New Smartphone App Advises Grape Growers

A new mobile application for grape growers, The Vineyard Advisor, had its genesis in a single question, says the app’s lead developer, Ed Hellman: “I approached it from someone walking in a vineyard and saying ‘What is this?’”

Ed Hellman

Hellman, a Professor of Viticulture at Texas Tech University, led the development of The Vineyard Advisor while holding a joint appointment as Viticulture Extension Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. Hellman is now full-time with Texas Tech, based in Fredericksburg, where he is leading the expansion of viticulture and enology teaching and research programs in the famed Texas Hill Country.

The Vineyard Advisor provides recommendations for managing some 350 problems afflicting grapes nationwide, from diseases, insects, mites, nematodes, and wildlife, to environmental stress, physiological disorders, and weeds. It has been released for free download for iPhone (external link) and Android mobile phones (external link).

The Vineyard Advisor began as a project funded with $28,900 by the American Vineyard Foundation in 2014, which produced a working prototype. Subsequent funding from the state of Texas supported the development of the fully functional mobile app. It provides recommendations on control strategies and action thresholds, natural controls and cultural practices, organic materials and pesticides. The most current list of all pesticides labeled for use on grapes to control a specific problem is retrieved from the EPA label database.

Doctor In The Vineyard
The app is the outgrowth of a traditional website Hellman launched in 2010 called Vineyard Doctor. He wanted to give growers a way to find out what they had just seen in their vineyard, and what might have caused it.

“Web MD was sort of my inspiration,” Hellman says. “It was symptom-based, purely diagnostic.”

A screencap from the Vineyard Advisor app shows a searchable feature, including diseases, available to growers at their fingertips. (Photo: Ed Hellman)

But while diagnosis is great, Hellman said, he thought what growers needed were recommendations. In the meantime, mobile apps were becoming very powerful. So he let Vineyard Doctor “die a graceful death,” and concentrated on The Vineyard Advisor.

His vision for the app was to not only give a narrative description, but to notify the grower about the pesticides that were labeled for such and such a problem. Hellman says there’s nothing like that out there. Oregon State University (OSU) has an app that accesses the EPA label database, but Hellman says it’s not really designed for growers; their primary audience were people concerned about pesticide safety.

Hellman called the OSU developers and explained he just wanted to access materials labeled for grapes. For example, what’s labeled on grapes for powdery mildew?

“They just had to tweak the program they already had,” he says. “The EPA database has an official label for that product in PDF format. It’s updated once a week by EPA. We’re providing the latest information.”

Along with diseases, the Vineyard Advisor app suggests products registered for each issue. (Photo: Ed Hellman)

 

Professional Help
While Hellman and his team did initially get the app up and working, it wasn’t ready for growers to use in the field. He was relying heavily on a brilliant Information Technology student, and when the young man graduated, Hellman came to a realization.

“You can’t do an app like this in-house; it’s too complicated,” he says.

Hellman had the influx of state funding, and he had a good concept, so he contracted a company that develops apps, Contensive, Inc. out of Pennsylvania. They had a team of five or six people, all with different expertise.

“That’s what it takes to produce an app with any complexity at all,” Hellman says. “They host it and maintain it. Make sure things are compatible and update as needed. I don’t see this as short-term tool. Maintenance is a really big deal.”

Plethora Of Products
Hellman said it was fascinating to review the results of queries when they first started. For example, he had no idea there are 196 products listed for black rot, especially because black rot isn’t even a problem in the West. Incidentally, The Vineyard Advisor isn’t just for Texas growers, it is applicable to grape growers anywhere in the U.S.

Of those 196 products for black rot, the app starts by listing the top five. Right above the list of registered pesticides is a link to fungicide efficacy tables.

“There might be 196 products listed, but there might be only 20 different active ingredients, and you might find a less expensive formulation of the same active ingredient,” Hellman says. “Fungicide efficacy table gives you more guidance on what materials are known to be more effective than others.”

Hellman says there’s no other mobile app on fruit he knows of that you can search. However, he says there’s no reason it couldn’t be done for another crop.

The one unavoidable aspect of the app is an EPA-labeled pesticide is not necessarily labeled in every state. To overcome that, the app uses the grower’s location.

“Every state has a website to see what pesticides are registered in your state,” he says. “For example, if you are in California, it will recognize where you are and give you California Department of Pesticide Regulation – and University of California Cooperative Extension as well.”

Another feature that should be of help to growers, Hellman says, is the app will display products that have been canceled in the past five years because growers may still be able to use them. The key is all information is current and relevant.

“All the info comes straight from the EPA database,” he says, “so if EPA makes changes, we follow right behind and we’ve got those latest changes.”

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