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Saturday, September 19, 2009

2007 - GRASS vs. WEEDS: WEEDS WON

Each year tends to take on a personality of its own. There is always something to do in a vineyard, whether it is a new one or an established one. There are only so many man hours available, and as priorities change they jolt the overall plan. Certainly everything needs to be eventually done, but some things just seem to push their way up in front of all the others.

Just as 2006 was the year we bought the farm, initiating the steps required to fulfill the big dream, 2007 was the year for planning to make sure we were doing everything "right". The demands for the land seemed limited in this Year 1, so we were confident that we could do the small amount of ground prep. that was required and layout the vineyard in a very logical and methodical way.

For anyone who has purchased their first house, you must remember the days when you have this project to do and that project to do. And everytime you went into a hardware store there was another tool you needed to buy. At first it may have been simple things like shovels, hammers, screwdrivers, or saws. As honey do lists got longer, maybe a hand power saw or a table saw was required to "properly" keep a true edge and complete the job in a professional a manner. Hand tools range from $10 to $40, and when you start getting up into the bench tools and equipment the prices for these "must haves" jump up to $299.95. Now take this concept and transfer it over to a farm. Starter tools or equipment cost a minimum of $400, but after getting the few you need at this price the new level of pain quickly jumps to $700 to $1000. This level is also quickly exhausted and the new level is $4000 to $6000. Putting aside the required purchase of a $13,000 heavy duty farm tractor, what we're talking here is real money.

All I wanted to do in 2007 was plant grass. We have 32 acres of land, of which we figured 25 could be farmed. Our game plan was to convert it to vineyard about 3 acres at a time. With all the costs involved in this conversion, including posts, wire, irrigation, not to mention all the grapevines and labor associated with it all, we figured 3 acres was all we could handle. The balance of the land that we weren't converting would be leased for the farming of corn, cotton, peanuts, or soy.....the typical crops rotated through the lands down there in Virginia.

What is there to growing grass ? It started with doing our homework regarding ground cover in vineyards. There is a fair amount of information on the web regarding this, but like all information you obtain this way it ranged to "why bother ?"........the rows were primarily bare dirt in Napa, to just letting the natural weeds do the job, to having a proper ratio of ryes, fescues, and clover We opted for the blend and took significant pains in trying to develop the correct mix that we were going to use. With this mix formula we went to a Johnson's grain store right in Surry to place our order, months in advance of our need. Steve Johnson became our first "go to" guy in setting up our vineyard. We also got a soil test, which led us to having Steve make an application of lyme and later fertilizer to bring all the readings of to par.

Steve took our order for seed, gave me a price, and recorded our need date, leaving me now to go to Surry Equipment to get what was needed to cut this new bed of grass that was going to come up in that Spring. Dave Berryman was the inside sales guy who helped us here. What was great about Dave is that he listens, puts his advice forward whether it is in agreement or not with my original thought process, and is willing to provide never-ending help to get us what we need. He realized I was a novice at all this without reminding me of what little I knew.

Word to the wise.........if you are going to make a major investment in a machine, especially one critical to your operation, like a tractor, stay local. Sure you can price shop to make sure you're not getting hosed, but nothing beats calling your local provider to fix a problem, immediately if need be. That sense of security is worth the few extra bucks you might spend, if you do have to spend extra at all. Most of these guys will treat you very fair because they want all your business, not just what little they win via the cheapest bid.

I've mentioned the tractor, of which I bought a shiny new New Holland 30 hp. with PTO / 3-pt. capability. This is a bare necessity. But to ready the earth you need sometning like a tiller, and I bought one that is 5' wide. Makes the one you rent down at Home Depot or Taylor Rental look like kid stuff. I could do my garden at home in 5 minutes with this baby ! And then you need a spreader of sorts, and of course it needs to be adaptable to the 3-pt. system, and then finally you need a finish mower. Farm equipmentt is not cheap, but in its defense it is the most solid equipment you can buy. Simple in design but solid in construction, it is heavier than lead and is meant to handle alot of abuse. That being said, it does need a minimum of care and if you can shelter it after use it'll last a lifetime. At least that's how I justified all this capital expense for the first 3 acres.

When the time came for me to pick up the grass seed, it wasn't ready. Also, the mix I wanted wasn't available either. My brain was ready to burst. Here I was traveling 12 hours to get to the farm only to find out that the best laid plans hadn't been laid at all. The seed wouldn't be available for a couple more weeks, and I couldn't make the trip back down to Virginia to spread the seed in that time slot. I had to hire a guy down in the area to spread the seed. Though the price I paid may have been fair, it still was a tough nut to swallow not wanting to delegate the task from the beginning. I felt my first chance to start the process had been taken away from me, but I had to accept it and move on.

Weeks went by and Steve got the seed to the contractor. Following that I was like the father of a newborn. I would call Steve and ask him if it had sprouted yet, and over the coming weeks he gave me the play by play. He drove by the farm regularly and took a quick look as he passed. Route 10 however is maybe 15' below land level, so his grass reports were from a distance and based on quick visuals. His reports were positive though and with that I settled into a position of confidence that we were back on track. I scheduled my next trip down a month after the seed went in with the intention of mowing the 3 acres with my new toys.

Weeks went by. I was getting edgy. I was eager to get down and start the physical part of farm work. When I arrived I felt the same as Jack felt when he saw the beanstalk. The grass was waist high ! I knew the land was fertile, and things grew down here like crazy, but I never could imagine the growth I saw. After a nights rest to recover from the long drive, I immediately got the tractor and mower ready for the cutting that needed to be done.

It took most of the morning to cut through the large stems. White powder covered the blue hood of the New Holland. All the stalks looked chewed up instead of showing a nice clean cut. I swear some of them were big enough to be used for lumber, but the tractor and mower survived the ordeal.

My major thought was that I can't wait 4 or 5 more weeks for my next mowing, I had to do it sooner. I scheduled my next trip for 3 weeks away. And three weeks went by very fast only to have me find once again grass that was 3 to 4 feet high. I tried identifying the grasses, and though I knew what rye was, and what clover looked like, I had no clue what fescue (2 types) looked like so I just identified them as such. Foolish me.

Glenn Slade is the local Virginia Tech. Co-Op agent for the area. He was the first person I had talked to to try to understand this farming jazz and what the county could offer in regards to advice. By his own admission he knew very little about grape growing. Whenever a farmer had an issue with one of the big 4 crops he is able to get the answers needed. I went in after one of the mowings and just talked to Glenn about my observations, and out of simple curiosity he decided to come out to the farm and see what was happening. What it did was confirm how much of a city boy I was.

Glenn is an optimistic guide of guy in a real world kind of way. He is himself a farmer of many decades along with holding the Co-op Agent job. He came out and in his matter of fact kind of way he was able to identify every kind of weed I had growing in my fields. Weeds ? I asked him to identify the fescue for me and with some hard searching he was actually able to find small clumps of it here and there. The 3 foot grass was really marestail and a couple of other potent weeds. You see, down In Virginia you don't plant grass seed in late Spring. It only gets burned out and the weeds dominate the landscape. It wouldn't be so bad but later after the grass lost the war several people who were well aware of the goings on could have told me that the seed wasn't going to take.

I guess it is what it is........locals don't want to butt into someone else's business unless they are asked to, especially if it is to a new guy on the block who is planting grapes for the first time in that county since Jamestown was founded.

Recognizing that sometimes you get dealt a bad hand, I decided to overseed in the Fall, preferably in October. Up north we wouldn't think of planting that late, but in Virginia there is still enough time to establish the seed. And it is when the weeds are dormant and won't conflict with the growing grass. Our first big lesson learned.....and not to be our last.

In October one has to think about the following year. You see, with vitus vinifera grapevines they have to be grafted with American rootstock, so early ordering is a must to assure timely delivery. I chose "Tax Day"....April 15th, for our first 2000 grapevines to be delivered. I'm not sure how appropriate that date was, I just knew it was one I wouldn't forget.

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