A Horse Powered Willamette Valley Vineyard
or Confessions of a Greenhorn
by Stephen Hagen of Junction City, OR
photos by Steve’s father, Harley Hagen
I’ll be at the sale this year. That auction is 5% of my reason for being. Really stoked about the new vendors. Just what we need out West. I like the old stuff, but man, sometimes you just want a new part. Hope people come to buy, so they’ll be back.
Someday I’ll introduce myself to you in person. In the meantime, thanks for changing my entire life. If it wasn’t for half a handful of people and your publication I don’t think I’d still be farming. I know I wouldn’t smile as easily as I do these days. Here is our story of vineyard farming with horses and our farming practices. I hope you and your readers enjoy it.
The vineyard, called Old School Vineyards, is located out on the western shelf of the Southern Willamette Valley, 10 miles west of Junction City, Oregon. My mom and dad live in the place I was born, about five miles away. My brother has recently been able to purchase a neighboring farm. Our farm is 120 acres. The vineyard is 21 acres: 15 acres of Pinot Noir Grapes, and six of Pinot Gris. There are about ten acres of pastures and the rest is in mixed stands of Douglas and white fir, cedar, oak, madrone, and maple. The two different grape varietals are grown on separate sites. The Gris site is much cooler, has deeper soil, a remnant of creek bottom, and some round rock. It imparts more spice, citrus, and mineral characteristics to the wine. The upper site is an entirely different beast. A big wine comes out of this site: huge, dark flavor profile, dark fruit, chocolate, some tobacco and cedar. The fruit is sold to three area wineries: Territorial, Benton Lane, and a new, small-scale single vineyard designate project named Oakdale Wine Cellars.
My wife, Niki, and I have had the farm for a little over 10 years. We have a four year-old daughter, Daisy, and a six month-old son, Jule. I’m a Junction City native and Niki is from Salt Lake City. We met in Los Angeles where I was designing gardens and she was teaching first grade in the public school system. The night we met, I proposed, and she accepted. We realized at that moment we questioned why the heck we were in L.A., and that we were now finished with it. All of our best decisions have been made that way. Any time we get to thinking too much, I know we’re in trouble. We stayed on in Los Angeles for two more years in order to build the capital necessary to proceed with a plan to build a landscape nursery. I planned to commute to L.A. for design jobs. However, after executing a couple projects this way, I realized I didn’t want to live like that. We looked for other options to make it where we were. Again, without forethought, we jumped when the idea of growing wine grapes came up. Looking back we were really lucky. We knew nothing about it. It was just this romantic notion of living in the old country or something. Soon we realized that, without a large fortune, growing grapes was, well, farming. Surprise! So I became a farmer. We sweated our way into our vineyard, asking questions, reading and hiring out for next to nothing. People told us we were nuts. It just wasn’t done that way. In that process, I found that this is what we’re meant to do.
It makes me really happy to know that my kids will grow up having a different way of approaching work. For me, there is this unshakable idea that working with horses is somehow quaint (I didn’t even know this way of farming existed seven years ago). Yet, for our children, whether or not they choose this life, it will have always existed. When you ask Daisy what she’ll do when she’s grown, she replies “teamster.” Folks always think she wants to be a union truck driver. We don’t correct them. It’s just too involved.
Seven years ago I was looking for a new saddle horse. I ended up at the SFJ auction looking for a draft horse that was broke to ride (I’m a fairly big dude). I’d heard there was this sale with a bunch of draft horses. I was totally blown away. I had no idea this still existed outside of Amish country. It was like I’d landed in another dimension. I bought one of the meanest, nastiest, most spoiled mares I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting, let alone owning. She rope-a-doped me something good. I went home, subscribed to the Journal, and a whole world opened up.
A couple years later I ended up at Walt Bernard and Kris Woolhouse’s place in Dorena, Oregon. I got to try my hand at driving their first team, and knew right then I HAD to do this. Any person who allows an inexperienced person to handle their good horses is an incredibly generous spirit. Walt and Kris are that and more, pure humans. Next, Jill Wickander came into my life. Jill is probably the youngest of the old guard. The years don’t match up, but the boots fit. We quickly became good friends and she has set about trying to make a horseman out of me. I went to her place almost every day at times and always as much as I could. She just kept smiling and shaking her head while I tried to work it out with my mare. Little did I know that Jill had a plan. I was not to keep that mare, but she gave me a crash course in prevention of, and recovery from, bad scenarios. Jill kept me safe and gave me a great start. She had all kinds of horses at her place getting this or that “installed” or fixed. Getting to try out all these different scenarios was an education. Jill is still always there for me, and is a mountain of a friend. I don’t think I’d still be farming, let alone loving it and defining myself by it, were it not for these good friends. They all have been a big help and an inspiration.
Old School Vineyards is non-certified organic, if you can even say that anymore. In the near future we hope to double-up the utilization of our vineyard space by using poultry in the season and sheep in the off season to help us manage the covers and weeds. Our intention is to run the farm and vineyard with as little outside input as possible. What inputs we do take from off farm we hope to obtain within a five-mile radius, so as to eliminate any need for fossil fuels. We are currently working with a couple neighbors to develop our farms in a manner that fills each others gaps. We have not reached this goal, and are in fact a long ways from it. Yet every year we have taken a couple more steps toward making it a reality.
We look to grow site-driven wines. I trust the site to grow the best wine possible. My role is to set up as diverse an environment as possible so the soil can work and express itself fully in the fruit. I don’t mean to personify dirt so much, but it helps me to visualize what needs doing if I see it this way. There is a temptation, with all that canopy staring at you, to get stuck in a cycle of feeding the vines through your fungus spray program. Force-feeding foliars. My issue with this is using the same products as everyone around you. Soon, what may make your wine unique is driven out. I believe in growing wine from the ground up. We are fortunate to learn to grow from some really talented people who also believe in using a light hand. Territorial, Benton Lane, and Oakdale all worship at the alter of extraordinary fruit. I know when my fruit goes in that vineyard it will not be trampled by heavy-handed winemaking.
If our Pinot site has a drawback, it is that it tends to be early. It’s really warm. Now, that’s a good thing. However, too early can lead to fruit that is ripe but lacks complexity. So far the fruit has had marvelous character, but I aspire to stretch the season a bit through canopy management techniques and the clones and rootstocks we’ve selected as we’ve expanded. This way we hope to see more cool weather characteristics in the fruit, bringing in some bright light notes and a greater range to work with.
Our management of the vineyard floor has evolved every year. You get to know your site and your vines. Working the horses has helped with that quite a bit, just slowing down. Being able to experience the site foot by foot, row by row you learn quite a bit more about the variations from side hill, to knoll, to straight slopes, and toes of the slopes. The pace and proximity of this way of working leads inherently to micro-management. After a season of cultivating with the horses, I changed my floor management quite a bit. In our established vines, we alternate rows between a grass clover mix and a grain, peas, clover, and vetch mix. The grain mix gets mulched at bloom and then is minimal till drilled into buckwheat in late spring. However, after experiencing the site at a slower pace, I’ve changed the mix here and there. That’s a lot easier to do with smaller equipment, and a different set of productivity expectations. I guess that’s kind of it in a nutshell; a different idea of what defines productive. Happy is productive. I’ve also gone to hand-seeding some annual rye in the strip under the vines. Conventionally, that strip is left bare. However, that strip makes up 25% of the floor, and it just seemed like too much space to leave exposed in winter and not be adding some material. This strip is clean cultivated in the growing season, and its width varies with the competition requirements of different rootstocks and clones.
Farming with the Horses:
The horses are Ike (gee) and Olivia (haw). Ike, I’d had for a while. When it came time for a team, I couldn’t give him up, so I took him out to David and Deborah Mader in Eastern Oregon, spent a few days and David helped me put him with Olivia. They’re just getting better and better all the time. Jill keeps raising the standards. She is the kind of teamster who’s really driving a good horses mind. That’s where I hope to be by the time they box me up.
The cultivator pictured has had all the old set-ups removed. I have several tool bars that change out easily. These tool bars are set up to get me to different distances from the vine trunks for various tasks: hilling discs; a single tool bar with half sweeps; beet sweeps; on offset shanks (for getting really tight to the vines); two tool bars with multiple sweep set-ups for anything from a total clean cultivation in younger vines, to a wider clean strip for some rootstocks that need less competition. My friend, Walt Bernard, showed me how to weld, and now I can’t stop.
This has been my first year bringing the horses into the vineyard. I wanted to make sure my skill set was on auto pilot, and my horses were ready before taking them into such a high stakes/claustrophobic scenario. The cultivators and a disc are two pieces of equipment that we brought into the fold last year. For this next season I’ve restored or built a roller for breaking down tall covers, a seed drill, a seeder, and a spin spreader. I’m looking into possibilities for ground drive sprayers. However, the spraying takes a lot of energy, and I may need to settle on a motorized forecart. Our spray program for fungus is about 50% of our work load, so I need to address this issue to be where we want to be.
We use some other horse drawn equipment elsewhere on the farm, logging and doing chores, but that’s pretty much it in the vines for now. I try to add tasks with the horses when I can clearly not see a better way. Problem is, the more I do with them, the better this way looks. Sometimes I think I break my tractor on purpose. The first time I did real work with the team, work I wasn’t otherwise equipped to do, man, that was it for me. That was the moment I knew I wasn’t insane; that this works, not on some idealistic plane, but taking in everything that is important to us. When I consider all the angles: mental and physical health; dirt; plants; nicheability; marketing; economics, spirit of the land; wine; and animals, I see us being 100% horse-powered. However, the pace that I’m approaching that goal is frustratingly slow. I want to be there now, but more importantly, I want to stay in one piece, be a good dad and husband, and grow the farm responsibly.
The vineyard is slowly growing toward its full capacity of 32 acres. So far we’ve been fortunate to have the fruit sold before the vines are planted. Once we reach full capacity, we plan to start our own small-scale winery, producing not more than 200 cases. I don’t want selling wine to be my life. Frankly, I’m more interested in raising chickens with my kids. I expressed that exact opinion at a barrel tasting one time when a distributor pressed me on why I’m not pushing my own label. He told me I “just didn’t understand what I had.” I think I do.