farming


In January 2016 I realised that there was far too much olive pruning for me to tackle alone when there’s so much other work to do, so I hired a team of three men for a few days to do two of my groves, about two hundred and fifty trees. I left them to make a good start and went to check them after four hours. I was very concerned that their version of pruning involved the use of a chainsaw and no ladder, but didn’t want to tell them how to do their job. By lunchtime I could stay away no longer. Their boss told me that there was much dead wood in the trees because of drought over the last two years, and removing it is much faster with a chain saw.  P1020297But my pride-and-joy West Olival has been skeletised and reduced from trees over four metres high and five wide to small 2½ metre trees. I found this very discouraging, as it will take many years for the trees to regain their form and to yield olives in harvestable quantities. I did take one of the workers aside and have him conventionally prune twenty trees with a hand saw as I do, at the normal rate of over an hour per tree. The South olival remains pruned only by me! IMG_1652

It was last May whilst clearing and burning the debris – a bonfire six feet tall onto which I continuously drag and throw branches for several hours- from this “service” that I had a second heart attack brought on by strenuous work in strong sunshine, hot protective clothing and great heat from the fire. Long story short, four months recovery with the help of Janet and without the help of doctors, and I’m back on form now weighing thirteen kilos less. I had to put the quinta onto maintenance mode and only did what was absolutely necessary (hence the lack of blogging).

With no Harry Dog depending on us now, we began to go on holidays, Madrid and Barcelona in June,  then holidays with our family and lots of trips out. During the early summer I could work only slowly, tying the vines to wires and pruning them. It took weeks longer than before, because with my now underpowered body thermostat I could not work in the heat for very long.P1010376

From early July to late September there was no rain at all and half of the local vineyards had no grape harvest. We had to throw away over half the crop as it was dried out. But because my vineyards are irrigated we did have some usable bunches of grapes, about 450kg, which contained less juice than usual but more concentrated and in some cases, sweeter.P1010380

Pictured left – dried-out grapes, the effect of drought.  Pictured right, the saccharometer reading for red grape juice in the vineyard, September 2016.  IMG_1237 high sacc readingThe usual initial Specific Gravity of the grape juice at the start of fermentation should be about 1.085 in order to ferment out all the fruit sugars, so our grape juice with 27% sugar needed diluting a fair bit! It eventually yielded 150ℓ red wine and 35ℓ of white. After the wine was made my sister and her husband came to stay for a week – we cruised up the Douro over the weekend – and once the wine was racked in early October we went on holiday to Madeira, a sunshine holiday with Laura and our grandsons.

So now that I am feeling well it’s back to blogging and to working the quinta !

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Sunk tractor 7

Over Easter Janet and I spent a couple of weeks in England having some great family and friends time. On our drive back home to our quinta through Spain we stopped to look at a waterfall we hadn’t seen before. A Spanish man stopped a minute later to look too, and he told Janet there was a lot of rain over the previous three days. The next five days were rainy with only short dry spells and in total we had five inches of rain; this has been a record wet month. In one interval I was able to mow the 12”high weed patch at the front of the house so it would look a bit like a lawn – it took two hours! The rain stopped on Wednesday morning and the sun came out. Janet was out with a friend so I decided to mow the vineyard before the rain returned.

I attached the corta-mato (topper) and mowed the weedy veg gardens as a mulch then in the sunny dry afternoon headed off to the vineyard. There was surface water all over which was to be expected. The job went smoothly and by 4pm I was on the last line of mowing, feeling very pleased with myself. The tractor suddenly slowed moving forward so I shifted it into neutral and looked down to see that the left back wheel had sunk into a patch of mud. I reversed out of it but the wheel just turned and sank. I tried forwards more slowly and the wheels just turned and sank some more, and the mud now covered the depth of the tyre and water oozed over the wheel rSunk tractor 2im.

I looked away from the wheel to see that the tractor was now tilted sideways at quite an angle -this was looking serious- and the tilt was quickly getting worse. I shoved the mower hydraulics downwards to try and take weight off the wheel but nothing improved. In fact it was sinking quickly and was now in almost to the axle. The right front wheel was off the ground and abandoning the tractor was a balancing act at that slope.

Sunk tractor 1Janet arrived home and, after a cup of tea, we went down to put a pine pole and planks under the wheel; with a dose of optimism, four wheel drive and diff lock it should be out.

“Oh,” we thought when we saw it. “No. Not looking good at all”.

Janet said, “You can’t get that out. We need help”.

“No, we’ll give it a go”. And we did, and it dug itself into the very deep mud. It was a fluidised mudhole. We needed help.

I rang the garage where I get my agricultural diesel fuel. He was sympathetic and said he’d send his mechanic round at 8am tomorrow. It began to rain again. I reluctantly left the tractor embedded in the mud as night drew in.

Sunk tractor 3Sunrise, tractor sunk deeper now, then 8am, then 9am and still no mechanic.

I rang again, “You need a light bulb?” he asked.

“What? No, my tractor is sunk in mud and I need it pulling out”

“My lad hasn’t turned up to work. Isn’t there anyone near you with a tractor?”

“No, one neighbour’s at work and the other isn’t there today. Wasn’t yesterday either.”

“Ring me after lunch and I’ll see what I can do.”

Well that was less hopeful than yesterday. Janet suggested we ask our friend N for the phone number of the builders he used who have a JCB. He rang us and said they were round at his place this morning but to go soon as they would leave at lunchtime. I was off like a shot. It was raining when I arrived and the guys had already loaded their small JCB and were packed up for the day as it was too wet for them to continue. They looked at the photographs I’d taken and doubted that their small digger would be able to do the job. Their large digger was in a village an hour’s drive away. I convinced them to come and look anyway.

Sunk tractor 4Sunk tractor 5They followed me to our quinta and did the same as Janet and I the previous day. Then they dug a ramp for the tractor to climb out but had to disconnect the corta-mato to make the tractor lighter. They unloaded the digger off the lorry, I brought a chain and they attached their towing strap. Running in low gear, with a pine pole levering against the sunken wheel and the little JCB tugging hard, they were able to pull the tractor out. Yaaaay!Sunk tractor 7

Sunk tractor 10Then they dragged the corta-mato out (oops! I hadn’t realised that to put it away I’d have to reverse up to it, back into the mud). The pine pole near the centre of the picture is over seven feet long. The fact that less than three feet of it is visible shows the mudhole is liquified to at least four feet depth, enough to submerge the whole tractor wheel. It isn’t wide enough to take the tractor, though, I think. They told me (afterwards, thankfully) that they had attempted to do another like this previously but this one was buried to the same depth with both back wheels stuck – ours had only one. They had tried by hand and failed, then brought in a JCB a month later when the ground was less sodden but the JCB sank in the same place. They had to leave both vehicles for another month until the ground was dry before trying again with another JCB which also sank (!!!) and finally a third JCB which was able to extract the other two and the tractor.

Sunk tractor 11The saving grace for us was the fact that the mud pool was on the very edge of the vineyard, and N’s quick response was so helpful. For the workmen (Nelson, Paulo and Jaime) the whole procedure including transit time was just over an hour which was an impressive achievement –thanks, guys!

 

As the grapes near ripeness it is not easy to decide when to harvest them. The best wine comes from the ripe grapes; too late and the grapes shrink to raisins and the rabbits, birds, wasps and ants would take more of the crop. Also there is always a risk of a surprise storm in September, which washes the natural yeasts off the grapes, so increasing the chance of spoilage when the wine is made. We can estimate the sweetness of the fruit but this year we have bought a saccharometer, a specialized refractometer.saccharometer
To use it I simply squeeze a drop of grape juice onto a glass window at the end of the device, flick over the cover slip to spread a film of grape juice over the window, then look through the eyepiece. I see a scale backlit with blue and white, the boundary shows the scale reading in percent sugar in the juice.

Janet and I went sampling lots of grapes with it for two evenings before deciding it was time to pick them.

The next morning at 8am we heard a diesel car pulling up between our farm buildings, then the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. I ran out and greeted “our” shepherdess Manuela and her son Bruno (who was ten years old when we bought the quinta and is now a strong young man of eighteen). “We are helping you with your vindima (grape harvest) !” she declared with a broad smile. “When is it?”

“Lovely ! That would be really great!” we said, “How about Friday?”

“Decided. Friday morning at seven. We’ll be there in the vineyard,” and after a short chat they left. Bruno came round again a couple of hours later to say he forgot he had another job on Friday so would tomorrow Thursday be good? “Yes, fine,” we agreed, “See you at seven.”

ManuelaP1040661 BrunoTo cut the story short, with all the vines on wires and crates already out, four of us on the job and a lovely morning, we had the entire crop stacked in the adega by 11:30.

Bruno and I hoisted the nasty esmegador (crusher) onto the big 320 litre fermenting vat and as a team we had all the grapes crushed into three vats before noon. P1040663 dornas 2015a tilt

They declined our offer of lunch, insisting their family eat together at home, so we had a quick meal before spending a couple of hours cleaning up. Once washed, everything dries quickly in the hot sunshine and we had the crusher and crates put away by afternoon tea on 3rd September, ten days earlier than our average date.

eating grapesWe racked the wine ten days later and it’s now fermenting out in three plastic barrels, 250ℓ of red and 60ℓ of white wine. Although this is less than last year after such a dry summer the new irrigation of the vines has served us well, and we still have eighty litres of red and fifty of white wine in the cubas (it tastes very good too). We’re really pleased about this because we never add sulphites to preserve the wine, it is totally organic, so it is food and medicine to us. The downside to this is that it doesn’t travel well – sorry, folks!

 

 

 

charca full

Charcas (storage pools) are on most farms in this country. They are spring-fed but they almost dry out during the arid summer. Willows tend to grow in the moist soil and can survive having their roots in water during the winter. Now is the easiest time to cut them. To get rid of this brushwood the trees have to be cut into pieces which Janet and I can drag out, then I recover the thickest pieces for firewood in winter.

empty charca

Inside the dry charca

Inside the dry charca

 

 

Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

Red, orange, green and chocolate peppers

We went out one afternoon in September and when we returned two of my tractor tools had been stolen – a big heavy chain mower and a scarifier – winched onto a trailer and taken from right beside our house.  After weeks of waiting the insurers said they wouldn’t pay my claim because the tools were five years old so worth half their cost, and they would put an excess of a thousand euros on my claim, which was €985. This was not in the policy, they made it up and put an annex onto the policy. Because they have in-house lawyers my legal bill and stress to contest it would not make it a worthwhile exercise.

When we discussed the theft everyone said the same, the thieves were waiting for an opportunity and watched us go out. It is someone local. We were upset at the theft but more upset that someone whom we know would betray our trust in them. Eventually their karma will rectify matters.

Janet cutting cucmbersWe have a broker trying (feebly) to get us a better policy with a lower excess but he is dragging his feet, having taken two months so far to provide one quote which was not acceptable.

In the meantime we are reluctant even to go shopping lest another window is smashed and more is stolen, especially with a €1000 excess on a claim. I won’t replace these essential tools until they can be insured, so much of my farm work has ground to a halt.

 

Clive boden, Dominic PlattIn October I had the vine-wiring team from Technicova over to complete the wiring of our vineyard with an additional fourteen forty-metre lines. This gives space for four hundred vines.

Laura and her family have been to stay with us during Dominic’s half-term break from school. He helped me to plant a few dozen vines in the newly-wired section of the vineyard, and Toby had a go too. We racked 350 litres of our wine whilst they were with us. We had a lovely time together.

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

Dominic helping with the transfer of 150 litres of red wine

 

 

Further demotivation came five weeks after the tools were stolen. I started to back up all my main computer files onto a USB stick, when the message “Unable to find files. Format the disc?” came up.  I tried the USB stick on all our computers with the same result, and internet searches said this fault sometimes occurs and there is no solution, either re-format it or bin it. Either way the files are lost. So I formatted it, and resolved to do the backup a day later.

The following day an isolated bolt of lightning struck the ground beside our house. Once the electric company had replaced two main cartridge fuses and Portugal Telecom had repaired the wires and replaced the modem, we found the bolt had burned out our telly, my computer, the new printer, and my lovely stereo amplifier. With no current backups to put onto my laptop I had to fall back on my three-month old secondary backup. All new blogging photos were lost. Disheartened, I lost the motivation to blog.

peppersThe veg garden has given us a large crop of cucumbers and we have nearly half a freezer-full of peppers, orange and brown in addition to the usual red yellow and green. The Bartlett bonnet chillies which Janet sowed in February grew tall (up to Janet’s shoulders) during the summer but only started to ripen in October and are now, in mid-December, still cropping well.

Bartlett bonnet chillies

Bartlett bonnet chillies

 

I met up with Samuel and Kate, her sister Nicola and my third grandson Leo in Lisbon for a long weekend, which was very enjoyable and was another tonic to me. Janet and I are both healthy and happy, and now I’m able to get on with pruning olive trees and vines I’m finding myself again. The claim for lightning damage has just been resolved well and we can now replace the damaged goods. We’re past the negative phase and are getting back to such normality as we previously enjoyed.

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

Toby Platt and grandad Clive

a grapes by tractor In late August we walk through the vineyards twice a week, sampling the fruit to see whether it is time for the vindima (grape harvest) yet. We spend twelve hours cleaning the adega, washing crates, rinsing the dornas (fermentation vats) and cubas (stainless steel storage tanks), ready to make wine.

c rose

When the grapes are plump, smell fruity and taste sweet it’s time to pick them. In the unwired parts of the vineyards, despite careful pruning to make the vines taller they trail on the ground and bunches are hidden, harder to find and uncomfortable to pick. With no air movement the grapes get damp and start to rot. Alternatively if there is a tree nearby they will climb into that, and the vines have to be cut free.

d cut from tree

This year the vindima was far easier than in the past because now there are fourteen lines where I have pruned and trained the vines along wires. This gives easy access to the fruit which grows at a comfortable height, is clean and has good exposure to sun and air.

e ready to start

September is usually sunny but this year there was rain forecast, which meant a lack of the sunshine needed to make sugars. Also rain washes the natural yeast off the grapes so fermentation takes a long time to start, increasing the risk of spoilage. The day before we intended to start it rained so we had to hold off for two days to allow some yeasts to re-colonise the grape skins. A lower risk of rain was predicted for four days up to the 15th, when a week of heavy rain would start.

g esmeg 1

We started picking on Thursday 11th and by Friday lunchtime we had 23 crates of red grapes. After lunch we were mentally ready to use the esmegador (crusher), a heavy fearsome machine which we have to manhandle into position on top of a dorna. It comprises a trough to receive bunches of grapes which are pushed by a rotating screw into a large pair of 9” long serrated rollers. Everything is crushed through and the pulp splatters into the dorna. The stalks, which would make the fermenting grape juice bitter, are pushed along a sharp steel perforated trough by spiral paddles and fall out of the end of the machine into a large bucket.

esmegador

It roars, bumps and grinds whilst I’m tipping the loads of bunches in to the exposed screw then feeding them evenly to the mangle. Such a dangerous machine would not be available to the public in England ! We really don’t like the machine at all but it does in minutes a far better job than we could do in hours either with a hand-powered crusher (where you have to take out the stalks from the wet pulp afterwards) or by treading (which is very slow, cold, inefficient and hard work).

We crushed 23 crates of grapes then added some Montrachet yeast to get the Red1 fermentation off to a clean start.

k white grapes in sunshineOn Saturday we picked and crushed three hundred kilos of grapes to make Red2, and as we still had two hours of daylight we started to pick the white grapes. On Sunday 14th we finished picking the white grapes, which after crushing gave us 150 litres of must. For the fourth time in a week we washed the equipment, this time storing it when it was dry, the crates ready for the colheita in November and the esmegador until next year.

m stir wine   n washed eqpt

For the next few days Janet will stir the must three times a day, pushing the thick layer of crushed grapes into the liquid so the juice all ferments. Then whilst Janet is in England, comes the dreaded racking. We met the weather forecast deadline, all our grapes harvested in four days. Just as well, as this picture was taken from our verandah this morning (15th Sept).

p  rain on 15th

(more…)

 

1 grain sowing Nov13
Chickens need food and bedding. Planning for this, I ploughed some of our land last November and sowed cereal – wheat and triticale – to provide seed food and straw bedding for them.

Growing it is dead easy – after a month chuck fertiliser onto the young grass, and let nature take its course until the following summer when it is tall and golden, with big ears of corn drooping down.  My problem (through having no experience) is what next? Obviously the wheat has to be cut, the grain threshed from it and stored, and the straw stacked. A combine harvester is the usual big farm answer but is impractical on a remote farm with small curvy fields. I’ve never seen one in this area.

2 wheat fields b May14

JJ has a side-cutter for his tractor but last year some bolts sheared on it and I don’t know if he could repair it, it was old. João had a walk-behind wide blade mower but in May that too broke down irreparably.

3  wheat with chicken fort in background

I looked into buying a scythe a couple of years ago but the shop has now closed down. Eventually I used a three-lobed brush cutter blade on my strimmer, which worked well but slowly. What I really need is a top-mounted scoop for the end of the strimmer, so that with each pass of the cutter the wheat is scooped and at the end of the stroke it falls into a neat bundle, all stalks together. This is how the scoop is used in India or South Asia

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwVTpiDmqig They can be bought in India but the rural makers and vendors have no English and my written Gujarati / Urdu etc. just isn’t up to scratch 😉4 wheat strimming 2

Cut wheat is then gathered together in big bunch with the ears at one end and tied into a sheaf using a few of the straws twisted into a cord. You will not have tried this. I have, and can tell you that without being shown how it is, for me, an embarrassing waste of effort. You can imagine. Then the sheaves are assembled into stooks and one eventually threshes them.

5 trac & wheat stackIn the end I co-opted Janet and we raked it up, straws parallel, and shifted it into the stack you see here, with grain still attached. Threshing is at present beyond our ken. In theory I need a flail, a threshing floor, a winnowing basket and the knowledge of how to do it. The locals just buy sacks of grain for chickens on the market. One of our neighbours has a very old baler which makes rectangular straw bales, wheat ears included, but at harvest time he seems to make himself scarce. So much for self-sufficiency. I’m told it was all done by hand and donkey in the 1980’s.

 

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