Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement. I used it a lot as an engineer and was certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt indicating a certain level of expertise. I never thought I might need to use it in the vineyard. But with the recent planting of our 2 acre upper vineyard which includes 1 acre of Pinot noir, 2/3 acre of Chardonnay, and 1/3 acre of Pinot blanc it all came back to me. With numerous irrigation related problems it was clear that our process indeed needed improving.
In order for our young plants to receive the water they need during our hot dry summers, there is an irrigation emitter similar to the one pictured above punched into a water tube which is located about 2 feet above each plant. These particular emitters are designed to deliver 1/2 gallon of water per hour. The trouble started when we noticed most were not flowing any water at all!
Each new vineyard irrigation system should be thoroughly flushed with clean water BEFORE the emitters are installed because there is always a chance that dirt, PVC shavings, or rust might be in the lines. In a hurry to be ready for the arrival of the new vines from the nursery, I failed to do that. Uggh! The first step in Six Sigma is to Measure the problem. This was easy as nearly ALL 3,300 emitters were plugged. Easy, but not pleasing. Our team worked for hours to pull each emitter and either blow it out or replace it. But as soon as we ran the system most, ~2,000 of them, plugged again.
There was no getting around the need to flush the system out. So we had to back up a step and disconnect all 42 rows of drip tubing and blow the water in the lines to the ground. This required many hours and several trips to the irrigation store, but the water was clearing up. We put everything back together and started the system. To our chagrin about half of the emitters plugged during the first watering. The second step in Six Sigma is to Analyze the data. We knew (1) the emitters we installed in the upper vineyard were of a different make and model than what we have used successfully for 5 years in our lower vineyard, (2) that the emitters were plugging frequently with a very fine grit, and (3) our inline filter was apparently allowing the grit pass to pass through.
We turned our attention to the filter. It's the very same filter that we have in the lower vineyard and have had virtually no problems with it. It is well designed with the ability to manually clean while the system runs. The red filter screen at the top right of the photo was originally installed inside the black filter housing. I learned from our irrigation expert that the color red indicates a certain hole size or mesh. While we have always used a red element in our lower vineyard, the manufacturer offers a yellow and black model with progressively smaller mesh. The third step in Six Sigma is Improve. After Measuring the problem and Analyzing the causes and the data, it's time to make some changes. I wish I could say we jumped right on the best solution, but its been more of a process.
The first improvement made was to install a yellow filter element with a finer mesh opening. This helped some but not enough. So we found a dealer online that had a black element and ordered it. Its openings are so small I was wondering how often I would have to clean it to keep water flowing. We installed it on July 31st and made the decision that we would no longer pull and clean the plugged emitters but would instead replace them with a different brand. During the August 3rd watering, I walked the entire vineyard and found 68 emitters plugged which I pulled and replaced with the new model. I cleaned the filter once and noticed some build up, but still good flow. On August 6th, 17 plugged emitters were pulled and replaced. Again, one filter cleaning during the 3 hour irrigation session. Progress!
The final step in Six Sigma is Control. With improvements in place, what are we going to do to ensure that our good results continue? Plans are to continue to clean the filter once per watering session and to weekly walk through the vineyard counting and replacing any plugged emitters. Next year, all lines will be flushed to remove any build up that develops over the winter. As the plants get older and put down deep roots they are better able to tolerate periodic irrigation interruptions. But this first year especially we have to ensure a reliable water supply.
When I was working full time as an engineer I often used Gantt charts as a way of planning out a project. In those days I would use sophisticated software such as Microsoft Project. Today as a self-employed farmer my tools are pencil, paper, straight edge, and eraser much like Mr. Gantt used 100 years ago when he developed the technique. It's a great way of looking at the many pieces of a project on a time line so that first things get done first.
Our project for 2019 includes many pieces of which planting 2 acres of Burgundian varietals is most critical. Not that everything else is not important, but when you are expecting 3,3oo vines to be delivered on June 1st, you need to be ready. The trellis systems are installed and the underground irrigation piping has been installed. We still need to install fence posts and irrigation emitters and drill holes for the plants in the new block while tending to the 6 acres of vines already planted. In order to be as cost effective as possible, we will remove the metal pencil rods from our most mature vines and re-use them for the new plants. Our good neighbors at Walport Family Cellars are allowing us to use their grow tubes this season since they aren't using them. We are very thankful to them and our entire vineyard community which is so supportive of one another here in the Applegate Valley!
Our LIVE certification was renewed last year, and we have been farming organically, although not certified, for 2 years. We employ some biodynamic principles and are considering applying for certification next year. We believe that in caring for the soil we will produce higher quality fruit and better wines. It's a part of stewardship which we take very seriously. Chickens scratch around under the vines and take care of many insect pests. Weekly, we move our flock of Babydoll Sheep to the alleyway between 2 rows to mow and fertilize. Happy sheep!
To learn more about biodynamics as applied to wine and wine grapes check out this blog by our good neighbor Craig Camp from Troon Vineyard.
I spoke with Sarah at the Demeter Association (the organization responsible for certifying biodynamic farms) a few weeks ago to learn more about the certification process. I came away with a better understanding of what's involved and about the next steps. Our farm is already certified sustainable under the LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) program, so we are well on our way. For the past year or so we have been farming organically, although not certified, which is a prerequisite for the biodynamic program. In addition, special biodynamic preparations must be applied to the vineyard a few times a year. Ideally these preparations are made on the farm but they can also be purchased. Other preparations are incorporated into
compost which is the primary biodynamic fertilizer.
We've learned a lot about making compost from our county extension classes--Debbie through the Master Gardener program and both of us through the Land Steward program. Time to get to work building our piles that will be spread into the vineyard next spring. We have an abundance of materials including kitchen scraps, yard waste, and manure with bedding from our chicken coop and sheep pen. We even have worm castings from our vermiculture bin. As a bonus this spring, we had some of the neighbor's cattle in the pasture for about eight weeks who left us with a lot of good material. The process of making the compost requires the piles to be turned, aerated, and watered every week or so. It's a good workout!
Speaking of sheep, I let them into an area of recently dried out grass not knowing it was full of stickers (locally known as fox tails) and the sheep got covered with them. Debbie and I spent three hours trying to pick the stickers out of their wool. In desperation I made a call to sheep shearer John Slocum. Thankfully he was going to be in on our road the next day. He expertly sheared all five sheep in about two hours, removing their wool and most all of the stickers. The rest were easy to find and remove and the sheep are all ready for the summer ahead. An added benefit is that we are able to use the wool as mulch around some grape vines!
In the vineyard our Tempranillo and Malbec vines are in the early stages of fruit set, meaning the young berries are just starting to swell. The plants are very healthy and are enjoying a moderate early summer. They are also responding well to the organic spray treatments they are receiving. Our second leaf Viognier and Petit Verdot plants have all been two-budded and are protected once again by grow tubes. Many of the plants have grown considerably; a small number, maybe 5%, will have to be replanted from cuttings next spring. And we are expecting delivery any day now of 2,000 new vines which will give us a total of six acres planted. The new vines are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Suavignon, all from the Bordeaux family of grapes.
In the winery we expect to start bottling this week with our 2017 Rock Tempranillo rosé up first. We are excited to get rosé back in the tasting room after selling out of the 2016 vintage rather quickly. This also looks to be our biggest bottling to date of about 900 cases, including our very first estate red Tempranillo. It's going to be a busy summer!