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Upstart states push for precision viticulture

Pacific Northwest research could benefit California growers.

Lee Allen, Contributing Writer

April 10, 2019

3 Min Read
A vineyard is pruned mechanically on a University of California Cooperative Extension test plot in Napa County, Calif. Researchers in the Pacific Northwest are upping the ante in precision viticulture with several projects.University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Because of the sheer numbers of California grape growers and the tons of product they produce, other West Coast industry players - like Washington state and Oregon - tend to play second fiddle. However, both states are working hard to up the ante by making precision viticulture research a top priority.

One scientist, Oregon State University’s (OSU) Clark Seavert, will take his Pacific Northwest research data to the California Wine Growers Association in the hopes it could tie into a Western Technology Network roadmap “to outline the biggest financial benefit for growers while maintaining fruit quality,” he says.

The research will come in handy everywhere as Washington’s wine grape harvest grew by 14 percent in 2018 - 261,000 tons crushed, representing the second largest harvest in the state’s history, right behind 2016’s record-breaking total of 270,000 tons.

Washington State Wine President Steve Warner reported cabernet sauvignon the top producer - “absolutely skyrocketing with production doubling in just six years.”

With lack of field workers, a major dilemma for small growers who have to compete with larger, more diversified farms, the lack of labor - and a need to mechanize to make up for it - is cited as a top long-term problem area needing innovative solutions and that points to machines.

As they are in the Golden State, Pacific Northwest growers are juggling their books and reprioritizing expenses, ready to jump into the deep end of the pool involving new technology and equipment, but they are cautiously watching evolving data in order to make the correct decision at the right time.

And while pest and disease management issues remain a part of the daily fight, growers have a futuristic eye out toward mechanizing vineyard operations with four precision viticulture projects underway.

Funded by the Washington State Wine Commission and the Erath Winery Foundation in Oregon, two of the four projects are slated for completion in June.

Mechanical pruning

Washington State University’s (WSU) James Harbertson and Markus Keller are winding up four years of data collection that initially shows that hand-pruned vines varied more widely in vine performance compared to those that were mechanically-pruned and thinned.

WSU’s Manoj Karkee and Qin Zhang are working on separate development projects:

Karkee is trying to develop a smartphone app to estimate crop load and thereby eliminate the need for labor-intensive hand efforts which can also be destructive to crops.

Zhang is focused on developing a precision mechanical shoot thinner as another way to save growers on labor costs. He is in the second year of a two-year project whose goal is to develop precise automated positioning of thinning heads.

At OSU, Seavert is currently wrapping up his mission to uncover economic and financial benchmarks for vineyard mechanization, identifying the tasks that will generate the best investment return, determining the minimum acreage required for that ROI, and comparing the cost of an existing vineyard retrofit or the establishment of a new vineyard to accommodate mechanization.

“Results are still subject to tweaking,” says Seavert. “Although Oregon and Washington have different types of vineyards, we found a percentage reduction in labor costs (hours per acre per year) that ranged from the mid-40s to the low-90s. In Oregon for 20 to 40-acre vineyards, the reduction ranged from 46 percent for shoot thinning and desuckering to 93 percent for leaf harvesting.  In Washington, spur pruning reduction in labor hours for both 100- and 500-acre fields was 81 percent.

“The bottom line and what’s exciting about this project is that we’ve shown producers can make money by mechanizing, especially in larger Washington vineyards because of economies of scale, spreading the costs over acreage.  On the larger 500-acre locations there, you could be looking at a $1,230 per acre per year savings by going to mechanical harvest using a Pennenc Harvester.”

Emphasizing that there’s a difference between profitability versus feasibility, he says, “We’re still working with lenders to determine vineyard size, cash flow, and debt structure numbers as variables between feasibility and profitability.”

For more news on pests, disease management and other issues affecting vineyards, subscribe to the bi-monthly newsletter The Grape Line.

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