Oregon Vineyard Fertilizes With Help From The Hippo Next Door

Nov 7, 2012

Abacela winery and vineyard in southern Oregon prides itself on sustainability. The winery uses geothermal energy and buys carbon credits to offsets its emissions. And the vineyard has an unusual source of organic fertilizer for its vines.

Photo of a zoo hippo.
Credit Photo Credit: Joaquim Alves Gaspar/Wikimedia Commons

On a recent day Jason Coates crushes a small batch of Syrah grapes by hand. He’s loaded the grapes into a bucket that’s made for squeezing out mops.

It’s noisy today. But Coates says when it’s quiet, you can hear the vineyard’s neighbors.

Coates: “It’s nice in the mornings, when I first started working here in the fields, you can hear lions and the zebras and the howler monkeys.”

Abacela’s grapevines are next to the Winston Oregon Wildlife Safari, and that’s been a stroke of luck for the vineyard. The safari animals produce a constant, endless supply of poop- the perfect compost starter, says Dan Brans, the safari’s general curator.

Brans: “We’re probably producing about a ton of zoodoo a day. 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 poop can spread dangerous pathogens.

But the safari is home to several hundred hooved animals.

Brans: “This one is blippo, blippo the hippo.”

Blippo mashes his dinner between large and uneven teeth.

Mix a little hippo and elephant dung with straw, let it get hot, turn it over a few times, and voila, you have compost.

Brans: “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.”

Brans says zoo doo is becoming increasingly popular, as home gardeners look for organic alternatives to synthetic fertilizer.

Voice operator: “Hello, and welcome to the Woodland park zoo’s hotline, where you always get the straight poop.”

Seattle gardeners love the stuff so much, their city’s Woodland park zoo had to create a lottery system to dole it out.

Voice operator: “The deadline for entering the fall fecal fest is over.”

Back at Abacela Coates adds leftovers from the wine-making process into his heap of straw and zoodoo.

Coates: “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. We’ll start pressing some of the red grapes later.”

The grape stems in this compost pile are actually a key ingredient. Grape vines take a lot potassium out of the soil. Composting all the stems is one way to add potassium back into the ground.

Coates: “This all came from the vineyard, so it’s basically just putting it back. Trying to stay as sustainable as possible.”

Templeton: “So is there a vintage to this compost?”

“Yes, it’s vintage 2012. We’ll see what type of aromatics we get.”

Coates says a little compost can go a long way in a vineyard. That’s because winemakers like to keep grapevines a little stressed out. If a vine gets too much fertilizer, it starts growing taller, instead of using its energy to produce fruit.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio