Can Your Vineyard Be Both Innovative and Efficient? [Opinion]
We all know agriculture is dynamic. Few farms are operating the same way today that they did 50 years ago. Smaller farms can be nimble and rapidly change the way they conduct business, while large farms need a bit more time to change their business.
Looking beyond agriculture, one of the hot topics in business and management literature is the balance between innovation and efficiency. This balance is a good lens with which to look at your farm and the industry around you.
Within agriculture, diversification may be a more accurate term than innovation. Examples of innovation include adopting new cropping systems, marketing systems, or making smaller changes such as adding varieties and training systems. We can probably all think of farms around us that are trying something new.
While it sounds easy, it’s not easy for a farm to focus on both innovation and efficiency at the same time. Enterprises usually swing back and forth between periods of building innovation and efficiency.
For example, if a vineyard starts to dabble with exotic varieties, that is an example of innovation/diversification. If a new variety performs well, the farmer plants more of that specific variety, and then it’s time to work on the efficiency of this new variety.
There can be pitfalls. For example, if a farm frequently diversifies with new crops and systems, the farm will have difficulty building efficiencies. In the same fashion, we can all probably think of a farm that focused on efficiency while never exploring new options, and now the industry has changed and left them behind.
Vineyards are perennial crops; trialing new techniques and practices should be well thought out and justified. Pushing out young blocks is sometimes necessary but as an expensive and last option. Here are some examples of innovation and efficiency as they apply to vineyards.
Unfamiliar Varieties — Planting unknown varieties can end in death or glory. Death being a fatal flaw with the variety regarding the environmental context, i.e. winter injury, rot, etc. Glory regarding a winner that fits the vineyard, produces nice fruit and encourages more plantings. When planting new varieties, it makes sense to check with your neighbors and Extension resources. But one tip: If your neighbor has already tried a given variety and it just doesn’t work, it’s probably not worth pursuing.
Training Systems — There is usually room for some improvement in your training system. More intense innovation may include changes to perennial vine parts such as cordons and trunks, or trellis hardware such as additional wires. Less intense experimentation may include bud or shoot number retention or canopy division. With these experiments, keep scale in mind. Try out new things in subsections before ramping up to the whole block level.
Mechanization is the means of efficiency most people think of these days. Uniformity is one criteria for mechanization that is sometimes overlooked, particularly in row spacing, vine growth, and trellis dimensions. Blocks requiring lots of decision-making, particularly during dormant pruning or shoot retention, are prime candidates for uniformity.
Here are factors to consider when you’re trying to determine when to place your emphasis on innovation or efficiency:
- Current Market — If you’re in a market with falling prices or falling sales, it’s probably time to look at alternatives rather than focusing on efficiency.
- Current Status — Is the farm in order, or do you have production or management issues that need to be rectified before trying something new?
- Scale — It’s much easier for a smaller operation to change course than a larger one. In the same way, it’s harder for a smaller operation to gain the same efficiency that a larger one can achieve.
- Sales and Location — A farm focusing on direct-to-consumer sales in an urban or suburban area may have more opportunity to change production and still make sales. An operation that focuses on wholesale business may have less maneuverability with new product lines.
So, it’s important for all growers to consider both innovation and efficiency, but in conjunction with each other. Looking to the past, successful businesses see bouts of innovation, followed by a focus on efficiency to streamline the new production centers. What does your farm need? The best managers understand both innovation and efficiency as it applies to their farm and then choose the course that fits their unique needs.