The Kenwood Press
: 05/01/2017

Watching water use, despite the wet winter

The start of May is one of my favorite times of year in the vineyard. As May begins, the growing shoots that will become canes are five to 10 inches long. On each shoot you can see the tiny grape clusters that will bloom by the end of May. The tiny leaves on the shoots are beautiful in their own right. Each leaf is a fuzzy, light green, and bordered on the tiny, serrated edges with shades of light pink. In the early morning, when there has been a dew, each tiny point on the serrated edge has a drop of water that catches the nearly horizontal rays of morning sun and turns the dew drops into a tiny diamond necklace for each new leaf – a special reward for the dawn riser.

Water management

This year it has rained close to 55 inches, which has benefited the soil, streams, and groundwater. As I write this column, we are getting our well “gauged,” and we are all keenly interested to see how much water table recovery has occurred.

We’re doing several projects in partnership with the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, aimed at helping to conserve water. After performing an irrigation survey in 2015, it was clear that our 40-year-old irrigation line had many emitters that distributed uneven water flow, with leaks due to old repairs, plugs, and constant coyote and raccoon damage. (They’ve learned that chewing on a drip line produces a refreshing drink!) A project is now underway to replace four acres of drip hose, and give us improved accuracy and efficiency delivering water to our vines.

The second project is to monitor vineyard stress and water needs using new technology that measures evapotranspiration (ET) coming from the vines. These ET data, combined with weather forecasting, should enable us to reduce the amount of water we apply to the vines.

The third project is comparing soil moisture in areas of the vineyard where we mow versus areas where we till. Tilling the soil typically reduces water competition from grasses. On the other hand, mowing may help increase carbon in the soil that will help retain water. Our goal with this experiment is to learn how we can be the best possible stewards of our soil while at the same time conserving the precious, limited resource of water.

Other projects include replacing the valves on our headers with solenoids and timers so we can have greater accuracy delivering the water the vines need…and not a drop more! We believe this will give us a triple benefit: saving time on labor (don’t have to drive around changing valves every night), conserving water, and improving grape quality.

How did we get here, Part 2 – Summer in Palo Alto

Last month we wrote about my family beginnings, and how losing our land in that upheaval after the Civil War led to my lifelong desire to own and work the land. This month, dear reader, let me say a few words about how our family got to California.

I was seven years old in September of 1928 – living in Houston with my mother, father, brother Morton, and sister Mary. One afternoon my father stormed into the house and gave me a hard lickin’ for something I must’ve done. He packed his suitcase and marched off down the road, leaving us kids and my mother six months pregnant at the onset of the Great Depression.

During the summers of those difficult years of the Depression, mother would pack all of us onto a train to California to visit her parents, George and Addie Marshall.

My grandfather had a little ranch in East Palo Alto with 5,000 chickens laying eggs that they sold in boxes. My role was to gather those eggs. You’d think it a simple enough job for a 10-year-old boy, but no. There was chicken poop on almost every other one of them, which I had the additional assignment to clean off. My grandfather would tell me, “George, you’ll have a lot of trouble selling eggs with chicken s#*! on them.”

Each summer my mother and Grandmother Addie would can peaches, apricots, plums, and applesauce. These were cooked and packed into glass jars as the summer went along. They would pack those glass jars in the bottom of a trunk under layers of our clothes. When grandfather, who’d been a railway express agent at one time, would wrap the trunks with big rope to make them secure for travel, I knew it was time for us to go back to Houston.

This meant we were going to have a giant going away party the day before we left. Grandfather would butcher a rabbit and roast it over a fire, setting mud wrapped potatoes to cook in the hot ashes. And we might even have a watermelon.

On the day of departure, grandfather got help from his minister because the family car wasn’t big enough for all of us. We could all fit into the minister’s car for the short drive to the railroad station in Palo Alto. When we got back to Houston, we would unload all those canned fruit and vegetables, and that’s what we lived on during the wintertime.