WINSTON, Ore. — On a recent day, Abacela vineyard manager Jason Coates crushes a test batch of syrah grapes by hand. He loads the grapes into a bucket that is made for squeezing out mops. It’s a noisy process. But Coates says when it’s quiet, he can hear the vineyard’s neighbors.
“It’s nice in the mornings,” he says. “When I first started working here in the fields, you can hear lions and the zebras and the howler monkeys.”
Abacela’s award-winning Tempranillo, Albarino, and Syrah vines are next door to the Wildlife Safari, and that has turned into a happy accident for both the sustainable vineyard and the zoo. Abacela donates straw from an old hay field to the zoo, and gets fertilizer — “zoo doo” in return.
Dan Brands, Wildlife Safari’s general curator, says his animals produce a constant, endless supply of poop.
“We’re probably producing about a ton of zoo doo a day,” Brands says. “First round has got a lot of air, a lot of fluff to it, and as we break it down it takes up less and less space.”
The safari doesn’t compost waste from its lions, tigers, and bears or monkeys — that waste can contain dangerous pathogens.
But the ungulates — hooved animals including a herd of elephants and a 30 year old hippo with a toothy grin named Blippo — produce excellent compost starter. The wildlife preserve mixes the dung with leftover straw animal bedding, lets the pile get hot, and turns it repeatedly to finish the compost.
“I definitely use it in my garden and let me tell you I’ve got some of the biggest tomatoes and beans I’ve ever seen,” Brands says.
Brands says Abacela is the only major vineyard he knows of that’s fertilizing its vines with the help of zoo animals. But across the Northwest, zoo doo has achieved an almost cult following among home gardeners looking for organic alternatives to synthetic fertilizer.
Seattle gardeners love the stuff so much, the city’s Woodland Park Zoo created a yearly fall lottery to dole it out. Lucky winners pay $60 to fill the bed of a pickup truck with zoo doo (the contest has closed for this year).
At Abacela, Jason Coates adds leftovers from the wine making process into his heap of straw and zoo doo.
“This is where we come in and start dumping all of our stems from all the grapes that we process, and some of the skins from the pressing of the white grapes earlier,” he says. “We’ll start pressing some of the red grapes later.”
Grape stems are actually a key ingredient in many vineyard compost piles. Grape vines take up a lot potassium from the soil, and grape stems, which are removed during the wine making process, are chock full of potassium. Composting them allows vineyards to help replace the nutrients they’re removing from the ground.
“This all came from the vineyard, so it’s basically just putting it back. Trying to stay as sustainable as possible,” Coates says.
A little compost can go a long way in a vineyard, because winemakers like to keep grapevines a little stressed out. If a vine gets too much nitrogen fertilizer, it can start growing taller, instead of using its energy to produce and ripen fruit.
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