We are really feeling like farmers now that we have started to convert an acre and a half that was full of brome grass and wild parsnip, sumac and prickly ash into our south-facing vineyard on the upper part of the hill side and a pollinator-friendly prairie in the lower area (too prone to pooling cold air in spring and fall for grapes.hay-stack

This vineyard has been in the planning stage for a few years as we brainstormed with experts at the UW West Madison Agricultural Research Station, which has been field testing seedless grapes for about a decade, and Judith Reith-Roselle, who initiated that program.  Judy advised us to RoundUp the whole area as the best method to keep the flourishing brome grass and invasives from crowding out our grapes.

We reached out to several neighboring farmers to see if they could do the herbiciding, plowing, etc. for us, but they never seem to have the time.  With the weather becoming more erratic, farmers are kept on their toes, looking for the moment to progress their own crops and not surprisingly, those times always seem to coincide with the best time for our projects as well.

So this spring, we decided to take on the task ourselves.  We got ourselves a little sub-compact tractor, a Kubota BX with a 5-foot belly mower, a box scraper and a tiller.

Doug goes after the bigger roots with his trusty mattock.

Doug goes after the bigger roots with his trusty mattock.

But before we could start to mow the field, we had to lop or chainsaw out all the shrubs and yank out the remnant roots of a clump of spruces that we removed last year ).  See my post A Seedless Grape Vineyard Begins with Tree Clearing

When we felt the field was ready, we mowed it.mowing

That was just the beginning.

A soil test showed our soil to be pretty great for grapes, except that it has too much phosphorus.  That’s not usually a problem, but Judy felt it would be best for grapes to mow and remove all the vegetation to bring the phosphorus level down.

We didn’t want to get a rake for our tractor because it’s something we will only use this season.  So we decided to rake it by hand.loading-tarp

Raking an acre and a half was no small undertaking.  I know that is the way that all fields were harvested before the industrial age.  I’m here to tell you that that’s a lot of people over time doing a LOT of raking.  We were happy to join the legions who brought in their crops by hand.hay-painting

I’m not going to say that it was all fun.  We labored mightily on this project, grabbing our rakes, loppers and tarp and setting out for an hour or two every morning and evening for a couple of weeks.  I actually came to feel a certain amount of dread as I thought about the hours that were not being spent on other spring projects.

See Doug way over there on the other side?  Sometimes our little field felt pretty darn big.

See Doug way far away over there on the other side? Sometimes our little field felt pretty darn big.


But now that we finished two days ago, I’m feeling pretty good about it.

I feel like I know that field now – really know it – every undulation.  Where the grass is thick, and where it’s sparse.  Where the brambles and prickly ash and sumac were making serious inroads.  Where the spruce had spread their roots.  Where the ants had made hills.  Thankfully, two things we did not see were ground bird nests, or field stones.  (Here in the Driftless Area, where glaciers have not ground down the earth for about 500,000 years, we don’t have all the field stones that glaciers sprinkle in their wake.)

Kind of a drag. IAs we pulled our rakings off the field, we developed a keen appreciation of what it's like to be a draft animal.

Kind of a drag.
As we pulled our collected rakings off the field, we developed a keen appreciation for the life of a draft animal.

As we raked, we tuned into a different set of bird song coming from the woods around our new ag field than those that inhabit the woods near the house.  A machinegun rhythm of big pileated woodpecker and the sweet and varied tunes of a brown thrasher were our soundtrack.  We watched the sun rise over the house in the distance and in the evening, set behind the farm across the road.  The clouds gathered and rolled past in the wide-open sky above us.  And on one break in the shade along the edge of the woods, we found a hat-full of morel mushrooms, which Doug savored for several days.morrells

By season’s end, we hope to have the prairie planted and the vineyard prepped, ready for planting grape vines next spring!

4 replies

    • Hi Lynn,

      Thanks for your very good question about RoundUp.

      Other than selectively treating cut stumps of invasive trees, we have avoided using RoundUp on our land and really hesitated to choose it in this case. When considering all the information we can find to make sustainable choices, we often find ourselves between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

      Here’s why we think it makes the best sustainable sense.

      Brome grass is difficult to remove in prepping a field for ag or prairie, our two planned plantings for this acre and a half field. If we were to use repeated deep tilling methods to get rid of the brome grass, we would be exposing the ground to wind and water soil erosion. Here in Wisconsin, especially as climate events have intensified, we have had cases of 14 inches of rain in a couple of days, and soil loss from our sloping, uncovered field would be huge.
      In addition, the county biologist advises us that there would be a detrimental impact on the mycorrhizal fungi (so important to plant root growth) from disturbing the soil by repeated tilling with or without cover cropping. Another perspective added by the county biologist was that a one-time field conversion RoundUp use is vastly less harmful than the all-too-common repeated annual use in an ag setting. We won’t be taking a crop of grapes off this field for at least three years. And as for the prairie planting, we will have created a pollinator friendly oasis one to two years sooner by using the RoundUp method – an oasis that (if prepped properly) will be pesticide free forever.

      Other things that we have learned include
      RoundUp strongly sticks to soil particles and therefore does not tend to migrate into drinking water. Unlike some of the chlorinated pesticides that scare us more profoundly, such as 2,4-D (the active ingredient in Agent Orange!). RoundUp has nitrogen and phosphorus but no chlorine, and therefore breaks down to compounds that are relatively far safer to all life forms.

      We still are very unresolved on this issue and would love to get your feedback to our thought process.

  1. I was surprised at your choice of using Round up and wondered what the best method is for getting rid of buttercups. I’m thinking vinegar, but then again it isn’t on an acre and half. My husband is for tilling again, but I see that is not necessarily going to work either. One other option for us maybe to put some chickens in to scratch through it and put hay down for good seed. Problem is the distance from the main field area that means walking a long way for my husband, no wonder he is thinking of tilling.

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