Things viticultural

When one thinks of wine being produced, usually France and California spring to mind. Maybe with a little Argentina, New Zealand, or Spain thrown in for additional flavor.  Oregon and Washington, however, have been developing their wine industries for several decades and there is some pretty good stuff coming out of the Willamette valley and Walla Walla area.

pressingSMI’ve long been interested in fermenting, so when our friend Burt asked if we wanted to go help him pick grapes at Courting Hill Winery just like last year, we jumped at the chance. It’s a guaranteed good time, frolicking in a vineyard at one of the prettiest times of the year.  This year had something extra, though- Burt suggested we buy some grapes of our own, and follow him through the process of making Chardonnay. He’s been making his own wine for years, and is interested in passing along his skills.

We looked at the budget, and decide we could afford it, so I told Burt we’d love to. I had some of the equipment on hand already, and bought a few small items like tubing and yeast at the brewing supply store. Bill gave us a few of 5-gallon glass carboys that he had laying around in his garage, and we were off to the races! As I write, I can hear the gentle blup-blup of bubbling fermentation locks on the wine fermenting in the mudroom, right next to the hard cider.  Five gallons of wine is a lot for us, 24+ bottles, so I don’t think there will be any shortage of spirits in the coming year. Plus as much cider, and several cases of wine we’ve been given by various friends this month… maybe we need to build a wine cellar.

jasonlettSMThen, last week, I got an email from a friend of mine. Jason is a professional second-generation winemaker in the valley, and we’ve been kicking around ideas for a new winery building design he wants me to help him with. His family brought Pinot grapes to Oregon in the sixties, starting the wine business in this region. They’re well known in the winemaking community, and their Eyrie Vineyard produces high quality wines. “We’re crushing grapes this week”, he said. “Would you like to come spend a day with me and see the operation?”

So I did just that. It was fun to see the differences and similarities between making 24 bottles of wine and 100,000. The equipment is of course much larger and more expensive, such as the press in the picture below. Bigger than a car and several times more expensive, this press and ones like it come from Italy and are the centerpiece of the winery. It has a computer to control it, as it cycles through the grapes several times to get the most juice possible.

bigpressSMBut the general process is the same, and hasn’t changed in millennia. Jason took me to punch down red wine in the early stages of fermentation, an extra step not required on white wines like the Chardonnay in my mudroom. Using a glorified plunger, one pushes crushed grapes down into the fermenting mush, to keep them moist and deter the “bad” bacteria while encouraging the good, hydrophilic yeasts.

He then took me into the barrel room, to listen to the wine.  Yep, listen. In a dark barrel room, you can actually hear a sizzling sound as millions of tiny bubbles rise in the wine. He took a cork out of a barrel, and we peeked in with a flashlight to see the golden liquid and millions of tiny effervescent bubbles. Wine Magic!  As he continued explaining the biology and chemistry of the wine, I moved to another barrel, this one apparently a red from the staining around the bung. Curious to see the difference, I leaned over and pulled out the cork… and the wine exploded everywhere, showering my face and head with a spray of bloody red alcohol.

There was an awkward pause in Jason’s monologue, and we looked at each other. I was worried I’d offended him by spraying his hard work all over the cellar, and he was probably worried I’d get mad that I was covered in red wine. “That’s why I take them off slowly,” he said with one eyebrow raised.  We both smiled, shrugged, and we got a bucket of water to wash me (and the barrel) clean.

Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment

Honey harvest- GO!

AnyoneHomeSM… and the other reason I’ve not been chatty lately is that the honey harvest is on. It takes more and more time each year, for a few reasons:

  1. I have more and more hives each year. Right now, I have almost 20.
  2. The colonies inside them are becoming more mature, and able to gather and store more honey than a newer colony.
  3. The Cozy Bee Project is taking a portion of my available bee time.

knotweed_arrivesSMBefore I talk about that third item, I want to show you something interesting and educational. What you see here is a capped honey frame I pulled out of one of my hives a few days ago. In this part of the country, we have two distinct honeyflows: “wildflower,” or basically anything the bees can get, which is probably more than half Himalayan Blackberry. They gather this all summer long, starting in May or so and going until mid August. Then, about the time all the other flowers dry up, the Japanese Knotweed sets flowers. This happens in the last week of August and the first week of September, and the nectar is dark like molasses. You can se it distinctly in the middle of the frame… look at that color difference!

The second interesting thing here is the pattern. Honey frames like this one are located towards the top of the hive, and the bees fill them in from the upper corners inward. You can see how far they got by the third week of August, When the honey they were bringing in suddenly changed colors. Usually, it ends up being that a frame is mostly one color or the other, but this one is a pretty even mix and makes a great showpiece. It is inconvenient, though, for extracting the honey, because I sort the frames by color before I spin out the honey, so that I can have two distinct types to sell. What to do with this one? I don’t know.

apiary_newSMBack to the Cozy Bee Project. Now that the honey has been harvested, I’m working on bottling up all the Tasty Gifts ™ that my backers will be getting in a few weeks, printing cool stickers, making lip balm, and all that jazz. In the next few days, I also need to do a lot of work with the bees, to get ready for the winter:

  1. Move several hives, so they are all in the new apiaries.
  2. Inspect all the hives, to be sure they are strong, and consolidate any that aren’t.
  3. Sample the varroa infestation rate to determine which need treatment.
  4. Take bee samples from each colony to mail to OSU’s honeybee lab for Nosema analysis.
  5. Test the software update on the Bee Certain temp/ humidity trackers. We’ve been having some technical problems with it, but Bob the engineer is working diligently and says the new units should be ready by Friday.
  6. Buy and install a second electric fence charger at the Nehalem apiary, because someone saw bear sign and I don’t want to take any chances.

As you can see, IT’S CRAZY RIGHT NOW.  Luckily, my energetic young apprentices Allyson and Emily have volunteered to help me get it all done! But in a month or so, things will slow down to a standstill when the bees go dormant and I’m sitting by the fire, out of the chill Northwest drizzle.

Posted in Beekeeping | Leave a comment

Such lovely apples

bramleysSMGoodness, how time flies in the summer. Two months since a post? Argh. Rather than engage in the daunting task of recapping all of the homesteading activities of the busy season, I’ll just launch right into recent events… and make a promise to try hard to stay caught up, now that fall is nigh.

Our lovely Bramley apple tree really put on the bumper crop this year: bushels and bushels of tart, lovely green pie apples the size of softballs. Some took two hands to pick!  I just adore that grand old lady, and I really want to try grafting some more Bramleys for the orchard. That tree is one of the best things that came with the house. Below, we see Emily racking 5+ gallons of apple juice into a glass carboy, ready to start fermenting into Hard Cider, most sacred of alcoholic drinks. To the right is a juicer her friend Al the Pal gave us several years back, and man, did we give that thing a workout. The pressings and cores went into a different 5-gallon bucket to become vinegar, yum. We still have several bushels of apples left, and those will become canned (sweet) cider as well as several bags of dried apple slices for snacking. You can’t see it, but on the stove off-screen is the remains of a tasty apple crisp that was both dessert AND breakfast the next day.

rackingSMMany have been asking about our pond, and I’m pleased to report that our excavator buddy Dick of Jiffy Construction is now back on the job. He’s been very in-demand elsewhere, as he fixes busted water mains for the local municipalities and other such earthworking emergencies, but now that he’s here… whoooo, does he live up to his name. Look at all that destruction! In a Jiffy!  Beside working quickly and being very friendly, one of the things I like about this guy is that he’s a true craftsman in his media. He operates heavy equipment like an extension of his own body, gracefully digging, pushing, leveling, and stacking. I have no doubt he could use his trackhoe to lift a 6,000 pound boulder with a china teacup balanced on top of it, set it next to a teapot, pick up said tea pot, and then pour a dainty service for two.

Jiffy_pondSMBut all that aside, another thing I like about Dick is that he’s one of those guys who cares about doing a good job, because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve watched him when he didn’t know I was standing there, taking time with his excavator to pick up loose rocks and limbs, smooth the dirt around the edges of an excavation, and pat it down gently with the back of the bucket… just so it looks “right” when he walks away from it. That attention to detail really gets me.

Oh, one more big piece of news… we had our final inspection on the house remodel project, and we are Officially Done. What a relief. There are the obligatory few pieces of trim remaining to be installed at our leisure, but for the most part, we’re in for real. I just finished a little firewood crib near the front door, to keep a ready supply of dry wood for when the rains return. Which is coming pretty soon, I can feel it. Brrr.

Posted in News | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Clutches, concrete, and a little time off

grillo_clutch_SMIt’s been a busy week. On Monday, I finally replaced the bearing in the transmission of the walking tractor. It’s been waiting since a few weeks ago when Emily was using it to help a friend grind up cover crop and till it in for planting. After a day of hard work, the machine was in a bad way… the clutch wouldn’t take it out of gear, meaning that to stop it, you either had to kill the engine or “drop” it out of gear. Bad.  The good news is that this is NOT normal; these machines have super robust mechanisms.  Turns out, after some troubleshooting on the phone with the nice folks that sold it to us, we determined that it probably had a bad bearing in the clutch housing. These bearings are a standard machine part that is made by a separate manufacturer than the tractor maker (Grillo), so occasionally one turns up that has a manufacturing defect. They normally last 10-20 years under hard use. Ours lasted just one year, so we got a new one for free. They also talked me through the replacement sequence over the phone, which was surprisingly easy, nothing like changing a clutch on a car. Took about an hour, all by myself.

We also did some communal work, with our ongoing Work Party. Today about a dozen of us helped our friends Trav and Emily on their farm, tearing out invasive blackberries from a greenhouse they are rehabbing, and helping build a pump house. Here we see Emily, demonstrating some hard-won concrete skills she learned in Peace Corps. Yep, she can work a mean batch of concrete, with the most rudimentary tools, anywhere in the world. I think the contractors that were helping us were pretty impressed. When we were done, we got a tasty meal out of the deal (tradition!), in this case some local ham. And when I say Ham, I am talking about both the food, and they guy slicing it. That’s Trav, chef extroardinaire, and host of the internet cooking show The Mason Jar Suite. Check it out! I have such interesting friends…

trav_concrete_SM trav_hammy_SM

We rounded out the week by taking a little trip. We have always loved backpacking, and this year we committed to do a multi-day hike at least once a quarter. This time, it was into the Three Sisters Wilderness. It’s nice that Oregon has so many fantastic outdoor resources available; with about 5 hours of driving, we were able to take a hike that placed us more than a mile above sea level, amongst glaciers. We camped in the high pass between Middle and South Sister, above a clear lake that made for some beautiful (but chilly) skinnydipping. Here we see Emily near one of the glaciers, and another picture of a glacier that is almost gone, a victim of global climate change.

ruby_glacier_SM glacier_SM

Posted in News | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bees are busy, and so am I

It’s mid june, and the blackberries are in full bloom weeks ahead of schedule- as might be expected with the way this strange, early year is turning out. I had 7 or 8 swarm calls before May even started (!) and the major honeyflow of the year is already on. Normally, this would be nothing but good news. However, this year many of my colonies are new, and are not yet up to full strength- meaning that when the blooms have past and we’re in the dry part of the summer, THEN there will be of extra bees sitting around, doing not much except eating up what honey their elders were able to pack away the weeks before. Sigh.

However, not all is lost, and some of my new hives did build so rapidly that they are matching the established ones from last year. Here we see the pretty awesome sight of a strong hive in full force, working hard to bring it all home. Hit play and watch them work.

They bees aren’t the only ones working. I’ve been busy rearranging my apiraries to make managing the bees easier, and organize the hives for the Cozy Bee Project. One the left, you can see what the Foley Creek apiary looked like before. Cute and romantic, but a HUGE PAIN to maintain… things to trip over, hives at odd heights, weeds to trim. The weeds are actually the worst part, because trimming them back really annoys the bees, and I got stung a lot more often last year doing yard maintenance than actually working in hives.

apiary_old_SM apiary_new_SM

By comparison, the setup on the right is my new standardized apiary. The hives stands are at an anthropomorphic height (beekeeping requires lifting 40+ pound hive boxes), with weedblock and mulch beneath to keep the weeds at bay. Did you know that when bees die of old age, it’s from their wings finally getting too frayed? If there are weeds around the entrance to their hive, it actually reduces their lifespan from wear and tear. The compact arrangement means that it’s easier to fence against cows and bears. The ground is level so I don’t trip, which I must tell you, is an awful experience when carrying a hive body filled with 30,000 bees.  And the hives are oriented at different angles and spaced so that they are easy for the bees to identify, to make sure they come back to the right home.

madness_SMThat done, the next task was setting up my electronic hive monitoring equipment. This involves getting my “mad scientist” on. Here we see my work station, while soldering new connections on a cellphone power supply I pulled apart to bridge between the solar controller (12V) and the Raspberry Pi computer (4.5V).  The controller is also wired to a sealed battery from a scooter, with enough amp-hours that I should be able to run the hive telemetry for over a week in total darkness.

BeecertainBase_SMThe solar controller also connects to the 60W solar panel. 60W is overkill; it should recharge the battery in one afternoon of good sun with no problem. I actually ordered 40W panels from my friends at, the same folks who supplied the gear for our off-grid house, but they had a distribution problem with the 40w panels so they upgraded me for free. Nice. Here we see the final installation of one of the BeeCertain hive data monitors, complete with off grid solar power. I now need to finish the second one, and get the sensors in the hives. Then we can start tracking data!


Posted in Beekeeping | Leave a comment

Deer Abby

I was sitting at the computer working this morning, and Emily was in the kitchen fixing breakfast. Suddenly, she cried “Aye aye Aieeeee” and started flailing her arms wildly. I thought she might have been stung by a straggling bee; we’ve had a few of them turn up in the house in the last few days. But no, she was looking out the window, pointing into the garden below.

We went out on the porch to see three deer standing in the new garden, checking out the tender sprouts. I guess we can’t put off the deer fence any longer! Luckily, the only thing visible yet is the onions, and deer aren’t so keen on those. I shouted and threw a piece of firewood at them.


This had absolutely no effect, nor did the next throws. In fact, it made the deer come closer, sniffing at the firewood to see if it was some sort of treat. “I hope they get that figured out before hunting season” Emily said as she pulled on her boots. Shooing them off manually was no easy task either. She stomped off towards them, arms waving and shouting, and she was nearly upon them before the first one decided to leave. And, as soon as she turned around, I could see one of them peeking over the edge of the hill to see if maybe it was OK to come back.

So, I guess the deer fence needs to get moved up the priority list.

Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment

Now I can Bee Certain?

One of the critical elements of the Cozy Bee Project’s research is the ability to track temperature and humidity within my hives. When I’d originally envisioned the project, I was imagining using small data loggers, like are used in warehouses and for building performance analysis. They are about the size of a thumb drive (and will therefore fit inside a beehive), and are self-contained units that record temperature and humidity data at prescribed intervals, storing the data internally until you download it into your computer through the USB port.

However, it was my great fortune to meet Bob from Bee Certain very early in my fundraising. He designs and sells hive monitors that do exactly what I want, but better! Not only do his monitors sense temperature and humidity, but they also transmit it wirelessly to a central base station. To download the data, you simply log into the base station  via WiFi from your computer and it all happens wirelessly- it’s instant, with no honey/ wax/ bee goop on your laptop. When I found out that his system was only about 3% more expensive than what I had budgeted for manual data loggers, I switched immediately.

BeeCertain_SMBut wait, that’s not even the best part. Turns out that the Bee Certain system of hive monitors is a really new product… so new, that I’m the beta tester. This is great, because Bob is working with me to design the software to meet my performance and functional requirements. It’s like having a staff computer coder and electronics engineer. We’ve made several enhancements to the web interface and data rendering, as well as some changes to the actual hardware design, since the first demo units he shipped me several weeks ago. On Monday, he delivered the “final” product:

  • 20 in-hive sensors. They are the doodads with the red conformal coating. They have little antennas that broadcast the temperature and humidity telemetry at 10-minute intervals.
  •  3 environmental sensors, for collecting ambient weather data outside of the hives. They are the white tubes, and also broadcast every 10 minutes.
  • 2 system monitors. Each is a fully functioning miniature PC running linux and hosting an apache web server, built on the Raspberry Pi platform, as well as a WiFi hot spot. All the data is stored on the server and then downloaded to my laptop whenever I feel like getting it.

I can’t want to get this installed. We will be refining the hardware and software more as the research wears on, and it’s becoming a neat side project. Much like the space program gave us nifty stuff like Velcro, Teflon, and Tang, the Cozy Bee Project will hopefully spin off a really awesome Bee Certain hive monitoring system.

Posted in Beekeeping | Leave a comment

Mobile Shed

As most of our friends already know, we’ve decided to take the year off from the farmers’ market this season, to focus on getting our growing operations moved over from the old farm property we were renting on Foley Creek to the new property we bought on Gravel Creek.  To that end, we’ve been working evenings this week taking down fence, pulling up posts, loading gardening tools, and hauling bags of soil amendments. Yesterday, however, was the climax of the activity… the toolshed.

When I built our toolshed almost three years ago, it was built with the idea that one day we might want to move it. Now, that day has come. After emptying it of its contents (which are now filling the back of my pickup),  I set to work getting it off of its concrete block foundation. Even empty, the shed was far too heavy for me to lift, so using fenceposts as levers and a bottle jack from the truck, I jacked it up, pulled out the blocks, and set it on the ground. Next step: bolt each end of a chain to the wooden base at two corners. That done, I hooked another chain from the center of the first chain to another attached to the frame of my pickup, shifted into 4-low, and then… drug the shed a hundred feet to the road! You see, when I first built it, I made the bottom of the shed out of  pair of 4×8 wooden beams, and I curved the ends like giant skis in anticipation of this day. I am pleased to announce, it worked… with only a few hang-ups, like getting it stuck in a big blackberry bush.

egyptiansOnce on the gravel road, we were half done. Enter: farm buddies! Jared and Jim from Nehalem River Ranch have a diesel dualie truck and a giant tilt trailer, and were willing to help out.  They backed it up near the shed, then we switched to Egyptian technology, setting fence posts on their side to use as rollers to get the shed onto the trailer. There was a lot of grunting and heaving (Emily helped too) and in no time we were on the trailer and ready to roll.

At this point, I started worrying about a story my dad told me about something he saw in the 70s. We were stationed at Kincheloe AFB in upper Michigan at the time, and there is a lot of ice fishing that goes on in that part of the world. I am not super knowledgeable about such things, but I do know that an “ice shanty” is a critical part of the process… it’s a small wooden shed on skids, much like mine, but with no floor. From what I gather of stories told during my childhood, ice fishing consists of sitting in this shed all day, hiding from the brutal winds and snow, drinking beer and staring at a hole in the ice. Anyway, one day my dad was driving down the highway (to go ice fishing? Who knows!) and saw a car going the other way pulling a trailer with an ice shanty on it. At that moment, a gust of wind came up and lifted the ice shanty off the trailer, sending it high into the air much like the early scenes of The Wizard of Oz. I imagine the landing was far less successful than Dorothy’s.

mobile_shed_SMAs it turns out, I need not have worried. Jim and Jared were both liberal with the tie-downs and conservative with the driving, and we arrived safely at our new farm with shed intact. Then it was a simple matter of reconnecting the 4×4 to the chains on the shed, and dragging it off the back of the trailer into its new resting place. We toasted with some tasty limoncello I made for my birthday, and called it a day.

Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment

the NewBeez of 2015 are here

Since it looked like I was going to reach my funding goal for the Cozy Bee Project, I took a chance and pre-ordered 10 packages of bees to replenish the ones lost to the bear last year. Yesterday, two days before the end of fundraising, they arrived! I put them in the hives, and there was a lot of buzzing and chaos. The weather was perfect: it almost got up to 80 and was sunny. By the end of the day, the beez were pretty calm and inside their houses resting, so it all looks pretty good. For now, I’m keeping the buzzers in the yard until I get the new apiary set up at Nehalem River Ranch (other farmer friends of ours). These bees are going there some time next week (Emily will NOT be pleased if they are still in her garden when she returns from her trip!) .

2015 NewBees_SM

The old bees at Foley Creek, the original and strongest apiary, are going to move to somewhere else on Farmer Ned’s property at some point too, but I am not yet sure when, as we’re moving them out of the orchard to make both beekeeping and orcharding easier. My friend Ryan saw a bear track last fall near those hives, so that one is going to get an electric fence before the end of summer, but not the full-on deal that Gravel Creek is getting, since THAT bear knows about hives and will be harder to discourage.

At Gravel Creek (our new farm), I need to build the new bear exclosure, but that’s the lowest priority, after the other two apiaries are set up and running smoothly. I have 16 colonies right now, 8 per apiary, and that was the base setup for the experiment. Since I got extra funding (thanks to all who participated!) I will have to build some more hives, and it looks like some of my colonies from last year are big enough to split this month, so I may yet be able to fill the new hives when that happens.

But today it has turned to rainy and windy and cold, so I am hiding inside next to the cozy fire. I can check on my bees, though, from here. A computer programmer/ electrical engineer from the other side of the mountain heard about my project, and sent me some of his gear to test. He invented a gizmo that has sensors in every hive, and sends temperature and humidity data wirelessly to a central Raspberry Pi computer that can be accessed by WiFi. It’s pretty awesome, and actually costs the same as the “hard way” I was planning on doing it with individual USB data loggers. It’s excellent. The best part is that he’s beta testing all this, so not only is he giving me a good deal, but he’s modifying the operating system and adding functionalities as I suggest them. It’s all the fun of R&D without any (most?) of the work.  Who knows, maybe I will set it up some day so YOU can see how my bees are doing, on this website?

There will be more updates on this as the spring moves on I try to get it all working properly to start the Experiment.

Posted in Beekeeping | Leave a comment

River bank stabilization

riverbank_smA few days ago, the workers from the Tillamook Estuary Partnership came out again, this time to plant riverbank stabilizing seedlings along our creek. These are a low-growing variety of willow, and they planted a thousand of them in one day. I was incredulous when they told me the number, so they showed me their technique: the willows are brought in as whips cut from their nursery stock, clipped into 24″ wands, and then simply jammed into the ground. So long as they are live and have at least two vegetative nodes above the groundline, they will root and grow. Supposedly by the end of the summer, they will have leaves and be solidly rooted, but by NEXT summer, they will have really flourished and it should look like a robust native planting.  We’re pretty excited to have this kind of work going on at our property.

gooseegg_SMIn other news, Emily got a GIANT egg as a present from our friends at Nehalem River Ranch. I keep some bees at their property, and they handed this egg to me after I was done checking up on my fuzzy buzzy bees. It’s a goose egg. She ate it and it lasted her almost until dinner before she was hungry again. Oh, and it had two yolks!

Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment