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Growers take measures to withstand drought

Grape farmers in Washington adopted early shoot thinning and leaf removal to minimize sunburn last summer.

Lee Allen

May 26, 2022

3 Min Read
Wine grapes grow in Washington state.Washington State Wine Commission

Anyone who grows in California doesn’t need to be lectured on climate change and how drought has impacted water supply — except to note that following the driest first quarter of a year in the state’s recorded history, Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken further steps to drive the issue of water conservation at the local level.

At the end of the quarter, he moved to Level 2 of the Water Shortage Contingency Plan requiring further conservation efforts across all sectors.  “While we’ve made historic investments to protect from the worsening drought, it’s clear we need to do more,” he said.

The Governor’s California Comeback Plan allocates $5 billion over the next three years to support immediate drought response.

And while money alone won’t buy a way out of the current dry dilemma, researchers at University of California, Merced, have reported on the economic impact on agriculture from last year’s drought. “It cost the California agriculture sector $1.1 billion and over 8,700 jobs,” according to the report.  In fact, “Once the effects on other economic sectors are considered, the numbers rise to $1.7 billion and 14,600 jobs.”

The report also notes some 400,000 acres of land, much of it in the Central Valley, has been idled as a result of drought-related water cutbacks.

But drought has many definitions, meaning that one man’s floor could be another man’s ceiling.

Webster’s dictionary definition labels it “a period of prolonged dryness that causes extensive damage to crops” while the National Geographic Society refers to it as “a period when an area experiences below-normal precipitation (causing) reduced groundwater and crop damage."  Even the National Drought Mitigation group cites “a protracted period of deficient precipitation resulting in extensive damage to crops and a consequential loss of yield.”

Severity depends on variables

Still, a lot of the severity of extent depends on the variables and geography itself.

Washington state is part of the drought area, having gone through a record-setting 2021 where the Washington State University Prosser Viticulture and Enology folks watched temperatures fluctuate markedly with a high of 113 recorded in June and 28 days above 95.  The yo-yo numbers resulted in higher water demand with heat stress, sunburn, poor fruit set, and lower yields.  It could have been worse.

“Washington growers responded with quick-thinking and a variety of skills, adjusting watering patterns to account for the extreme heat through our ‘heat dome’,” said extension specialist Michelle Moyer.  “They adopted early shoot thinning and leaf removal to minimize sunburn and chose to go with more sprawl rather than a manicured look.

“Drought, heat management, and quality fruit are all related, but in our case we had no restrictions and water was available in contrast with the struggle California growers encountered.  We removed shoots to open up the fruit and reduced the shoots that were not carrying fruit.

“Hopefully the heat dome is a once-in-a-lifetime-event, although climate change could make it more frequent.  When it happens determines how you respond as a heat dump in June is different from one in August.  If it happens early, you can potentially change or adopt things like shoot thinning and leaf removal.  You just monitor the weather forecasts and make your decisions based on that.

“One thing we could all learn from last year’s temperature up-and-downs is that farming based on a calendar is not the farming of the future.  We have all sorts of predictive tools available for us to make more-informed decisions and we’re really going to have to start putting those tools to the test.  Farming in the future will no longer be calendar-based because we don’t know what that means any more, there’s no such thing as ‘average’.  Everything needs to be data- and thought- driven because the former status quo no longer applies.”

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