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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Footprints In The Sand

On my last trip to the vineyard I was eager to try my new tiller, but timing didn't work out very well. The clock ticked towards the end of the week as I had to return up north to maintain some sense of reality, so when Friday rolled around I had to leave knowing the tiller was finally ready for trial. I just left the tractor & tiller at the farm equipment operation as I went home, trying to decide how soon I could return. But it is so often the case that as you move along in the calendar, there are new priorities to address, and the middle to end of April is no different.

This was a rare trip down when the pick-up wasn't full of something, and with that being the case I took a detour to a suburb north of Philly to pick-up 40,000 feet of trellis wire. I would need this later in the season as our new vines grow vertically to reach 36 inches from the ground. It is a long drive and the side trip makes it a little longer. Arrival at the vineyard is usually in the dark, and the headlights from the truck as we turn into the driveway don't shed enough light to see very much. Tall weeds and the required mowing appear to take center stage; grapevines in full bloom are hardly noticeable. To see the new season's hope will have to wait until the morning.

Morning started at 5:15 a.m. on Day #2. We have a driveway alarm that blasted at that time, and though I immediately recognized the sound, I jumped from the bed and raced full bore to the front window. Who could be going up my driveway at that hour ? I installed the unit because our driveway is a quarter mile long, and thought it would be nice to be made aware of any visitors, invited or not. The light was barely out then; I'm not sure it would qualify for daybreak or dawn it was so dark. I didn't see anything though, so the next logical step was to make the coffee and start the day.

It wasn't until 9 or so when I walked down the driveway to try to put the puzzle together on why the alarm went off. It is sensitive enough to screech when the wind moves the tall weeds across the driveway, but the wind was very calm that day. As I walked along I generally look for animal signs, specifically deer or turkeys, sometimes a mink or a fox. The deer and turkeys cause all kinds of grief in a vineyard. As for the carnivores, I wonder how my cat will deal with them when she eventually is relocated down south. The answer to the alarm became quite clear as I approached the sensor. Right in front of it were dozens of deer tracks, all nice and fresh in the sand over the top of the truck's tire tracks from the night before. They must have been out of sight by the time I raced up to the front of the house after hearing the alarm.

As I may have mentioned in past blogs, we had a horrible drought last year. The mortality rate amongst the new vines was fairly high. I had decided last yeaar that I would replace the approximately 12% of the Petit Verdots that bit the big one, and only replace a half of the over one thousand Cabernet Sauvignons that had died. Grafted grapevines are expensive enough; to plant them again is not only hard on the wallet but tough on the back.

So once again most of my time on the vineyard was spent on planting these replacements. Diane came down with me to help, and she said it right that when you spend the whole time planting it just doesn't seem like very much gets done. On a good day you may plant 200 or so, but that's not typical.
She managed to do a little secondary pruning.....removing suckers and doing bud counts on the cordons and canes. Other than spending 8 hours to mow all the grass around the farm, I guess that's all I did to be productive. Diane had to fly back on Tuesday, so that left the balance of the plants for me to put in the ground. It is a long and tedious job. It's not just redigging the hole and putting in the vine. It includes hand trucking all the pails of water needed to soak the ground and water after the earth is returned and packed down. And this water isn't right there either. It's not like you can run 600' of hose to your location. We put a 55 gallon barrel in the back of the truck and draw from it the pails of water we need, and then carry these to the spot where we are planting. Figure 2 pails for every 4 to 6 plants. Back and forth, and back and forth again. I finished the job with one day to spare.

During all this time I had maybe 4 hours to experiment with my new tiller. I had a choice at the end to either till or spray herbicide, and I chose spraying. I figured I could always till next time, rolling the dead weeds under.If I opted to till now, the weeds I couldn't get at would be waist high. That would have brought back nightmares from last year which I wanted to avoid at all costs. The new tiller for me was like driving a new oversized car. It had more power than I had envisioned, destroying everything in its path. And being way behind the tractor with this kind of energy required a sharp eye to watch it getting close to the vines. Do you know how hard it is to drive a tractor forward but looking backwards ? Well, forward isn't the problem. Forward and straight is. A minor adjustment in the rear could easily push your nose too far one way or the other, and then that complicated the whole process forcing you to zig-zag to try to straighten out. With practice I'm sure I'll figure it out, but it was a good thing I had an empty row to first maneuver around or I would have wiped out a slew of vines !

The week ended way too soon, but even though I can be pretty busy while I am alone, I miss my family and crave to return. There is always work to be done on the farm, and when the week ends I start putting together the list of required things to get done when I come back in 2 weeks. My list has over 30 things on it already, with tilling and getting the irrigation system back up and running being the top two.

On the last evening that I am at the farm I make it a habit to walk one last time down the driveway and around the two blocks we have planted. I look for things I missed, but usually it is to reflect on what was accomplished and what needs to be done. I begin to miss the farm and I haven't even left it yet. I have been on the farm without leaving it since I dropped Diane at the airport just three days earlier and tomorrow would be my day to rejoin civilization (if driving up US 95 at 70 mph with all the crazies is rejoining civilization). I slowly make my turn at the end of the driveway to return to the house, seeing how the grapes reflect in the setting Sun. The vines all look like they have their arms stretched out to welcome me; they either don't know I'm leaving or are glad I am, since all I seem to do to cut away at them during my pruning chores. It is for their own good, I tell them.

My pace up the driveway is not hurried; I realize when I get back to the house my only mission is to pack up and ready to leave the next morning, which is usually early. I am now past Block 1, reaching the middle of Block 2 where the alarm sensor is. I am looking for more deer prints because I hadn't seen any fresh ones since that first night. Even with Diane gone I never really feel alone knowing there are plenty of animals out there, and once again my feelings were justified. Right where I saw the original deer tracks there were some new ones......a coyote.

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