New Technologies to Transform the Grape Industry

From the sky above to under the dirt in vineyards, presenters at a program on new technologies talked at a Madera winery on what the future could hold for wine grape growers.

Representatives of two nurseries discussed steps they are taking to assure the material they provide is clean and the importance of growers planting the cleanest materials possible.

Representatives of two solar providers talked about the prospects of fading credits from the federal government, the rising costs of electrical power, and the wisdom of choosing alternative energy.

There were also discussions of ways to measure flow levels for irritation and fertigation strategies, the use of a device for heating vines to enhance fruit set, pest control and hasten maturity, new technologies for using pheromones to fight mealybug, and the use of polyacrylamide to increase watering efficiency.

A drone flew over a neighboring vineyard and presenters talked of the promise of unmanned aircraft.

The program was sponsored by the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association and held at the Mission Bell Winery.

Nic Stover, chief executive officer of CalCom Solar in Visalia, Calif., discussed rising rate increases in California. These have been have been triggered in part by a decrease in coal-fired power plants nationwide, a ban on “once-through cooling” in California, and the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant.

Meanwhile, there has been a shift to permanent crops in the state, an increase in pumping spurred by the drought, and new wells drilled while “the electrical grid is aging and showing wear and tear,” Stover said.

He added that the cost for energy use as a share of inputs is rising, citing a move to 18 percent a couple of years ago – “probably now over 20 percent” – for pistachios.

Hedging energy costs
The move to solar is one way to defer or eliminate taxes, Stover says, and a way to hedge energy costs. Across the state, Fresno and Kern counties have the most interconnections for use of solar.

Both Stover and Don Carlson, vice president of project development with Coldwell Solar in Rocklin, said aggregated net metering is helping spur interest in putting solar on the farms because panels can, for instance, be grouped on non-productive land and still provide power to pumps and other uses.

They also said a 30 percent tax credit remains available from the federal government, but there is a chance it could drop to 10 percent next year.

Stover said banks have become “very comfortable” with loans for solar projects.

He cited certain steps to take when looking for a solar firm. They include identifying the best projects and site, doing a feasibility study and financial analysis, and taking into account the system’s design and need for building permits.

Carlson said utility companies have become more enamored of solar projects because they recognize “you pay for the infrastructure.”

He discussed the need to occasionally clean panels and said one way to do that is with a Megawash system, which uses a 12 foot 6 inch brush and can wash one megawatt of panels in four hours. Hand washing takes three days.

The system also uses 80 percent less water.

Thermaculture device for improved fruit set
In a parking lot at the winery, Marty Fischer with Agro Thermal Systems in Walnut Creek, demonstrated how a Thermaculture device uses propane to create heat that is blown out one side of the machinery and onto crops.

Fischer said the system can result in greater fruit set, increasing berries per bunch. It also reduces some fungal and insect populations.

He says there is a preference for wine made from grapes produced with the system. Thermaculture can dry off crops and prolong hang time while reducing mildew development and lead to faster maturity and improve skin-to-pulp ratios.

Also in the parking lot, Aerovironment launched a small drone that traveled over a vineyard nearby. David Francis, the company’s director of propulsion and structures for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Simi Valley, talked of the potential for drones in agriculture.

His publically-traded company, which is 45 years old and has specialized in drone use in the military and in vehicle charging systems, is looking to expand use of its unmanned aircraft in agriculture “because of the scale of agriculture; if we can get a small percent, that’s a lot.”

He said the company is spending $50 million on agricultural application of its systems.

Francis sees the value of craft for spot-checking vineyards quickly because of the aerial vantage point. They also can use multi-spectral imaging to quickly determine difficulties in water stress.

While some tout the devices for pesticide application in other countries including Japan, he said, “We’re not there yet.”

Under a tent at the winery, two speakers from nurseries addressed the crowd.

Matthew McMillan, a sales representative with Vintage Nurseries in Wasco, discussed grape viruses that include leafroll, which can result in lost revenues of $12,310 per acre over the productive life of the vineyard.

Traceable vine pedigree
The key to new plantings is choosing vines that are “tested clean,” he said. The statement was statement echoed by Steve Maniaci, general manager of Sunridge Nurseries in Bakersfield.

McMillan said growers should ask where root stock came from and where scion bud wood came from. They should also ask to see test results for wood sources and what the nursery is doing to stop the spread of virus and protect its growers.

He said Vintage is expanding its internal production blocks that will only be used for bud wood production. By 2085, it will have 95 percent of all bud wood sources grown in house. It is building a testing facility for vines, and vines in mother blocks will be tested annually.

He said dormant vines should be ordered a year in advance. Green vines can be ordered April 1 of the current season. Maniaci said a dormant plant takes less water to establish than a green vine.

Maniaci said grapevine red blotch has been around since the 1940s, and he believes some growers are over-reacting to threats it may pose since it was identified in 2012. More serious, he said, is grapevine leafroll-associated virus 3, which can kill the vine.

“You need to test and re-test to make sure vines are clean,” he said.

“The best vine you can possibly plant is a California Certified vine with a pedigree that is traceable back to a known mother vine.”

Maniaci said Sunridge has replaced older scion wood blocks with the latest, most extensively tested material available. It has also purchased nearly 1,000 acres in Cuyama, an “isolation block” well removed from infested vineyards.

Maniaci and Bill Merz, a Sunridge sales manager, said it is important to “know your neighborhood and know the history of the dirt you are planting in.”

CheckMate VMB-F pheromone
Jamie Garofalo, assistant manager for the California coast for Suterra, talked of the use of mating disruption for vine mealybug. She said dispensers of a pheromone to confuse pests can be hung from vines at about 250 per acre and require only one application.

There’s also a new product, CheckMate VMB-F, a sprayable pheromone for vine mealybug. It can be applied using commonly available spray equipment when other products are applied. It’s effective for up to three weeks.

Growers may choose to use both products in tandem.

Tony Pereira, a representative of Advanced Water Products in Kerman, discussed ultrasonic flow meters that can be used to measure the velocity of a fluid to calculate volume flow.

He showed a portable device from Seametrics that can be strapped to a pipe for measuring flow, giving readings using a “jWAVE” application on a mobile device. The list price for the device is $3,500.

Nutrient interaction
Jeffrey Carr, fertigation account manager with the Deerpoint Group Inc., which is moving from Fresno to Madera, talked of fertigation, the application of any fertilizer through irrigation water.

Carr said it is important – before using fertigation – to take into account nutrient interaction with irrigation water, nutrient interactions with other nutrients, whether to use liquid or dry fertilizers, whether to use composted fertilizers, and timing and application rates.

Nitrogen, he said, is very soluble in water. Dry phosphate cannot be injected into irrigation water, and liquid phosphates have high precipitation problems when injected at high rates or with high hardness irrigation water.

Potassium is generally water soluble, though solution grade potassium sulfate can bring precipitates in hard water. Carr said humus and composted-type fertilizers can accelerate the growth of bacteria.

He recommends testing irrigation water and doing a jar test to see what products do in water that will be used. Deerpoint has some patented nutrient materials for use in fertigation and can make recommendations on use.

Chris Coelho, with SNF based in Riceboro, Ga., discussed water-soluble polymers, including a polyacrylamide, based flocculent. Historically a granule, it’s now an emulsion that can be injected into drip systems.

It increases water infiltration by conditioning the soil. Coelho said gypsum, which also increases porosity, has to be spread, and that means higher labor costs.

Coelho said the products hold water in the soil longer, improve infiltration, reduce leaching of nutrients and pesticides, remain active up to four weeks, and bio-degrade. 

Source: Dennis Pollock, Western Farm Press

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