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GPS/GIS improves vineyard management accuracy, efficiency

The world’s first ATV was created by Honda factory workers in Japan in a company-sponsored research facility where the motorcycle maker encouraged employees to be creative.

When workers finished that first three-wheel, flotation tired ATV, no one knew exactly who would buy it or for what purpose.

The decision was made to sell it and see what happens. What happened was almost limitless applications from a recreational vehicle to a motorized cart for industrial roofers.

The same thing is happening with the public availability of Global Positioning System technology. Thousand of civilian uses have been spawned by a technology that was once the private domain of the American military.

Sacramento Valley, Calif., rice grower Steve Butler uses GPS on his tractors’ guidance systems, but he also uses it to mark duck blinds to prevent tractor blight. However, he said the most unusual application he has seen was on a recent trip to a remote Mexican fishing village.

"A lot of the houses do not even have electricity, but the local lobster fisherman was using GPS to track the location of his lobster traps," said Butler. The Mexican lobster fisherman did not need GPS to find his own traps, but he relied on it to ensure his workers found the traps.

Just like that fisherman, San Luis Obispo County, Calif., vineyard manager Simon Graves knows well each of the 34 distinctively different blocks of vines within the 400-acre Southcorp Wines California premium varietal vineyard he manages in the rolling foothills near Creston, Calif.

The blocks are segregated by a variety of factors, including variety/rootstock, trellising styles, irrigation, soil types, elevation and countless other features.

Using GPS with a handheld computer or PDA coupled with aerial imagery he has become a more efficient manager of those different blocks for mere pennies in technology costs.

Accuracy, efficiency

GPS/GIS technology cannot replace the shadow of the vineyard manager on the vines, but Graves says it can add a level of accuracy and efficiency never before possible.

Graves uses database software from Scancontrol of Pleasanton, Calif., selling for about $200 per installed handheld. The Personal Digital another $100.

"It is very inexpensive, simple, straightforward and easy to use. That is the beauty of it," said Graves.

Robin Woods, president of Scancontrol, said there was a method to his madness of pricing software so cheap. He wants to attract the attention of grape growers and vintners with the low price so he can bring in more business managing the data collected.

"We wanted to develop a package in a $300 to $600 range that was reliable and simple to use in collecting information for sub-block management," Woods said.

The software can be downloaded online using online tutorials.

It is also the online link to the user where Robins figures to make his money, not selling the software.

The data is easy to collect. Woods sees the payoff of his efforts in crunching the data into information to help the grower and vintners do a more efficient job.

"As we collect data, we can do comparison of seasons to detect trends in the vineyard in database form so a grower can see exactly what is going on in the vineyard," said Woods. He has also collected data on research, like gauging the impact of a mechanical harvesting on a large vineyard block where a myriad of data was collected.

Woods is already working with many of the largest vintners in California in helping tabulate data from vineyards where grapes are purchased.

"We want to act as a service provider to interpret the data collected in the field using our software and handhelds," said Woods.

Learning investment

While the cost is attractive, there is an investment in time with a learning curve for the new technology, said Graves.

"It takes a bit of time to set it up and time to learn to use it. You have to force yourself to use it — to pick up the PDA when you head out to the vineyard. However, when you make that commitment it is worth the effort."

From that point, "you drive your own boat. The technology and software is there to use almost anyway you want."

Graves has been using aerial imagery and Scancontrol software for about three years and finds only one shortcoming.

"I wish I had Blue Tooth technology to download soil moisture datalogger information directly to my PDA in the field," said Graves.

Southcorp’s Cametti Hills Vineyard was planted in 1998 and 1999. It is all red wine grapes: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.

It was soil mapped and planted on 10- by 6.5-foot spacing using GIS and GPS technology. "It was pretty high tech for the time. Remote sensing was used and soil mapping was geo-referenced." Vine rows and plant spacing were marked using GPS.

This precision technology at planting brought a higher level of uniformity to the vineyard blocks from the beginning, "however, it is difficult to judge uniformity fully until you have something in the ground," said Graves. The initial uniformity has been enhanced with the precision ag technology Graves has adopted as part of his sub block vineyard management.

The largest vineyard block at Cametti Hills is 12 acres. Eight acres is the most common block size.

"What aerial imagery and programs from Scancontrol have brought to the vineyard is the ability to manage vineyards on a sub block level."

Varied qualities

This sub block segregation is all about wine grape and wine quality to meet a wide range of programs for Southcorp wines that sell for $15 per bottle up to $50 per bottle wines.

There can be as many as five different quality levels within the vineyard’s four varietal grapes. "What we try to do is to say bring B quality up to A quality fruit level. If we cannot do that, then we want to identify the qualities and manage and harvest them separately," said Graves.

This typically is related to vine vigor. Graves uses aerial infrared imagery to evaluate vine vigor, ordering one aerial image of the vineyard each year, just prior to harvest. This is when there is a full canopy and no other vegetation, like a cover crop, growing.

"I like use gray scale with black being low vigor and white being high vigor," said Graves. He then uses that imagery to segregate blocks using GPS for harvesting based on vigor index. After harvest, he uses the aerial imagery to manage the vineyard the rest of the season.

"We now have three years of aerial imagery and will use this information to compare years and to evaluate any changes we have made."

Graves knows that the hill tops will be lower vigor and that typically goes into the reserve wine program with lower elevations, more vigorous vines going into lower priced wines. Aerial imagery and Scancontrol’s software allows him to more accurately define those lines between grape qualities.

"You can literally harvest individual vines with the precision ag technology we now have, but you have to harvest using economically reasonable blocks," said Graves. The smallest block he has harvested was 4 tons and the largest 50 tons.

All of the vineyard’s grapes are crushed at Byron Winery in Santa Maria, Calif. The vineyard’s first vintage was 2001.

Must correlate

"Technology does not replace going into the vineyard touching and examining the vines. You cannot irrigate by looking at soil moisture dataloggers and aerial maps. You have to correlate what the moisture sensors are telling you with visual observations of the vines."

Graves uses the technology for other things as well.

"Using my GPS equipped handheld PDA and an aerial map of the vineyard on it, if I see a vine or an irrigation problem that needs attention, I can identify location of the problem on the map on my handheld and give that information to someone to take care of. They can go right to the spot I identified on the vineyard aerial map and take care of the problem," said Graves. No guessing; no wasted motion.

While the majority of the Cametti Hills grapes are utilized for Southcorp wines, some are sold to other wineries. Winemakers want a progress report on their grapes. Graves logs grape and vine conditions on his PDA, downloads them into his computer to e-mail progress reports to winemakers.

"E-mailing the information takes no time at all if it is downloaded on the computer. It sure beats playing phone tag for a week trying to provide the information," he said.

He has also used the aerial imagery and GIS technology to rectify low vigor areas he wants to improve. Identifying a hilltop that needed attention, Graves mapped out a compost application that identified where to start the compost operation and gradually increase rates moving up the hill.

"We put down a lot of compost — 75 cubic yards per acre, banded beneath the vines to improve the organic matter in the soil." Cametti Hills is not only the vineyard’s name, but its soil type as well. Cametti means limestone and that also translates to very little organic matter in the soil; it can benefit from compost.

Fit spray rig

Graves also will soon be fitting his spray rig for variable rate pesticide applications using the handheld PC to operate a spray controller.

"What we plan on doing is connect the handheld to the variable rate computer to treat for leafhoppers in specific spots of the vineyard at the same time we are applying wettable sulfur for powdery mildew control," said Graves.

"We know for example we have leafhoppers in block nine and that we want to use Provado to control them. What we will do is piggyback a small tank on the spray rig. When the driver goes through hotspots the GPS on the handheld will turn on the controller and pulse the pesticide through the spray nozzles," he explained. All the driver has to do is make sure the piggyback tank is full.

Increasing farming costs is what is driving Graves to this technology. "It may cost us $1,000 to treat hotspots only, but we would burn up at least three times that much in chemicals that if we had to spray entire blocks or the whole vineyard," he explained.

There are three PDAs networked together for 400-acre operations. Besides Graves, the assistant vineyard manager and the farm mechanic have handhelds.

They are used to cost labor and various vineyard operations. The mechanic also uses Scancontrol’s database program to record and track maintenance records for equipment ranging from tractors to irrigation pumps.

"This is all real cool stuff, the programs from Scancontrol, the PDAs and aerial photography. They are there to use in helping us do a better job of producing premium wine grapes. They are good tools to make us more efficient and accurate in what we do," concludes Graves.


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