensive, and demoralizing, but could’ve been worse. All 150 or so vines are in protective blue grow tubes that fasten to the bottom trellis line and act like a miniature greenhouse. Not all vines had cleared the top of their tube. But among those which had, nearly every one was chomped off (or at least stripped of its leaves). Naturally, the lambs left all of the delicious clover and other weeds untouched. They went straight for the most valuable cultivars.

Yes, the vines will recover, in no small part because the tubes protected them from more extensive damage. But the question is: how strong will they be when the Japanese Beetles arrive later this month? They’d really been flourishing, which had stoked my optimism about surviving the upcoming onslaught. Now…well, we’ll just have to see.

That lamb is sure going to be delicious. Just wish I had some homemade wine to enjoy it with.

Creative Water

I recently posted about “making lemonade” from a busted drainage tile. Although it’ll take some work to fix, I wrote, at least the puddle of standing water means I don’t have to haul water to chickens and ducks.

Water is an important issue on every farm, and we were shocked to discover something remarkable about our house: it has no outside hose hookups. None. The first day we moved in, I walked around and around the exterior of the building, looking for a place to put the hose. Zip. Zero. Nada. And there were no hookups on any of the outbuildings. I had to hook the hose up in the basement. If we need water outside, there are two options: string the hose up and out the back door of the house, or haul it out of the basement in five gallon buckets. As you might imagine, the first year we were here both of those options got really old. Really fast.

The nice thing about hauling five gallon buckets of water all over a five acre property is it gives you plenty of time (and incentive) to think of a better way of doing things. None of the outbuildings even have water running to them, so digging trenches from the house and laying pipe would’ve been a big hassle.

But I started to notice something. Every time it rained, there were puddles on the ground. As long as those puddles lasted, I didn’t have to haul water. I began celebrating every time it rained, and praying the puddles would last as long as possible. And I wished I could have puddles all the time.

Something inside my head clicked. Rainwater. Save the rainwater and make it last. How can I save the rainwater and make it last? WATER TANKS! Hook up a good set of gutters on all the outbuildings, run them into enormous water tanks, attach a valve to each one, and presto! Instant puddles, any time I want one!

This photo shows the 1500 gallon tank we hooked up on the back of an old garage. My first vineyard borders this building, and a flock of ducks has the run of that area. Notice the yellow handle at the bottom of the tank; that’s how we open the valve and let water out. There is a hose attached to that valve, so I can run water downhill to anywhere in the vineyard. And with a hose extension, I can reach the sheep stock tanks in the pasture. (BTW, note the organic compost heap next to the tank.)


There is a similar 1500 gallon tank on the big barn, and a 1050 gallon tank behind my office building. They are far and away the best investment we’ve made, at least as far as my back is concerned. Each one was only about $300 or so, but the biggest challenge was finding a way to get them here. The solution was to hire a neighbor who has an enormous flatbed trailer; for $50, he went with me to the farm supply store 18 miles away and helped me haul them home.

An absolute bargain, any way you look at it.

Pruning

When I first planted a vineyard, I imagined that pruning the vines would be a once-a-year project. I figured I’d get a pair of clippers, walk up and down the aisles, and trim where necessary. And that would be that.

Was I ever wrong.

Particularly in their first few years, when they’re getting established, grape vines have a tendency to put out all kinds of unwanted growth. My vines seem especially prone to develop shoots from the lower trunk, far below the trellis line. In theory, those shoots could be left to grow—but they will not be productive, and will simply drain energy that the vine could be putting to a better use. Each morning, as I walk up and down the aisles of the vineyard looking for duck eggs, I also keep an eye on the trunks of the vines. Any little shoots like these that I see, and I immediately pluck them off. Better for the vine as a whole to nip this growth in the bud before letting it take extra nutrients for itself.

And, in that early morning quiet, it occurs to me that this is really a metaphor for ourselves and our own lives: a big part of growing up into mature, responsible adulthood is to scrape off these new little growths that—while not evil or diseased in themselves—aren’t compatible with our overall maturity and spiritual health.

It’s easy to spot the large dead branches; these are big things that were important to us when we were younger, but that we must “put aside” to concentrate on being a better spouse or parent. For many of us, that might have been a hobby or an athletic pursuit that we really shouldn’t dedicate so much time to anymore. You name it. We all had things like that before we got married, and they were probably pretty obvious to most of us—even if some of those big dead branches took longer to actually prune than we’d like to admit.

But these smaller growths are harder to spot, and easier to ignore. They’re the selfish tendencies and comfort-seeking that crop up, almost without our noticing, and distract us from doing what we should for those entrusted to us. Maybe they’re not a significant drag on us at first, but would surely become so if left to develop. And we need to be alert, to get them at the beginning.

Anyway, that’s what I think about in my vineyard.

Mulched!

I managed to get the rest of the goat stall shoveled out (actually “pitchforked out”) Saturday afternoon. And, dozens of loads of rotting hay and straw later, the vineyard is nearly completely mulched. Turned out there was exactly enough to thoroughly mulch every grape vine and every blackberry bramble, with some left over to do quite a bit of mulching between vines.

But am I ever sore! As I told my wife last night, I feel the way I used to when I’d spend all Saturday afternoon riding 100 miles on my bicycle. Funny, though, but it was an extremely satisfying kind of all-over soreness. The kind of soreness that says “I spent myself, pulled through, and finished off something big.” Admitedly, some of the mulch still needs to be spread a bit more. And the trellis is going to need some repairing. But none of that takes away from the sense of satisfaction and peace at having gotten over a big hurdle. And I had no trouble getting to sleep last night.

Meanwhile, the goats have all been reunited in the large stall that includes access to the outside, with lots of fresh straw. The two adults butted heads for awhile and struggled to establish dominance; they’ve been separated for several weeks now, so it was interesting to watch them fight it out. By bedtime, they seemed to have settled their issues. For their part, the goat kids are having a grand old time with all this space to run around in.