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Serving: West

Grape growers mount steep learning curve

Forestville-based PCA Laura Breyer has been doing the fieldwork since early 2000 for a project operated by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association (SCGGA) and funded under a grant from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

The objective, Breyer says, is to encourage grape growers in the county to implement more IPM practices, including reduced use of Dithane, Vendex and Omite, all on the Food Quality Protection Act "hit list."

"These materials won’t be available forever, and there are other ways of looking for solutions to problems. There’s not a lot of Omite used in the county, but some growers still feel they have to use it to clean up a mite problem, perhaps when they wouldn’t have to. We have several alternatives now."

The SCGGA, established in the mid-1980s, represents about 40 percent of the county’s 1,100 growers on 56,000 acres of vineyards. The membership also has categories for wineries.

Breyer holds monthly meetings from April through August at cooperating growers ranches in four appellation areas of the county: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Valley.

The meetings, usually attended by 75 to 100 persons, are forums for whatever pest control problems the growers encounter, along with tips on how to identify pests, the damage they cause, and how to deal with them.

Between gatherings, Breyer monitors the four ranches each week for mites, mildew, leafhoppers, and thrips and adds observations to a database known as the IPM field log.

Customized for Sonoma County conditions, it is based on a model developed by the Lodi-Woodbridge Grape Growers Commission and shared with the Sonoma County group. The Sonoma County version seeks to codify the experiences of growing grapes in the county and take much of the guesswork out of pest management.

"Some who come to the meetings are old hands, and some are experts, but a lot of them are new growers very unsure of what to do. We have several relatively inexperienced growers in the county," said Breyer.

"Even those who have vineyard managers attend our meeting because they are interested in keeping up with the industry. It’s a great time for brainstorming, and they must like it, because they keep coming back.

"So for someone who may have been using Dimethoate at a very low rate in the spring, regardless of what they were seeing in the vineyard, we are helping them think twice about doing it, while letting them know their vines can tolerate some leafhopper damage."

Breyer said last year’s hour-long meetings were mostly lectures, followed by some discussion. This year meetings are 30 minutes longer. "I use the first half-hour as a sort of classroom presentation on the basics, and the remaining hour is discussion among the group. The success comes from the continued presence of interested growers."

The recurrent theme is finding ways to instill more IPM into the growers, who, she said, are increasingly able to apply it to their specific situations.

"For growers who are experienced and for PCAs who are already doing it, I would say hearing about each other’s experiences is giving them a better basis to make their IPM decisions.

"It is encouraging, too, to be in a group and thinking about what steps to take, rather than being on their own. People get pretty excited about the peer support."

But there’s more work to be done. "Last year," she said, "we got groups of people together and went over the basics. This year the participants will be sharing information and experiences, and I would expect as many or more people will be coming to the meetings."

Nick Frey, executive director of the SCGGA at Rohnert Park, echoes Breyer’s comments. "The greatest value," he said, "is it demonstrates our commitment to supporting grower education for our members. We think it is very important to improve our production practices, not only to address issues such as pesticide use, which IPM can, but also to address quality of the crop, so we can continue to distinguish ourselves in the marketplace with premium-quality wine."

The project is funded by grants from DPR, $50,000 in 2000 and $30,000 this year. Although DPR funding for a third season is not anticipated, Frey said the association will seek funding from various sources to implement the continuing educational effort.

Frey, who came from the seed industry in Iowa to take the post two years ago, said, "It’s important that our grape growers monitor and know they have a problem before they decide to treat for it. When and if they do decide to treat, they need to know the alternatives and balance them, not just relying on what they used last year or maybe what’s cheapest. Some of the cheap compounds are not the best to be used in our community."

The project is timely in view of the increasing pressure from urbanization felt by Sonoma County growers. The association is proactive in its community relations with a "living near a vineyard" campaign, since many new residents in the county are not familiar with agriculture.

The first phase is based on common courtesy and common sense. Novel, oversized informational postcards will be distributed, so the neighbors know what farming operations are being done and hopefully become supportive.

Rhonda Smith, Sonoma County farm advisor, wrote the project proposal with Lucia Varela, North Coast area IMP advisor with the University of California. They set out to fill the gap between informational needs of the industry and what regular workshops could accomplish.

Smith said the main strength of the project is getting data on economic thresholds for vineyard pests "out of the filing cabinet" and into the hands of growers attending the congenial meetings.

But beyond simply sharing the word, the attendees, she said, have developed a sense of not being alone in making their pest management decisions, along with a boost in confidence and empowerment, particularly when a pest or disease first starts to threaten.

She said the meetings have become a sort of "formalized coffee shop talk" to exchange information which, while anecdotal, is also supported by scientific measurements.

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