Why Seven Hills Vineyard Has Gone to the Dogs

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Jon Davies: leader of the pack
Jon Davies is the leader of the pack. A pack of dogs, that is. As assistant viticulturist at Seven Hills Vineyard, Davies' main responsibilities revolve around the health of the vineyard from spray programs and equipment management to scouting for pest damage. Davies was presented with a challenge when a "vertebrate pest problem" - in the form of deer - decimated a good chunk of the vineyard's new plantings. After trying everything from glimmering deer "ticker tape", garlic oil, and guys on four wheelers with noisemakers, to no avail, Jon headed down to the local shelter, picked himself up a dog named Steve, and the rest is a tale of tails.

How did the dogs come into the equation?

OK, so, in a mature vineyard, usually deer aren't that big of a problem. They'll come and snack on the leaves and they might take a few clusters early on, but it's an acceptable loss. When you have a new vineyard, the vines are really susceptible to damage. We had planted a few new vineyards that were isolated and the deer were taking their fawns up there and training their fawns to hang out all day. So we had a vineyard that ended up chewed all the way down to the tops of the grow tubes. That set us back almost a full year of production.?

It's really a problem in the early Spring when the clusters are really small, and if they take the whole shoot off, you're not going to get any fruit out of it. We had three spots that were hit pretty hard - they were all located at the end of draws, which I call "deer highways". You can see the tracks - these deer just go up and down the draws to water and then back up into the wheat fields. We had talked about putting in fences but we have some really steep terrain and it's prohibitively expensive to put up 10-foot fencing anywhere. The other problem was that we are scheduled to plant all around the vineyards - with more vineyards. So if you put up a fence now, in 10 years we're going to have a giant fence in the middle of a vineyard - not on the edge.

So I came up with the idea to put some dogs out there. Initially, last year, we started with one. We called him Steve. I had a 75-foot long cable run and would put Steve where the most damage was happening. He would hang out there for a couple of days and his job was just to be stinky, you know, drop a load here and there, stink up the place, so that the does wouldn't be comfortable bringing in the fawns - because that's what we were really worried about. If the herd just passes through that's no big deal, it's when you get a camper who just hangs out and helps themselves.

How did Steve do?

Steve did really well and he helped stop the damage. We got him quite a ways into the season last year so a lot of damage had already been done but he did put a stop to it in the area where he was at the time. Steve was a "runner" though, which is why he was at the shelter. They had picked him up on the street and toward the end of the season he went running again - took off on us. There's lots of farms and farm dogs around us so he's probably out there somewhere.

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Davies with Kahlua, Brindle, Tracker and Steve #2
This year we went back to the shelter and got two more dogs, went back and got a third, then some acquaintances of ours had a Border Collie they could no longer keep so we took her too. So we have four dogs this year. They kind of have their "stations". I set up a kennel and we just kind of rotated them through. It got to the point where Brindle (the Pitbull) doesn't need to be locked up anymore - he just does the rounds. Tracker, (the elderly Lab) does the same thing - he's just loose. So I put food and water out at all the filter stations and they roam. I have GPS tracking systems on their collars - have you heard of Tagg the dog tracker? It's this little unit that fits on their collars and I have an app on my cell phone where I can see them on Google maps. That way I can keep track of them without having to keep them tied up all the time. That's no fun for a dog.

Did you get all these dogs from the Blue Mountain Humane Society in Walla Walla?

Yeah. That's originally where I got Steve. They're very excited about the project. Initially I was planning on getting one dog but they talked me into taking two more.

How did you develop the program?

Well, I grew up on a farm and we always had dogs growing up. I got my dog about five years ago and I trained her in the orchard about the boundaries of the orchard because one was next to a highway. I haven't really trained dogs other than that.

Was there any specific training you did with them or is their presence enough to keep the deer away?

For me the training was territory boundaries so I would take them on the rounds - we have a set path along the boundary of the vineyard - so we'd go around and in the draws a bit. But basically, I base it on food and water. So we'd go from filter station to filter station where they have access to fresh water and food. We've only seen deer a couple of times this season - we spotted a herd of about 12 when we were out one time - and I was out with about five dogs. My dog, Kahlua, knew what to do right away so they all just followed her until they saw the deer and then they got excited and figured out what was going on. But as far as training them with deer they haven't had a chance. We've seen a couple but they're usually gone before we can get near them.

Tracker is 11 years old and he just hangs out all day and likes to do his rounds at night. One of our neighboring vineyards, Southwind, run by Chris Banek, has adopted Tracker too so now he's got extra food and water on their site too - so he's doing double duty.

Lucy the Border Collie is an escape artist. She'll go over or under wherever we put her so she does the day shift and them she goes home with our operations manager Greg. He's got four kids and she loves kids so...you know, you have to adapt to what they like to do instead of trying to make them do what you want them to do. I kind of feel them out then come to an agreement with them.

You said you started at Seven Hills last year - are you originally from this area?

I moved down from Wenatchee last year. I grew up there in tree fruit - apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, plums and all that. I went to Western Washington University to study biology then went back to the family farm for about five years before I moved down here.

How did you get into viticulture?

Well, I knew I wanted to make the switch. I tried doing it with my family farm but my father and my uncles are not very excited about it. They like what they know - they're "branching out" into nectarines, which isn't really that big of a jump from peaches, apricots and plums. So...I had a great time working with them but I personally wanted to keep growing. My friend Brian Rudin had been trying to talk me into coming to Walla Walla for years, and at that point it just made sense. So I came down, met a couple people with management companies and farms - I was open to orchards or grapes - and Northslope happened to be looking.

How many acres of vineyard do you look after out here?

We farm about 230 acres but there's another maybe 200-250 planted that are under other management. The whole property size available to go into vineyards is about 2,000 acres.

You're going to have to get more dogs!

True.

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Kahlua, Brindle and Steve #2 doing the rounds
What's "a day in the life" like?

Well, I like to start out with checking on the dogs - making sure there were no problems overnight. There are a couple I keep in the kennels at night still. So, I let them out and they just follow me around as I go and look at the vines and irrigation systems. This time of year we start around 5 or 6 in the morning and we have to make sure the pumps are functioning correctly and there are no leaks. Then, depending on how busy the day is, I'll put the dogs back in the kennel if I can't make it back up again that day or, if I do leave them out, they end up down at the office because they like to hang out with people. I try not to feed them down here so they'll stay up at the stations. We also have an irrigation pond if they want to take a swim. We also have Lower Dry Creek for them to wade in.

How has the dog program worked?

It has worked very well for the specific purpose of stopping deer damage. This year we grafted over a few blocks to Cabernet, so the same with a new vine - if the deer chew the graft off, that's money down the drain right there. One dog, we call him Steve #2, pretty much camps out there all the time.

Do the dogs ever bring you "treats"?

They have found a carcass or two - just from roadkill or out in the brush - and random bones. I'm always like, "Good dog!" 'cause that's another snack I don't have to feed them. They've definitely found some stuff to roll in too. We're adjacent to some cow grazing land so Brindle, especially, likes to go over there and find cow pies. He's had the hose a couple of times.

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Brindle surveys his domain
So the deer parking lot has instead become a shelter dog's dream land?

Especially coming out of the shelter. Brindle had been there nine months, I think, and he loves it out here. It's worked out well - we're happy and so are the dogs.

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