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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

IT DOESN"T GET ANY EASIER...

No, it really doesn't. If you think about getting into farming because it has sort of a richness to it, getting oneself integral with the earth, first remove the romance and supplement it with long days, backbreaking work, and never-ending tasks. Now figure that mother nature is going to test your stamina as well as conviction and that is more like what you're in for with starting a vineyard.

Unlike large scale commercial farming, this is truly hands on. Every vine will get looked at and touched numerous times during the growing season, and then a couple more times when they are dormant. Unlike a field of soy that is planted, maybe sprayed a few times, then mechanically harvested, the vines will demand your time, all the time. No sooner do you finish going through the vineyard are you then called back to the beginning to start it all over again. Enough of a warning as 2008 begins.

This is the official first year. We prepped the land for all that that was worth. We fertilized and lymed. To some degree we put in a ground cover that can without a doubt be confused with a blanket of weeds. Now was the time to officially become a vineyard. We had ordered about 2000 grapevines from Double A Vineyards out of New York State, with an April delivery.

For all this to get a jump start, and recognizing that I still had "a real job", I hired a retired fireman by the name of Ed, "Big Ed". Picture combining Santa Claus with the fried chicken Colonial, and add 12" to his height. This guy was huge. He had soouthern sensibility and was able to speak his mind in a well thought out way, without stepping on your toes. He was not afraid to get right into the thick of things and provide the know how and where-with-all that was required to get the job done.

Our "plan" was to till our rows and set in all the posts before the plants arrived. Through experimentation with a 3-point auger on the back of the tractor trying to set fence posts in the prior year, I had decided that the soil, which was a sandy loam, didn't have enough structure, moistness, and clay to hold the fence firm after a year. The very best alternative was purchasing a hydraulic post driver that hooked up once again to the back of the tractor, that could drive a 10' blunt end post up to 3' in the ground. This was another multi-thousand dollar piece of equipment that was not in the original capital goods plan.

Now one would think tilling a row 42 times would be an easy task. I just took my large 5' wide tiller that I had used last year to prep the 3 acres, and removed tines to give me 24" of till width. Now the engineer in me decided the best way to maintain a straight line was to build a sight that mounted on the hood of the tractor, much like a sight for a rifle. Keep the 2 pins lined up, aiming for a spot at the end of the row, and presto, a straight line.

I put the New Holland in the lowest, slowest gear I could, and started her up. I held that line as best I could, bumps and all, and 10 minutes later I finished the row, ready to start another. Once again I lined up my sights, focused on the target at the end of the row, and began.
When it was time for me to analyze my work, I got off the tractor and eye-balled my lines. What a let down it was. I had made the most beautiful set of parallel curves one could make. Turns out the tractor tilted when it got to gradual changes in slope, and without warning it just tilled followed the path it was aimed at, with the sights ever so slightly tilting in unison. It was a lost cause and another failed experiment. I found it was actually straighter to just aim visually with the endpoint and accept whatever variance there was in the tilled row.

Now we were ready for the posts. We tried to mount the hydraulic driver on the back of the tractor, only to find we needed a chain hoist to rig it up the first time. The machine weighed a ton, and it was impossible to get it in position without help. Surry Equipment became involved, even though the driver was purchased over the internet (hey, I saved $600). They helped to get it mounted, and then when the main cylinder sprung a huge leak and needed to be replaced, they were able to fix it and get me back in the fields. Problem was, the place I purchased the driver from sent us the parts (it was under warranty), though I struggled to get the right parts in and when it was all said and done, they wouldn't cover the labor cost that Surry Equipment put in to getting it to operate right (there went the savings). It is a great machine, but it goes back to my trying to save a little by not buying locally. In my defense I didn't know Surry Equipment carried anything like a hydraulic post driver until I had them look at it after the fact.

All of the juggling of replacement parts for the driver took nearly 3 weeks, and needlesstosay, that was long after the grapevines arrived. We had no visual clues on exactly where to plant these creatures, excepting for the tilled rows which were already labeled as no where near straight. Here came my next engineering brainstorm, a "prestretched" length of marine polypro rope, where we marked every 6' with a piece of colored electrical tape. My father, who came to the farm to watch this adventure unfold, helped me with this huge 500' spool of bright yellow cord putting on the colored tape. Green for the plant, and black for the posts. Plants were 6' on center, poles 24' on center.

The grapevines arrived right on time. We purchased about equal quantities of Seyval Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Viognier, and Norton. Heading out to Row 1 we decided to tackle the Seyval Blancs first. We laid out the yellow cord the full length of the row, about 450', pulling tight and whipping it to move it where we wanted it to go. We then tried to use a small auger on the end of an electric drill to make our holes. That didn't work; the auger got clogged too easily and really didn't give us the diameter hole we needed to plant the vine. Then Ed grabbed a post hole digger, which worked fine but after a few holes we multiplied our efforts by 2000 and decided someone would be carrying us away on a stretcher were we to keep using this method. I then went to Home Depot and rented a gasoline powered auger. To put this on the back of a tractor, or a truck, and drag it around a vineyard trying to center the bit over the correct spot was downright slow. Ed and I pushed and pulled the auger around the vineyard, up one row and then down the next. It took 3 days to do 2000 holes, but we did it. Behind us Diane and my father planted the vines, and when we were done we jumped in to move the project along. It finally got done, and because none of the irrigation lines were in, the vines had to be hand watered to keep them alive. I applaud Ed for doing this, because without his help they would have surely died with Surry County going through its 2nd drought season in so many years. I had to go back to New England after this, and my return trip would be timed with the post driver finally able to be utilized. Even with the posts in, there was still alot of work that needed to be done......

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