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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Hopefully 3rd time's a charm

When I give people some advice about pruning, I generally start with telling them that one must understand the natural growing habits of the grape being considered, and from there choose a  training method that best works with this tendency. And then there is me,  not practicing what I preach and a strong advocate of do as I say, not as I do (or did).

When I first planted our Scuppernongs (a cultivated muscadine), I was right in the middle of getting my Masters in Agriculture and Life Sciences. Here is a case of trying to use my new found learning in a practical way. Though anyone in the commercial side of this particular grape knows, it has "trailing" tendencies, which means it runs along the ground in a wild state. Growers however use a high single wire to train these grapes, which makes them look more like they are drooping as opposed to trailing.

Me on the other hand decided I could boost yields and go against the industry norm and try to train these grapes using a 4-arm Kniffin method. So instead of one wire, I could use two, doubling the number of cordons (aka arms or canes), hence increasing my output significantly. I was so proud.

The good news is that Scuppernongs grow like weeds, and inside of two years the vines grew up to both wires and created these cordons just as I planned. A major problem was seen at this point however, and that was that the upper set of arms appeared to be stunted, with the lower set seemingly getting all the nutrients. Comparatively it was like the size of one's finger versus one's arm. So not wanting to give it another year to see if the upper arms would eventually balance out, I scrapped this training method and went over to another method called Smart-Dyson by clipping off the arms on the very top wire.  This was more in line with the natural growing tendency of this grape. Returning to a single wire support system, it recognized the desire of the Scuppernong to grow both up, and down from it's cordon.
This worked rather well, almost too well. The Scuppernongs grew, and grew, and grew. Many of them filled out the 24' of wire space I had given them, and expanded out into the middle between the rows. Mowing the grass meant getting wacked in the face by grapevines. To thin these out, along with everything else we had to do on the farm, kept getting downloaded in priority. 

Harvest came in October as it had in the past. To pull off the grapes meant weaving through all the growth to find the hidden fruit. It was a hard-fought but banner year. We brought in over 2 tons of grapes; 1000 pounds more than the previous year. The additional labor, not to mention the time and the complaints, meant something had to be done. Was it really worth bucking the industry norm for these extra grapes?

With Rich concentrating on the French grapes at the other vineyard, the decision lay squarely on my shoulders. It was really the realization that in 8 to 10 years or so, we are apt to be using mechanical pickers to strip the vines of their grapes, and the Smart-Dyson method of training, at least how it pertained to these muscadines, would have prevented this. So, I held my head down, not in shame for trying something new, but with the realization that the vines needed to be pruned heavily once again.

When the cordons were too thick to bend upwards, back to the top wire, there needed to be some major surgery. First I had to find adequate canes to retrain back to the upper single wire, and then cut off the oversized cordons which had now grown quite well on the lower wire. It has been a rather painful experience, both for the vines and me. I can easily spend 20 or 30 minutes on a vine getting it shaped the way it is needed. And in many cases, there are no canes that I can send up to the top wire, so the process would then be to set up some new ones in this growing season, prune the vine as it had been for the Smart-Dyson method, and put the major overhaul for a year from now.

All the while I hope I am not significantly hurting our yields in the Fall by doing all this extra cutting. There are no easy lessons in this business.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

What's Dave Doing Now?

I have decided that cows are only happy when you're feeding them. Other than that they are highly suspicious animals that look at you as if you are the carnivore you really are, though they have no evidence to back up their claim. And even with all the "good" you think you bring to them, they wouldn't hesitate a moment to head butt you into the next field or trample you if you force them to do something they don't want to do.

So here I am, driving into the pasture with a pickup truck full of picks and shovels so that I can spend the day trying to get them water. Obviously not having water is all my fault, and the look on the cows confirms they firmly believe that, as they stare at me wondering what I am planning to do, this time. The fact that the hydrant froze, splitting the cast iron head, meant at some point I needed to get up there to replace the unit. It still provided water so I could fill the troughs, and this alone allowed me, or so I thought, to postpone the repair until it got a little warmer. This however was not the cow's plan, as they used the hydrant to scratch their faces which eventually broke the hydrant off from the water line that was 2 feet under the ground.

Cows need water, especially those that are still feeding their calves. When you are a 2000 pound animal, water is pretty important. There was a day several years back when the water was frozen and I painstakingly carried up 5 gallon pails of water to meet this need. Two at a time I would trudge through the snow, place these down maybe 10' or so apart, step back and watch them slurp the water with about as much effort as a deep inhale.  And then I would go back to the house, fill the pails and repeat the process. The problem with this well-meaning endeavor was that once all the cows knew that the pails contained water, there was this fight to get to the pails first to have their thirst quenched. 50% of the time they pushed the pails over, with no consideration as to the effort it took to carry them there. So let's see.....8 cows = 8 pails of water. Spilled 50% of the time meant 16 pails were required. 8 trips then to get them enough water, at two times a day.

This time was different though. I gave the cows some tough love and said, "Screw the snow!" I wasn't going to go through that hassle and not be appreciated. So I waited a few days watching the snow melt, the ground to soften a bit (it never really did), before I ventured out there to dig a trench 25' long, 2' down, through frozen tundra.

Hydrants are a common thing out here in rural America. In theory they are designed to shut off the water below the frost line so when you need water in the winter you can still have it. But if water gets trapped in the hydrant at any point, it can still freeze and possibly expand and break. Hence what happened here with a hose attachment that didn't allow the water to drain as I thought it should.
Oh well, job completed....Dave's happy, even if the cows aren't.
Here is a hydrant similar to the one I replaced. The drip, drip, drip of this one has made a stalagmite at it's base.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Venison - On and off the hoof

One of the more frequent questions we get in the winery is if we are bothered by the deer in the vineyard. My quick answer is generally no, because we allow local hunters to use our land, free of charge, to keep the herds under control. It is a win-win for both of us. Yes, we do have problems with grackles, and lately turkeys have managed to increase in population for us to see where they were able to make great meals out of low-hanging fruit. But as far as deer go, we see them in the Spring when the new leaves present themselves on the vine, and the deer are just plain sick and tired of eating tree bark or whatever they can get their mouths on during the colder Winter months.

We have two vineyards here in Surry, and they are on opposite corners of the County. Up in the Bacon's Castle district, off of Route 10, we have 33 acres of mildly sloped land that is a combination of vineyard, thin forest, and row-crop land which alternates between corn and soybeans for the most part. Along one side is a meandering, shallow creek which provides some water to the land but also acts as a  pathway for wildlife that pass through from one side of Route 10 to the back of our field.

When I first starting making these hunting agreements I signed up with some recreational hunters. What this really came to mean was that they were "hunters in fashion" only, convincing their wives there is a reason for buying all the hunting gear, camo clothing and guns, not to mention an off-road 4-wheel drive truck as an accessory, but heavens forbid if they were going to wake up at 4 in the morning so they could approach a hunting blind in the cold to await passing deer. These are the guys that stopped for breakfast first, rendezvoused at the local 7-11, and then finally made it into the fields at 9:30 or 10. Needless to say, the herd wasn't thinned out by this approach.

But 3 years ago I came across 2 hunters that were serious. They act professionally regarding their sport, understand the privilege of hunting my land and have a respect for the animal they are hunting. Though when you talk to them they will always wish they had more successes than they do, especially with the time they put in setting up and waiting for game, they always walk away with a couple of deer during the season.
They are a nice bunch of guys to work with.

In our other field there is not quite the same opportunity for hunters, primarily because most of the acreage is either devoted to my cattle or the vineyard, leaving very little else to attend to wildlife. However, I do have a few acres that adjoins another neighbor's field, which provides the local Neighborhood Hunt Club (aptly named I might add) a place to hangout.  Hunting in Virginia also includes using dogs to flush out the deer from the wetlands, so these hunters make it a ritual to line up on one side of the trees while others send their dogs through, pushing the deer into the hands of those in waiting. Personally being from the north I don't grasp this type of hunting, but it does seem to work, especially for those hunters that want breakfast first. Chasing deer out of the swamps after they had decided to bed down during the day appears to go along with this type of daytime hunting.

I do not charge for the right to hunt my land. Some of the other farmers do lease the land to hunt clubs and individuals as a way to generate some income. As mentioned above, for me it is a no-lose proposition. All I ask in return is an occasional tenderloin (or roast) so that I can receive a little benefit from the deal.

This year I was brought a really nice piece of tenderloin, which Diane immediately delegated to me to cook. I put some time into it and the recipe can be seen on our website


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Baby, it's cold outside.

It's all about the animals.

Last night was our first snow of the season. Yea, I know. Compared to what has been happening up north, what we saw with maybe 5 inches of snow is nothing. But for us, it cripples the County and all the surrounding towns. With this amount of snow, and very few options as to how to handle it, we tend to hibernate and do the best we can. Hopefully it will melt and we can get back to normal in a few days.

The snow is one thing, but the winds are something else. We have been experiencing 15 - 20 mph winds which makes whatever snow is in the air propel itself horizontally. Need less to say, it puts a damper on our vineyard work. We can dress to stay warm if it is just the snow, but the winds make it impossible to stay out for long and brave the weather. It makes decision-making very easy though; we're going to stay indoors. Even going out to the unheated barn to work on projects doesn't sound very appealing.

But from sun up to later in the day, our minds are on the animals. This is a farm after all, and over the last couple of months our cattle herd has increased from 7 to 9, and our goat population has jumped from 3 to 7! Those following us on Facebook saw that we had 2 sets of twin kids around Halloween.
I am always concerned about babies being born in the late Fall; I suspect it is a human thing that makes me concerned about their adapting to the cold weather. It appears however that the young ones have taken the lousy weather in stride. All the goats have a fairly good fur coats on them, and the calves are running around like children seeing the snow for the first time. Let's face it, none are wondering where their next meal is coming from.....all the mothers have nice rounded udders to fill out their next meal.

Ice troughs freeze over every night, and it is my job to go out there with a sledge to break through 2 or 3 " of hard cap. I do my best to remove the big chunks of ice without getting soaked, thinking that the surface will freeze over faster if the icebergs remain. For the goats I provide extra feed daily, since the ground is covered, and I make sure there is  fresh hay for them to chew on. 

The cows on the other hand go straight to the round bales I have put out in the cribs. Their water has frozen over too, but they have access to some water inlets off the adjacent pond to meet their water needs. And they don't have a problem licking the snow. Goats on the other hand would just assume the snow didn't exist. It's funny how the dominant goat walks through the snow, from the Goat Tower to the feed shelter, while all the others try to walk in the same footsteps. I had been wondering where all 7 have been staying since every morning they have always met me at the feed bins at sun up. Well, I found out the answer this morning when it was still snowing. Adrian and her 2 are on the 2nd floor, Brittany and her 2 are on the top 4th level, and who knows where Charlene is (maybe with Brittany?). They came down later in the day only after the snow was blown off the steps.

Oh, the life of a farmer.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wine Country Fires

I was contacted yesterday by ABC - Channel 13 out of Richmond to get my opinion about how the fires out in California's wine country will affect the Virginia wine industry. To be frank, I hadn't really given it a lot of thought until asked, at least not from a business / economic angle. My mind and heart had been directed towards the losses out there, and the lives, and it was more of recognizing the years and years it had taken them to get to producing thriving vineyards, and how many more it will take them to recover, if that is the choice that is made.

I had personally experienced a devastating fire before when I had my plastics experience. But luck have it the fire which absolutely destroyed the mill complex I was in managed to allow my business to be the hole in the donut, the only business not burned to the ground. For me it was a 6 beer night, as I returned home near midnight after I saw the fire advance through the mill complex from afar. There was a sense of hopelessness, and I recognized I needed to let it play out and return the next day to see what was left. For me I was one of the lucky ones....I just had to "pack my bags" and take the next 3 months to run my business out of the garage, relocate, and restart the machines in a new location. For these vineyards that weren't so fortunate, they must go through soil recovery, replanting, nurturing vines for 5 or so years, and then finally getting to harvest. It may be 2025 before things seem to get back to normal, assuming that is the choice they have made. An awful lot of sweat equity is used up in building up a vineyard-winery business, and some people don't have much left to try again.

As for how it will trickle down towards Virginia, I don't see it being visible very soon. For the wineries that sold their wine via distributors to Virginia stores, personally I didn't see that many I recognized as I reviewed the list of those affected by the fires. I am assuming the wineries that had major damage sold more locally. For the vineyards however that is another story. Virginia has nearly 280 wineries now, and the local vineyards do not produce enough grapes to supply them. Virginia wineries have needed to go outside the state to obtain the grapes and grape juices they need to maintain output. California, along with Oregon, Washington, New York, and a few other places have provided the boatload of these grapes. Though the current year has been taken care of, future years might be influenced by the reduction in producing vineyards. We'll just have to wait and see.

                                           (Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle)

As I write this the fires are still burning. Emergency crews are working from pure adrenaline; exhaustion is commonplace. Lives have been lost. Dreams chattered. If you are religious by nature, it is never too late to offer a prayer. If you want to provide some sense of comfort, trade buying a bottle of California wine for a contribution to the charities and services that are in the midst of the chaos and could use your continued support.

Monday, October 16, 2017

CAUTION: Don't try this at home

The title of this post is a bit of a stretch. Most people don't have a bull at home, and I doubt if my experience can be applied to an oncoming doberman who has your neck as a target. But let me explain.

October is the month where everything seems to come to a close, at least as far as the vineyard is concerned. Our French grapes are all picked by now, and our American grapes traditionally take the better part of October to be brought in. This year, with the growing season beginning a couple of weeks early, our picking has tended to be pulled up also. We just finished harvesting our Scuppernongs just this past Friday (October 13th) and that pretty much wraps it up. Our minds now are focused already on 2018, where we are putting down 16 tons of lime, followed by some fertilizer, and eventually working ourselves back into weed control and pruning.

However, when it comes to the animals Fall is a time for babies to be born. Our 3 female goats were introduced to a buck back on Memorial Day, and for those that entered our contest at the winery to guess the birthdays for our new arrivals the gestation period was probably the most Googled question prior to jotting down one's name on the calendars we have put up on the wall. As of today (10/16) we still haven't any new kids on the block, and there are still some dates without guesses.  Come to the winery and place your bets....prizes to be awarded to the winners. And I will say, Adrienne is HUGE.
Nigerian dwarf goats tend to have twins, so we'll see how many we get when they have all come to term.

We have also been expecting many of our cows to have some offspring too. A40X which was born on our farm back on October 24, 2013, was the first to have a calf this year on September 25th. It is her 2nd here at White Oak Farm. A sprightly little thing....big ears, long legs and the facial expressions of her mother. It will be dubbed E40A.
Even though this is the only cow that'll let me scratch her head and ears, I give her plenty of room. Maternal instincts far outweigh prior friendliness. When the calf is curious enough, and confident enough in her escape capabilities she will approach me. Until then I am fine with the distance between us. However, my keeping a distance doesn't seem to apply to the other cows. 

I was maybe 100' away from all of them, just standing minding my own business, just watching the herd, anticipating the next newborn to be soon on the way, when the cows slowly started approaching me to see what I was looking at. This is not uncommon. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised when I offer them some sweet corn. But most times I am doing nothing other than watching their behavior to observe if they are healthy, or if an expectant mother is slowing working her way over to an adjacent field to be left alone.

On this particular day though I was surrounded by 4 cows, 2 heifers, and a calf, when all of a sudden the bull came racing towards me in full gallop (do cows gallop, or is that just horses?) and force. This is not the "baby" bull I added to the herd back last December. This has become one mammoth bull made up of nothing but muscle.

Not having time to reflect on life as I knew it, and recognizing that there was no way the cows would block for me or that I could out run it, I did the only thing instinctively that I could think of.

I put my right arm out, with my hand at 90 degrees and with fingers stretched to the sky. I yelled as loud as I could STOP!!!!!!  Well, it's a good thing(for me) the bull's front brakes worked, because it stiffened it's 2 front legs skidding to a halt not 5' from going right through me.

With that brush with death, I slowly backed out of the crowd, and walked away thankful to see another day. 2000 pound animals are not pets; I must never forget that.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Harvest Is Upon Us, It Has Been A Tough Year

Struggling. That is how I define the grapevines this year. From an operator's perspective, there isn't a lot we can do other than play clean up and cross our fingers that we don't lose too much crop.  This year has been a 3 - banger.

In the late Winter, or was it early Spring, we had a nice warming period. During this time we ordinarily think about bud break, and we all have certain rules of thumb regarding when the buds will pop. Ours is the 10-day rule.....10 days of 50 degree average temperature and we can see the buds swell, and then open up into a sea of little pink "flowers". We can even have a skip day and it'll still create the budding effect, assuming we had some decent sap flow and mild Spring rains.

But with early winter thawing also comes the possibility of a quick freeze, which may or may not directly damage the buds. This year however the sap began to flow too soon, and a freeze caused the cells to expand and rupture. We saw many of our thinner cordons and shoots die immediately. All one has to do is look at our Petit Verdot, which is growing on a hill with the rows facing North-South, where the southern ends are on the uphill. About half way down the hill the vines show a distinct loss of fervor or life. Protective warm air flows uphill you see.  It is sad.

The Spring brought on plenty of rain. Normally a good thing for a farmer. The corn around here shot up to the skies. Grapes though, at least established grapes, have fairly deep roots so heavy rains really don't help much, especially when you have a high water table as we do. Rains bring on the potential for fungus, and as our summer came upon us, we started seeing black rot spread throughout the vineyard. We spray for this possibility as part of our normal operating procedure, but entrenched spores take advantage of our off days and grab the leaves with a vengeance. At first you get little rust spots, but then these expand to destroying the entire leaf. The grapes, still too hard for black rot to attack, seem to go untouched, but the reality is that as soon as the grapes go through veraison when the skins soften, the grapes swell, and the sugars accumulate, the black rot finds a new food source and starts to do it's damage. Right now we have little black spots on the grapes that could develop into a pretty sad situation. We are at least aware of this and hopefully harvest will come before the rot becomes a major factor.

Right about now Rich should be pulling leaves to maximize sun exposure of the grape bunches. With the severe leaf damage from the fungus, and a late season heat spell, prudence was exercised, recognizing an even further leaf loss would substantially effect the grapes from maturing and getting the sugar level we need.  New growth, which seemed at least temporarily to escape the fungus onslaught, began to show severe leaf curl as the edges dried out from the heat and lack of rain. You can't win.

So, with August now in full swing, we are planning on harvesting our Seyval Blanc on August 19th. Our current Brix level is around 15+, but we're gaining ground rapidly as the sun persists to shine. A major rain is due in today which may dilute our sugars some, but like everything else, we'll see how it has affected the grapes tomorrow. I suspect we will be picking the rest of grapes in rapid succession
since their Brix levels are not too far behind, all except our Scuppernongs which regardless seem to take forever to get ready.