With the warm weather lingering and the ground still moist, we are in preparation for bud break. We like to do this when the ground is soft because, as the rain abates (which appears to be early again this year), the earth becomes like cement. Any work that requires digging is tripled in difficulty and time. At this time we are pruning, doing trellis maintenance, irrigation inspection and repair, and critter control.
Many do not realize, but critters are the bane of all farmers, not the least of which are we vintners. Our pesky intruders include starlings, wild turkeys, gophers, yellow-jackets, and worst of all put together: RACCOONS.
Each intruder requires its own adaptation to keep our babies safe from harm.
For starlings, we net the vineyard. For many, this simply means draping every row with plastic bird netting, knitting them together with clothes pins and plastic eating utensils woven between the nets to hold them, and pinning them to the ground.
Because of the turkeys, however, our approach must be more drastic. Since turkeys can walk at waist height through the vines, they can easily peck through the bird netting, walking down individual rows and grabbing grapes with little impedence. This requires, instead of just draping the rows, tenting the entire vineyard in netting, pinning the nets to the ground to block every row. If we did not have to get into the vineyard throughout the growing season, this would not be such a big deal. But because we do work in the vineyard weekly for one thing or another, the effort at lifting and climbing under the nets to access every of over 50 rows is more than a nuisance. Further, the nets are just below standing height. So work is always semi crouched. It is expensive and uncomfortable.
Yellow jackets were a conundrum for a decade. These aggressive insects, known as wasps in the midwest, pierce the fruit and suck out the innerds. They leave hollow grapes in their wake. Some years they are negligible in impact; others, they can take 20-30% of a crop. We used to buy disposable traps over the internet and hang them throughout the vineyard at relatively close intervals, perhaps 2-3 per row. They are not cheap, but when purchased in bulk, a reasonable cost for the crop that they save.
A few years ago, however, we were entirely out-gunned. We were swarmed with these creatures and could only watch powerlessly as they filled our traps and wasted our crop.
Fortunately, in Sonoma County, there are resources for befuddled farmers. We were directed to a private service, licensed by the county to serve farmers with weekly trapping services for yellow-jackets. They start early in March with specific traps baited with pheromones to attract the queens. The theory is that if you catch a bunch of queens, the nests will not produce the workers that invade the vineyards. But it is impossible to catch them all. So by June, other traps are distributed to catch the workers. This is DEFINITELY not cheap. But they have been effective at diminishing crop damage to single digits.
But our greatest nemesis has been the raccoon. Our vineyard, nestled in the woods adjacent to a riparian environment, has become a major attractant in our neighborhood. Raccoons have come, multiplied and set up permanent homes all around our vineyard and even under our decks. They are intrusive, fearless, vicious, intrepid, and voracious vermin. They carry spores that are dropped in their scat that can kill house pets just by sniffing. And they deposit everywhere, seemingly for spite. We literally wake up every morning with droppings at our doors, on our outdoor dining tables, on the seats, and on the tops of our garbage cans.
If we leave a door open, they are not shy about coming in the house. They invade the garage in search of animal food. They tip over and spill our garbage cans foraging if they are not locked tight.
But worst of all is the damage they have done to our vineyard. We lost the entire crops of 2010 and 2011 to raccoons. We trapped and relocated them, spread mountain lion and coyote scat (predators), layed lion urine-soaked hay all around the vineyard, and shot them. But we were so out-numbered that our efforts were fruitless. Even ones we drove to distant locations of almost an hour's drive returned. And I became scarred by all the death I perpetrated. What had previously been adorable creatures who I felt privileged to share the earth with became monsters I wanted dead. It was war.
Finally, in 2012, I called the County. I had not heard stories of crops being annihalated by raccoons, so I did not expect any answers. And I really did not get any, except to learn that some of my tactics were illegal. Though it is encouraged to trap raccoons, you cannot let them go. Especially somewhere distant. If they carry disease, you infect healthy populations. You are supposed to kill them. But the only legal way is thru euthanasia by the County. And it costs plenty per animal. Imagine loading a cage with an angry vicious animal in the back of your truck and driving 30 minutes each way to a county location to have the animal killed. I sometimes caught two a day. It seemed ridiculous.
So I was referred to an outfit called Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, headed by a kind and soulful woman named Doris Duncan. She adopts, nurses and releases orphaned and injured animals of all ilks, including bats, foxes, skunks, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, rabbits, weasels, owls, hawks, vultures, and, yes, even raccoons. You can imagine how she must have felt when I shared my story of trapping and shooting raccoons enmasse. But, compassionate as she is, she didn't hint of her sentiments other than care for me.
She sent out a young man, Michael McGuire, to assess the situation. Michael was a precocious 19 years old. We talked; then he walked the property, inspected my basement, under my decks and all around the vineyard. The following day he arrived with bags of coyote and mountain lion scat, spread them around the vineyard, and shared an idea. He suggested that I install wiring around every row, attached to chargers, to deliver low amperage shocks to any vineyard intruder. His idea seemed to have merit and I believed it came from authority. So I asked for an estimate.
He provided an estimate the following week and we were off. I did not realize at the time that Michael had never done this, nor had it been done anywhere before. Further, Doris, his boss, knew nothing about it.
After several weeks of tried and failed attempts, and a heartful come-to-Jesus meeting between Michael, Doris and myself when she discovered how much time and money he was spending without her knowledge, Michael's idea saved Halleck Vineyard. It was a true odyssey with a happy ending.
We now employ Michael annually, supporting the great works of Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, to keep our vineyard free of raccoon infestation. He is responsibile for our waging passive war: inspecting the lines, freeing them of shorts and impedence, maintaining the chargers, and rewiring when necessary.
This year we are entirely retooling, now that we have a solution, and replacing all the wooden stakes that hold the wires with metal ones. I should have known this would be a problem, but Michael was SO confident :-)